Running to Lose Weight: How Effective Is It?

Craig Primack, MD, FACP, FAAP, FOMA

Reviewed by Craig Primack, MD, FACP, FAAP, FOMA

Written by Hadley Mendelsohn

Published 05/23/2024

Running to lose weight can be a very effective strategy, especially when combined with balanced eating, high-quality sleep, and other healthy habits. But why is running good for weight loss? It burns calories and fat while increasing your endurance.

Not to mention, it’s one of the most accessible workouts there is. You don’t have to join a gym or sign up for pricey classes. All you need is a good pair of running shoes!

Keep reading to learn how running can help burn fat quickly and effectively. We’ll cover different types of running and how they can help you lose weight.

Running helps you lose weight by raising your heart rate, which means you’re using up more energy (i.e., burning calories and fat). And the faster you run, the faster the burn.

Of course, going too quickly and having to stop because you’ve maxed out your energy may not be very productive. A slower jogging pace can be great too.

While walking is also an excellent way to lose weight, research shows it doesn’t burn quite as much energy as running. This might make you assume running is better for weight loss than walking, but there are some variables to consider.

For example, if you’re walking fast at a steep incline, you might get just as good of a burn as you would with a flat-road run. And walking three miles a day is, theoretically, better for weight loss than running one mile a day.

Research shows that walking can help stave off weight gain. It can be especially effective for women as their metabolisms slow down with age.

It’s not really possible to target specific areas of the body for weight loss. However, cardiovascular exercise, like running, has been linked to reduced belly fat.

Some research suggests that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) helps decrease overall abdominal fat in women with obesity. How so? HIIT targets both visceral fat and subcutaneous fat. (Visceral fat lines the internal organs in your abdominal cavity, while subcutaneous fat builds up right under your skin.)

HIIT workouts are also great because they make it easier to burn more calories in one session.

To add interval training to your running routine, try alternating between intense sprints and recovery periods of walking or jogging.

Bottom line: The more you run, the more belly fat-burning you get.

One study found that running can help suppress appetite while increasing your metabolic rate. During a cardio workout, your body has decreased levels of acylated ghrelin, a hormone associated with stimulating your appetite.

In men, another hormone that reduces appetite (peptide YY) is increased  during intense workouts. The effects linger for a little while afterward — called the afterburn effect — another reason running can help with weight loss.

Weight loss aside, getting fit by running is well worthwhile. General guidelines recommend two and a half to five hours of moderate-intensity exercise every week. Or you can do about an hour and 15 minutes of vigorous-intensity workouts a week.

Some combination of the two is ideal. And in case it’s not obvious, you’ll want to spread it out with sessions three to six days a week.

Here are some ways running (and any form of cardio, really) can benefit your overall health:

  • Healthier heart. As a cardiovascular exercise, running lowers blood pressure and cholesterol.

  • Higher lung capacity. Running makes breathing easier — at least, when you’re done doing it.

  • Reduced risk of chronic diseases. Running is associated with a lower risk of certain cancers and other chronic illnesses.

  • Improved insulin sensitivity. Running helps control blood glucose levels.

  • Better mental health. Running produces mood-boosting and pain-relieving hormones.

Running supports strength training by helping build strong muscles. But you can work on building more muscle mass with other exercises, like:

  • Squats

  • Weight lifting

  • Lunges

  • Planks

  • Crunches

  • Push-ups

Two days a week of strength training is recommended for maintaining good health.

Prescribed online

Weight loss treatment that puts you first

Is running the best way to lose weight? Better yet, is running the fastest way to lose weight? The short answer to both questions is yes — it can be.

As one study pointed out, running burns more calories than most other forms of exercise because of how hard your heart is pumping.

There are potential drawbacks, though. Knee, ankle, shin, and foot injuries are a risk for runners. And trips and falls can also lead to other bodily injuries.

If you’re not a big fan of running, you’re in good company. Lots of folks would love to avoid it if possible. Luckily, there are many other forms of cardio:

  • Cycling. This is a lower-impact sport, so it’s good for people just starting their fitness and weight loss journeys. If you bike fast uphill, you’ll get a similar burn to jogging.

  • Climbing stairs. If you use the StairMaster or walk up a set of stairs, you probably won’t go as fast or as far as you would on a jog because you’ll be winded faster. But it can burn lots of calories, too, with more resistance and, thus, muscle building than running.

  • Walking. As noted, walking doesn’t get your heart pumping quite as hard as running. That said, if you walk briskly at an incline (whether on a treadmill or on a hilly path), the resistance will boost your burn. Plus, the more steps a day, the better!

  • Swimming. Resistance is much higher underwater, so swimming can provide a solid calorie burn. It also works more muscle groups in your upper body than running.

  • Dancing. This can be a fun way to get in some cardio. Depending on the style and pace, you’ll get your heart pumping while working some underused muscle groups.

  • Doing the elliptical. This machine is great for folks with joint issues looking for easy-on-the-knees cardio. Your feet won’t be pounding the pavement, which can be much easier on your body — but your heart rate will still increase.

Not all running has the same effect on the body.

One review suggests that HIIT and sprint interval training (SIT) are more efficient than lower-intensity activities like jogging and have similar fat-burning effects.

But if time isn’t an issue and sprints aren’t your jam, long-distance running at a slower pace can also be good for weight loss.

The same review also found that carbs are the main energy source for sprints, and fat is the primary source in low-intensity exercise. But both still decrease overall fat mass. The short of it? Any kind of run is a good run.

Types of Running

Let’s look at the various types of runs and how they might help with weight loss, muscle building, and overall wellness.

  • Base runs. With a base run, you go at your normal pace. It shouldn’t be super challenging but will build up your fitness and endurance levels while supporting your weight loss efforts.

  • Long runs. This is basically the same thing as a base run, except for a longer period for longer distances. You can do one or two long runs a week to supplement your base runs.

  • Progression run. These not-super-intense runs start similarly to base runs, but you up the ante and increase your pace as you go. This will give you a little extra burn.

  • Intervals. Incorporate quick sprints into an otherwise slower-paced run to increase your mileage and bump up your calorie burn within a shorter time frame.

  • Hill repeats. These are sessions of fast, quick runs uphill. They can help build muscle (which burns more fat than, well…fat) and tire you out more to increase your endurance.

  • Tempo run. You’ll go as fast as you possibly can, for as long as you possibly can. The goal is to see improvements in both metrics (speed and time), and you’ll get some of the best calorie- and fat-burning benefits.

  • Recovery run. This is a shorter run done at a pace that feels relatively easy while still offering light cardio benefits.

Wondering how to lose weight by running? Here are a couple of pointers if you’re just starting out with running for weight loss.

Start Training Slowly 

Beginners should start slowly to lower their risk of injury and prevent burnout.

Here’s how you can build your way up with running for weight loss:

  • Start with walking. Before jumping right into a run, try brisk walking a few days a week to build endurance and strengthen your muscles. Once you’re feeling stronger, you can experiment with light jogging. From there, you can start to increase the pace and duration of your runs. Incremental goals are the way to go. 

  • Figure out what you like. Speaking of experimenting, keep in mind that it may take you some time to figure out what works for you. Some love running outside at a park or on the track because the scenery keeps things exciting, while others like the distraction-free zone and lower impact of a treadmill.

  • Always warm up before a run. You can prep for a run by walking or jogging slowly. You’re also wise to stretch daily.

  • Gear matters too. Wear proper running sneakers and apparel. You might also want to get earbuds that stay in while running — never underestimate a solid pump-up playlist!

Try to Eat More Mindfully  

Some research suggests that people with obesity can reap the weight loss benefits of running even without making dietary changes. However, most studies support the idea that a healthy eating plan is most effective.

We’re not here to make specific recommendations about caloric intake — you can consult a registered dietitian or nutritionist for that. But keep these tips in mind about nutrition to accompany your running workouts.

  • Cut out foods like refined carbohydrates and low-fiber foods, like white bread, potato chips, and candy.

  • Eat more meals and snacks high in protein, healthy fats (think avocado and nuts), and complex carbs (like brown rice, quinoa, and whole-grain pasta).

  • Drink plenty of water.

Some folks may need extra support to maximize the benefits of running, which can range from things like weight loss medications to accountability partners.

If you’ve been running and eating more mindfully for a while and still haven’t seen any weight loss results, you may want to connect with a healthcare provider about options. Plenty of other tools are out there to help you meet your goals.

Can running help you lose weight? You bet!

Running is an excellent form of exercise. Here’s what to keep in mind about running to lose weight:

  • Why is running a good way to lose weight? It gets your heart rate up, burns fat, and increases your endurance.

  • Running is a stellar way to reach your weight loss goals and manage weight.

  • But running isn’t for everyone. Other types of aerobic exercise are worthwhile, too, like walking, kickboxing, cycling, and swimming.

  • You might consider adding strength training twice a week to build muscle and burn more body fat.

  • Exercise is just one piece of the weight loss puzzle. We recommend coupling it with a nutritious meal plan and other healthy habits.

Considering weight loss medication to support your running plan and healthy eating habits? Take our free online assessment to start exploring your options.

That’s all for now — we had a good run.

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