Overweight? The Case for Running.

The idea of becoming a Runner is overwhelming to most people.  For your average American, who is anywhere from 20-50 pounds “overweight”, bombarded with daily articles about how lazy and out of control Obese people are, thinking you can become a runner starts to seem just plain foolish.  But an article published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association makes me think that for those of us who are overweight, running is one of the few tools in our aresenal that can actually help stop the progression of weight gain. 

The article, “Extra Calories Cause Weight Gain But How Much”, concludes that certain theories about weight gain over the course of your life aren’t quite right.  Historically, research has suggested that, since there are 3500 calories in a pound of fat (technically, fat tissue), eating an “extra” 60 calories a day, over the course of a year, would result in a 6 lb. gain – and then again, the next year, and again, the next year.  Lo and behold, the researches found that instead, the weight gain levels off, because your body has to move more to move more (get it?).  Conversely, when you reduce your caloric intake, your body has to work less, to move less, so once you drop the initial poundage, you find yourself at (the ever-present) plateau. 

To get off the plateau, the authors tell us what any good Weight Watcher already knows: you have to eat significantly less, OR work out much harder, to continue to lose weight.

The authors go on to explain a few other key factors about reducing body mass.  In the end, a few key points stuck with me:

  • Since we tend to gain weight over a period of years, if we want to halt the increase (of even 1-2 pounds per year), small changes in how much we eat, or the exercise we do, will have little effect on on the increase, because our body will compensate for these tiny adjustments. 
  • Even the experts have given up on suggesting that “small changes” make a difference.  “These calculations suggest that small changes in lifestyle would have a minor effect on obesity prevention.  Walking an extra mile a day expends, roughly, 60kcal compared with resting – equal to the energy in a small cookie.   [The current amount of calorie overage for the average American] is between 5 and 10 fold greater, far beyond the ability of most individuals to address on a personal level.”(JAMA 2010; 303(1): 65-66)

So where does that leave us?  Well, it teaches us one thing.  First, as we all know, weight is a tricky thing.  There is no simple answer, and yet we know that exercise, in combination with some magic nutrition formula, helps us to lose weight, increase muscle mass, and be healthier. 

We also know that cutting out that teaspoon of sugar in your coffee, or skipping the dinner mint, doesn’t really matter.  But working out harder does.  (At least, that’s how I read it.)  And though I’m currently not at an “ideal” weight, I can say that running, and running regularly, has always been the best exercise I’ve found for reducing or maintaining weight, keeping fitness at a high level, and lowering blood pressure.  For me, running is the easy half of the equation, and I’ll keep doing it till I get the other half right.

Running is not easy.  I would never claim that it is.  However, studies like this remind me that running is an incredibly good, challenging way to participate in an activity that is very, very good for evening up the playing field with The Calorie Intake Team.  Put simply: it’s hard work – the kind of hard work you need if you’re serious about weight loss.  So if you’re contemplating a way to kickstart a program, or to get off a plateau, or to simply test out your own mettle, go run for 30 seconds.  Walk for 30 seconds.  Tomorrow, go 1 minute and 1 minute.   Use these studies to motivate you, and to also keep perspective.  Don’t be afraid to aim high.  Becoming a runner is incredibly, incredibly possible for you – just start small, and use a smart approach to doing it, and you’ll find that you, too can be making big changes that stick.

One final note – at the end of the article, the authors noted that preventing obesity in the first place will require a complex approach to regulating food, food manufacturers, and increasing a focus on public health and exercise.   As my friend Joyce has also reminded me, weight is about more than just calories – it’s metabolism, your historical approach to food, and medication that also impact what you can and can’t lose.   Weight, and obesity, are complex issues, with multiple social and environmental factors impacting our ability to lose and maintain weight.  It’s messy, and complex.  But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.   

My friend Karen has a saying.  She likes to say that lots of people, standing in a room, admiring a problem, doesn’t get anyone anywhere.  You can talk about it a lot, and you can all agree it’s a BIG problem, but until someone starts taking it apart, piece by piece, nothing will ever get solved. 

We can admire the “obesity epidemic” all we want.  We can talk about healthy weights, and the impact of chemicals in the food supply, and the advent of the DVR and what it means for the size of our asses.  But we can also just start moving.  We can try, and try, and try again to find some activity that captures our hearts and our bodies, until we find the one that’s right for us.   I did it with running, and maybe you will too.

It can’t hurt to try.

3 thoughts on “Overweight? The Case for Running.

  1. Good post! Running is great…and it has totally been key in my weight loss this time…and will be key in me FINALLY learning how to maintain my loss once I get to goal. Building lean muscle has helped, too (just as much as running)….helps rev up the metabolism since muscle is metabolically active and fat is not. I am still finding my right balance between running and weights in the course of a week. When I do weights, I add in some intense short cardio between sets…which seems to have helped my running. 75 pound Squats have, too! I know there are two camps….the runners, and the weight lifters. I am standing with one leg in each camp and doing pretty ok with it so far.

  2. Sallie,
    I just signed up for the Salt Lake City Half Marathon, April 17. Hoping to run or run/walk. Cheers to all the Plus Runners! Gettin’ it done and havin’ plenty of fun 🙂

  3. Hi there-
    Found your site while searching for some new clothing sources! I had started running to lose weight before I got pregnant with my 1st daughter – and now, 4 yrs later- I just gave birth to my 2nd and am getting back into running. I’ve signed up for 6 races between now and June to keep myself motivated and on track with training. It is an incredible personal motivator and source for looking inside yourself for strength. It can also help you overcome demons with negative self talk. The more I run, the more I learn about the positives of continuing to run. Run on!

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