Why running isn’t helping you lose weight

You run every day, but it isn’t showing on the scale. What’s the deal?

Unfortunately, running isn’t a magic bullet for weight loss. Sure, it burns more calories than any other form of exercise (360 to 380 calories per 30 minutes!), but it won’t automatically give you a leaner physique – especially if you push yourself too hard.

The more you exercise, the more your body naturally tries to compensate by altering your metabolism through protective mechanisms designed to prevent starvation and indefinite weight loss.

“The human body has a good capability for regulating its bodyweight,” explains Glenn Gaesser, professor of exercise science at the Arizona State University. “We all have a set-point range for our weight and, while the average person may consume three-quarters of a million calories per year, from year to year we weigh pretty much the same thing”.

Can’t outrun a bad diet…
Nutritionists and fitness experts frequently tell their clients (with good reason) that a bad diet cannot be “cheated” simply through running – or other exercises. Not unless you’re an Olympic-level athlete who needs a million calories because you’re burning just as many!

According to a study in the journal, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, when starting an exercise programme to lose weight, some people adopt “compensatory behaviours”, i.e. they eat more and move less when they’re not exercising. “An enhanced motivational drive or wanting food after exercise may explain why some people overcompensate when given access to food after exercise,” the study finds.

Many people overestimate the number of calories they burn through exercise, or look at the amount they burn and use it as justification to “eat back” those calories, says Kim Feeney, a sports dietician at the Arizona State University. This can undo all your best efforts, and explain why many people actually gain weight once they take up running.

In fact, weight gain is quite common as exercise can increase appetite, research shows. Exercise is thought to influence eating behaviour by modulating the pleasure you get from eating and the drive to eat.

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The good news is that in the long run, exercise can regulate your appetite, making it easier to cut down on snacking and eat at set times of the day. In the short term, exercise stimulates brain areas linked with reward and dependence. This can make you crave high-fat, energy-dense foods, which can cancel out the benefits of running.

The harder you train, the more often you’ll get hungry. And, the more likely you are to increase your energy intake – consciously or subconsciously. With this increased hunger, it’s not uncommon to underestimate how many calories you’re consuming.

Fact of the matter is, if you don’t burn more calories than you consume, you won’t see any progress. Keeping track of your calorie intake is essential to losing weight – whether you’re a runner or not.

Run on?
Running uses the muscles in your legs, bum and core. These are key muscles for burning calories. If weight loss is your ultimate goal, running can help you achieve this. However, running in itself won’t make the fat fall off.

To burn more calories and boost fat loss, consider adapting your running regime to include more high intensity intermittent exercise (HIIE). According to a study in the Journal of Obesity, HIIE may have greater potential than steady-state exercise (like running, jogging and cycling), in reducing visceral fat. The study also found that just 20 minutes of HIIE, three times a week for 12 weeks, resulted in significant reductions in total body, abdominal, and trunk fat. What’s more, HIIE may have a suppressive effect on appetite.

Gaesser also recommends investing in an activity tracker. That way you can check that you’re still maintaining the same number of steps and overall activity when you’re not running.