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Running for Fitness and Weight Loss

Posted Apr 24 2009 11:01pm
I get a lot of questions about running for fitness and weight loss. Here is a recent email I received from a blog reader:

"I started a walking program many months ago (and changed my diet) to lose some weight and get in shape. I'm up to 5 miles about 4-5 days/week. I really enjoy it, and I was thinking about trying to start jogging/running a bit. I was thinking of maybe jogging for a minute, and then walking for 4 minutes and going back and forth like that for my 5 mile route. Eventually, I'd like to be able to jog the entire 5 miles, although this is way down the road. What are thoughts on my plan of attack and running for fitness and weight loss improvement in general? Thanks."

-Angie from Salt Lake, UT

Running/jogging is no doubt a popular activity. On the positive side, running or jogging burns a significant number of calories per minute relative to one's body weight, especially at higher speeds. Activities which burn a significant number of calories obviously can play a role in weight control. Running also provides a significant cardiovascular demand (as many other things do as well) which can help to increase cardiovascular fitness (as many other things can do as well).

On the negative side, running/jogging, especially outside, is a high impact activity, placing a lot of stress on a number of joints. Also, the vast majority of people have a significant amount of muscular dysfunction and/or muscular imbalance and/or soft tissue restrictions and/or mobility issues in the ankles, knees, hips and lower back. If you take a person who is "jacked up", and then have them perform a repetitive high impact activity, over time, they are going to become even "more jacked up".

It has often been said that one must be fit to run, and one should not run to become fit. I couldn't agree more with this statement. I typically steer my clients away from distance running, especially if they are rank beginners with a low level of muscular and cardiovascular fitness. If they absolutely insist on doing it, and derive a great deal of enjoyment from it (and many do...I get that), I at least advice them to spend 2 months bringing up their base cardiovascular fitness via lower impact modalities and activities. Furthermore, I INSIST they also spend 2 months participating in a vigorous strength training and corrective exercise program so that we can at least prepare their musculoskeletal system for the demands of the activity and minimize the ill effects.

Once a client does get to a point where they are somewhat "safe guarded", they must continue their strength training and corrective exercise regimen. They must also implement a proper dynamic warm-up prior to their runs so they minimize the risk of injury. A few other tips for recreational joggers/runners:

1. I suggest keeping the total mileage under double figures weekly. Think 3 3 mile runs, or 4 2 mile runs, etc. While I have no scientific data to back up this recommendation, common sense dictates that a high volume of high impact activity, as you would see in someone preparing for a marathon, probably isn't the best idea.

2. The "walk run" method, which Angie discussed in the question above, is a good idea (run one minute out of every five). Again, this minimizes the high impact forces on the joints. Throwing in 5 or 6 one minute runs over the course of 3 miles may be just enough to satisfy one's running craving and make them feel athletic, without trashing their joints.

Bottom Line: if you insist on jogging/running, make sure you are fit enough, both muscularly and cardiovascularly, to participate in the activity in the first place. Then, make sure you keep up with a balanced strength training regimen. Finally, stay under double digit mileage and possibly incorporate the "walk run" method. Implementing this plan of attack should allow you to benefit from the activity while staying somewhat healthy. Just realize their is a cost benefit or risk reward situation with running for fitness and weight loss.
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