Well Being

Running Won’t Make You Fat, But Believing It Will Make You Skinny Might

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Yesterday, The Independent asked “Does Running Make You Fat?” If it seems like a dumb questions (you're not alone in thinking so), the article's subtitled explained: “Many of us take up jogging to help lose weight. But the latest research shows it could have just the opposite effect. Sophie Morris, who ran a marathon and ended up heavier, explains why.” The article cites a study that found more exercise didn't lead to greater weight loss in a group of overweight women put on various diet and exercise plans. And, as the subtitle suggests, it's written by a woman who has gained—not lost—while sticking to a running program. But what's really causing weight gain for most people isn't running at all: It's believing that running alone will make you skinny, while eating more and moving less than if you weren't hitting the track.

Morris outlines some basic nutrition and exercise facts: It's possible to lose weight from changes in diet alone. And many people take running as a free pass to eat more, or eat poorly: We don't feel guilty eating a hamburger, fries and milkshake because, hey!—we went for a long run that day, and that means we can “afford” to eat extra calories, sugar and fat. But she also asserts that running can a) increase your appetite, and b) make you gain weight because it causes you to release excess cortisol, which causes extra fat storage around the stomach. Both of which are true, if you're training intensely for a marathon.

The article includes trainer quotes and advice from an editor at Runner's World, but the gist is that, essentially: If you want to lose weight, lower body fat and/or achieve more definition in your muscles, you shouldn't put all your eggs in one basket, especially not if that basket is running. Instead, you need to:

  • Watch your diet, even if you're doing cardio or running. A calorie is a calorie is a calorie, and you need to burn off 3,500 in order to lose one pound. You only burn around 500 in one hour of running, so don't go crazy on the carb-loading unless you really are training for a marathon (and even then, check your math: you might need fewer extra calories than you think).
  • Don't just run. Cardio is great, but doing hours on the treadmill without any strength training won't help you build balanced muscles (and it's also much more likely to lead to injury). Work with a trainer or do some research and come up with a resistance-training plan that works for you (it might even improve your PR in your next 5k).

And, if you're thinking of training for a long race in order to give yourself a goal, then great: It's an endeavor that thousands believe is worthwhile (I know I do). But just don't think of it as your weight loss plan: Training for a marathon takes huge amounts of time and energy, and trying to skimp on calories while completing long runs in prep for your race is, in short, just a really bad idea. Take on one goal at a time.

Photo: lululemon athletica