Whether you’re trying to lose 5 or 10 pounds to look a little slimmer in your clothes or you need to drop 50 pounds or more to improve your health, there’s no great mystery to losing weight: “It’s simply an energy equation—what you’re taking in versus what you’re putting out,” says Danny Mackey, head coach with the Brooks Beasts running team in Seattle. For the calories-in part of that equation, try one of these healthy diets. For the calories-out, you really can’t do any better than running. Here’s why:
Can you lose weight just by running?
Yes. In fact, running will give you the best bang for your weight loss buck. “If you have just 30 minutes to exercise—and with work and family commitments, that’s all a lot of people can fit in—running gives you the highest rate of calorie burn you can get in that time,” says Mackey, who points out that you don’t have to spend any of your precious workout minutes driving to a pool or tennis court. And the numbers don’t lie: According to the American Council on Exercise, running burns the most calories of any type of exercise. A 140-pound person, for example, will burn 13.2 calories per minute running; compare that with 9 calories per minute swimming 6.9 playing tennis, and 6.4 biking (use this tool to calculate how much you can burn per exercise session).
Can you lose belly fat by running?
You can’t target a specific area of the body when losing weight—but running will help you shed belly fat among other areas. “Because you’re essentially doing single leg plyometrics when you run, your core strength goes up, your hamstrings, glutes, and calves get strong, and you work your arms to counterbalance,” Mackey says. It’s a whole body workout!
How should I start running to lose weight?
Mackey points out that running is a particularly easy way to kick off your weight loss plan because it’s accessible to anyone at any time. You don’t need to join a gym, hire a trainer, or invest in equipment or videos. The only thing you need to get started is a pair of running shoes. (He recommends going to a store that specializes in running, where they will do a gait analysis and let you try on different brands and styles. “Your feet are the first contact with the ground, and if that is off because of your shoe, it can cause problems,” Mackey says.)
Can I start by jogging to lose weight instead of running at first?
Absolutely! A large recent study showed that for people who have a genetic disposition toward obesity, regular jogging was the most effective exercise for controlling BMI, percentage of body fat, and waist circumference.
Is running healthy for reasons other than weight loss?
You betcha. Running and jogging have been found to reduce risk of depression and cancer; one study of more than 55,000 adults from age 18 to 100 (!) showed that runners at all levels of speed and expertise had a greatly reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and added roughly three years to their life expectancy.
To get started—and to keep the weight loss going—follow these tips:
Start slowly, then ramp it up.
If you try to go all out on your first day of running after months, years, or even a lifetime of couch-sitting, you not only risk getting injured, you’ll probably be so nauseous and miserable you’ll want to throw those new sneaks in a burning pile of trash. Instead, start slow and easy, knowing that every day you will do a little better. Here’s what Mackey suggests:
Week 1-2: Start by running or jogging for 1 minute; then walking for 1 minute. Alternate 8 times for a total of 16 minutes. Increase reps as you feel more comfortable, trying to fit in at least 3 runs per week.
Week 3: Bump up your running time to 2 minutes, alternating with 1 to 2 minutes of walking for a total of 30 minutes.
Week 4: Try 3 minutes running or jogging, followed by 1 minute walking.
Continue to extend your running time, adding in 1-minute walking breaks as needed, says Mackey. “Humans are actually really good at running, so in about a month you can start setting goals for time or distance, like running for 25 minutes or for 2 miles.”
Don’t use running as an excuse to eat sugary foods.
Remember that running is only half the equation when it comes to weight loss. You need to pay attention to the calories that are going in, as well—and studies have shown that when people exercise, they tend to overcompensate by consuming more food, especially sweets. “It’s very common when people start a new exercise regimen that they think they can have the extra dessert or reward themselves with a glass of wine,” says Olivia Brant, R.D., a registered dietitian in Washington, D.C., who is certified in sports nutrition. The truth is, unless you are in serious training, running more than 45 minutes a day, you probably don’t need to add more energy to your diet (and you certainly don’t need to “carbo-load” unless you’re running long distances).
If you need a little burst of energy before your run, Brant suggests fueling up with a snack higher in simple carbohydrates and lower in protein, fat, and fiber, which take longer to digest. “A small piece of fruit, a slice of toast, or a handful of pretzels or whole-wheat crackers are good options,” she says. (For a grab-and-go bite, are a low-cal, chewy snack that provides carbs and electrolytes). If you like to run in the morning, before breakfast, Brant advises sticking with a protein-packed breakfast when you finish. “You can replenish with oatmeal topped with a dollop of Greek yogurt and some slivered almonds or flaxseed, or avocado toast with an egg on top.”
Continue to change up your routine.
Once your body gets used to running, you may find that your weight loss starts slowing down. To keep from plateauing, add different challenges to your running routine, says Mackey. “A good way to switch things up to increase the amount calories your burning is to go harder and add uphill sprints,” he suggests. Try this:
• Run for 10 minutes
• Sprint uphill for 30 seconds; walk back down. Repeat 10 times.
• Cool down for 10 minutes
You can also add circuit training to your run, or simply run really hard for 5 minutes, alternating with an easier pace.
Find a running buddy.
Every town has a running club, says Mackey, who suggests you check in with the staff at your local running store for info. “There is someone in your town who runs the pace you do, and probably has the exact same goal as you, whether it’s finishing a 5K or maintaining a healthy body weight over the holidays.” Not only is running with a partner more social and even therapeutic, but studies show that people tend to exercise harder when they are with a friend.
Set a goal.
Of course your goal is to lose weight, but if you add on an even more tangible goal—running a mile in less than 10 minutes or raising money for breast cancer research by completing a 5K—you are more likely to stick with your routine, says Mackey. “I have a guy trying to win an Olympic medal and I have a dad who’s just trying to stay in shape and they both have goals, so when you’re first starting running it’s awesome because you’ll start seeing the rewards of your hard work.” And in a roundabout way, that will help you get to your endgame of losing the weight, he adds: “You’ll probably start eating healthier because you want to run better in that 5k. So you’re not thinking about losing weight, you’re just thinking about running faster, and you’re losing weight as a result of that, which is perfect.”
Marisa Cohen Marisa Cohen is a Contributing Editor in the Hearst Health Newsroom, who has covered health, nutrition, parenting, and the arts for dozens of magazines and web sites over the past two decades.