“Why am I not able to lose weight?” asked Jill, a mother of a 2-year-old boy and a successful administrative assistant. “I’ve been working so hard to get rid of this weight, and I don’t seem to be making any progress. Maybe my body just isn’t programmed to look a certain way” she frustratingly said. I told her to be patient and to keep an open mind, and to go over the steps she had taken to get to this point. As she recounted her story of diet and exercise, I could tell in an an instant what the problem was.
While it is undeniably true that Jill was putting maximum effort into her weight loss, the type of effort she was giving–specifically, her over-reliance on running–was a problem I have seen many times before, especially with women. I explained to Jill why her type of running plan wasn’t necessarily the best plan for losing fat. Now take note…I did not say that running was bad or would make you fat! That, obviously, is simply not accurate. Running is a great form of exercise and one that has tremendous value. Rather, I’m speaking about efficiency and why her jeans weren’t fitting better in spite of spending tons of time in the gym.
Jill listened to what I had to say and took heart–she made the commitment to give it a try and push onward. A month later and 8 lbs lost, she’s back on track and now truly believes her body can change. If you’re anything like Jill, are frustrated by your lack of progress, and think your body is stuck, read on…here are 5 simple adjustments you can make to be certain that your running approach is not one huge weight loss mistake.
1) Your workout never changes
Our bodies are amazingly incredible–they are designed for efficiency. So, if you continue to do the same thing over and over, the body learns to adapt and the process becomes easier. As for running, not only will it feel more effortless when performed repeatedly, but your metabolism will also react so that fewer calories are burned with the same exercise output. This is where traditional steady state running does not cut it with a long-term weight-loss plan. A research study conducted at the University of Tampa determined that performing steady state cardio (like running on a treadmill for 45 minutes at a consistent pace that’s nowhere near maximal effort (think sprinting) does indeed help out with weight loss…but only initially (meaning, the subjects lost a few lbs in the first week, then nothing more). Why?? Because within a week, their metabolism had adjusted and no longer had to work as hard to burn off the fat! One of the biggest drawbacks with simply running at a steady, moderate-intensity pace is that the calories that you burn are limited to the time you spend sweating. Once your body adapts, the benefit is limited.
This is exactly why one can make the case for weight training as being better than simply just running. Lifting weights causes mini micro-tears that need to be repaired, thereby impacting your metabolism. Since that healing process requires energy, you’re burning more calories (and this process can often last for up to 2 days). To put it simply, you can either loll away for 30 minutes of cardio at a lower intensity and burn 200 calories, or you can simply eat 200 fewer calories per day. There’s no difference!
In terms of weight training (or sprints, that’ll we’ll cover in a second or two), that is simply not the case. The calories that you burn are not simply limited to what you do in the gym. Thus, a little variety may not seem like a huge change to your workout routine, but it certainly will have an impact on transforming your body.
2) You put too much emphasis on calories burned
You know what drives me nuts? The calorie trackers built into cardio machines that tell you how many calories you burn. They are misleading and quite often do more harm than good. A common mistake with losing weight has no bearing on what you’re doing in the gym–rather, how much you think your workouts influence the amount of calories you burn. You see, believing that the majority of calories you burn is due to exercise is a dangerous misunderstanding, and nothing could be further from the truth. Just our everyday function–sleeping, eating, thinking, etc. requires a tremendous amount of energy. Simply stated–you burn calories just being alive. In actuality, the number of calories you burn at the gym does not even come close to the normal functioning and daily activities that are not exercise based.
So, am I saying there’s no need to hit the gym? Of course not! We all know that exercise has many tremendous health benefits, but the type of exercise that you perform in the gym will influence how many calories you burn outside of it. While running will burn calories, lifting weights or sprinting will result in more muscle. And the more muscle you have on your body (and no, I’m not talking about the “bulky” muscles of bodybuilders), the more calories your body will burn by just functioning.
3) You go longer, but not faster
One of the most important variables with any type of exercise ( and not just cardio) is intensity. The average runner tends to choose a pace that they can maintain for a long duration. Think about it–when you get on the treadmill, or elliptical, or bicycle, or running trail–your starting with the intent to be there for a while. Maybe it’s 30 minutes, or 45, or and hour…but your goal is to pick a pace you can maintain, work hard, feel tired, and go home. This is great for endurance–but not so great for fat loss. According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that followed the exercise habits of more than 34,000 women, it took about one hour/day of moderate exercising to maintain weight (i.e. walking at 3.0 mph). Note–it did not say lose weight. It said to maintain weight (and 3.0 mph is not that fast).
Now–imagine that instead of arbitrarily choosing a workout duration, you instead chose to push yourself to a certain degree of difficulty. So for instance, if you rated walking at 3.0 mph on a treadmill on a scale of difficulty instead, you may rate it a “4 out of 10” (meaning, not extremely difficult). But just think what would happen if you pushed yourself to an “8” or “9” out of “10” but for a shorter period of time? You shouldn’t have to guess–I’ll tell you–it would result in more fat loss.
So let’s look at a research study at the University of Western Ontario. They compared short (but intense) exercise to longer (and less intense) cardio. One group performed 4 to 6 30-second sprints while the other group did cardio for 30 to 60 minutes. Their findings were nothing short of amazing! Despite exercising for a fraction of the time, those in the sprint category burned more than twice as much body fat. This is because that sprinting causes internal changes to your body similar to those that occur during weight training. All of those processes mean that your body works harder and burns more fat–both of which do not happen during aerobic running sessions.
4) You don’t try other forms of cardio
Now that you are aware that muscle is important to your overall weight-loss goals, it only seems logical that you would want to do the types of exercises that help this to happen the fastest and most efficient ways. If you have been a fan of the slower, longer duration cardio, I hate to break the bad news to you. Endurance running and walking (lower intensity, longer duration) actually impairs strength and muscle growth, according to research in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Furthermore, according to researchers at Stephen F. Austin University, even if you increase the intensity and run on an incline, cycling is still better for gaining muscle and burning fat.
The point I’m trying to make is not the fact that running doesn’t work or that there are no benefits to doing it. This has to do with losing weight in the most efficient way possible. And if time is a restriction, you just may be better served by cycling (preferably at high intensity) as opposed to going for a longer walk or jog.
5) You run too much
Yes, you read that correctly–too much. Now, I know this sounds counter-intuitive, so just hear me out. The number on the scale may not be changing because you’re doing too much running. Ok–I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t a problem for the majority of individuals who are struggling to drop a few lbs, but I have seen instances where fat loss has been way-layed by doing too much. Exercise is an indisputable component of a healthy life. But nevertheless, exercise is still stress on your body, the demands of which impact your hormones, which also control your ability to lose fat. Specifically, the hormone cortisol is released when you exercise. And all cortisol is not bad (in spite of what late-night TV and supplement ads might have you believe). However, chronic stress and chronic cortisol can lead to insulin resistance and force you to store belly fat against your best laid plans.
According to research published in the journal Hormone Research, long-distance running (like that done by endurance runners) causes a sustained increase in cortisol. This elevation of cortisol for long periods of time can lead to more inflammation and slower recovery, breaking down muscle tissue, building up fat, and even harming your immune functioning. Just as detrimental, if you are suffering from too much stress (whether it is the result of exercising too long or not recovering with the right nutrition) you can damage your thyroid and lower your metabolic rate, making weight loss more difficult.
If you are doing an hour of cardio per day, that should certainly be sufficient for fat loss (remember–this is not for endurance training). If you start running 2-4 hours/day and are not losing weight (or maybe even gaining), you might best be suited to reduce your running frequency and add some resistance training. Chances are that you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
If you or someone you know is having difficulty with your running program, whether due to pain in a certain body region, lack of strength, or lack of endurance, call my office at (302)691-9055 or visit my website at www.wildermanphysicaltherapy.com to schedule your FREE 30 minute consultation to see how Physical Therapy can help. Don’t delay–schedule now.