What You Should Know About Running for Weight Loss
Overly restricting calories isn’t the way to lose weight on the run.
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Like calculating splits and goal times, weight loss comes down to simple math, right? To lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you consume.
If one pound of body weight is equal to about 3,500 calories, research has shown, and the Centers for Disease Control recommends losing around a pound per week, that works out to a calorie deficit of 500 calories a day—or eating 500 calories less than you normally eat.
Of course, it’s never really that simple. If you’re interested in running for weight loss (and we’re not saying you should be), there are some important things to keep in mind. Ultimately, sustainable weight loss isn’t about counting calories, but embracing healthy eating patterns and consistent physical activity. And running can be a big part of that, as long as you’re properly fueling your workouts.
How many calories does running burn?
Running can be one of the most effective ways to lose weight. That’s because a 140-pound person burns approximately 13.2 calories per minute, according to the American Council of Exercise; that’s 132 calories per 10-minute mile.
Of course, that’s going to vary depending on a number of factors, from your age and gender to your body weight and your body composition (or how much muscle mass you have), says Dana Hunnes, Ph.D., a senior dietitian at UCLA Medical Center, assistant professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, and author of Recipe for Survival.
As a general rule of thumb, “you’re likely burning between 70 and 100 calories per mile,” says Meghann Featherstun, R.D., board-certified specialist in sports dietetics based in Cleveland, Ohio. The harder you’re working, though, the more fuel your body needs—so any factor that ups the intensity of your workout (i.e. running uphill, running faster, and running longer) will also increase your total calories burned.
Running continues to burn calories post-workout by spiking your body’s excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), a phenomenon known as the “afterburn” effect. After a vigorous workout, “your heart rate and body temperature actually stay elevated while your body works to bring itself back to its resting state; during that time, it keeps burning additional calories,” says Hunnes.
The afterburn lasted five minutes longer for runners than it did for walkers in a study published in the The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. Runners lost more weight than walkers over a six-year period, possibly due to the afterburn effect, a study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found.
Head’s up: Newer runners are more likely to burn more calories when they start running. “Our bodies do get much more efficient—meaning we burn fewer calories per mile—as we keep running,” says Featherstun. Once your body has adapted to running at a steady-state pace, you have to find new ways to challenge it: start picking up the pace, increase your distance, or change the terrain you run on.
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How else does running cause weight loss?
Of course, weight loss isn’t just about the amount of calories you burn. There are a number of other things happening within your body related to running that can contribute to weight loss.
For one, running can actually suppress your appetite. When people didn’t exercise, they were 12 percent more likely to overeat, or exceed their daily calorie goal, according to a 2020 study published in the journal Health Psychology. But when they did exercise for an hour, they cut their risk of overeating down to five percent, and for each additional 10 minutes of exercise after the 60 minutes, the chances they would overeat dropped by another one percent.
Running actually causes the levels of ghrelin, the “hunger hormone,” to drop and the amount of peptide YY, a hormone released after a meal, to spike, a study published in AJP Regulatory Integrative and Comparative Physiology found. The result? A lack of hunger for about two hours post-workout, which could explain why exercise helps control weight.
Exercise also improves your total sleep time, ability to sleep through the night, and overall sleep quality, according to a 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis published in PeerJ. In fact, people who completed moderate-intensity workouts (like running on a treadmill) four times a week for six weeks reported getting an extra 75 minutes of sleep per night in a study published in Sleep Medicine. And getting a good nights’ sleep reduced participants’ overall caloric intake by an average of 270 calories per day, according to research from UChicago and the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Finally, running makes you happier: Just 10 minutes of moderate-intensity running can significantly improve mood regulation, 2021 research published in the journal Scientific Reports found. “If we feel good about ourselves and what we’ve accomplished, we’re more likely to treat ourselves well from a nutrition perspective,” says Featherstun.
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Pay attention to how much you’re eating
While running does lots of good things for us, it’s not an excuse to completely ignore how many calories you’re consuming. “People tend to overestimate the number of calories they burn during a workout and use that to justify eating whatever they want,” says Featherstun. For example, in a study published in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, men and women both thought they burned around 400 calories during a 60-minute workout when they had in fact burned closer to 250 calories—a difference of 36 percent. Remember: Weight loss does require a calorie deficit.
But the bigger issue when it comes to running, especially among women, is undereating. Women between 19 and 30 require about 1,800 to 2,400 calories a day, according to the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, while those ages 31 through 59 require about 1,600 to 2,200 calories a day.
That may sound like a lot of calories, but you’re actually burning a ton of those calories just by existing. Your basal metabolic rate (BMR)—or the bare minimum amount of energy your body needs to function properly—is around 1,500 calories per day. And that’s your starting point; the more active you are, the more calories you’ll need on top of that. “I can’t think of a single runner I would have eating 1,800 to 2,000 calories a day,” says Featherstun. “Even if you’re only running 20 miles a week, you’re going to need more than that—2,400 all the way up to 3,000-plus.”
If you’re not consuming enough calories, your performance is going to suffer and runs are going to start feeling harder than they should because you’ll be bonking before you even get going. Plus, your body basically starts cannibalizing itself: “What’s happening is your body runs out of glycogen, which is stored in the muscles and liver,” says Hunnes. “When you use that up, your body starts metabolizing muscle to try and create new glucose—so you’re actually losing muscle fibers and strength.”
At the same time, your body actually shifts into starvation mode because it doesn’t have enough calories to fuel itself. “Your body can survive on less, but to do that, it has to shrink your metabolism,” says Featherstun. And when it does that, it actually starts to hoard energy (read: calories), which can stall any weight loss progress.
This can also lead to hormone dysregulation, and issues with bone health and muscle health, says Hunnes—women who don’t eat enough can lose their periods and will be at a higher risk for injury because their muscles aren’t getting what they need to repair themselves post-workout.
“The best thing you can do is prioritize fuel around a run if you’re trying to lose weight,” says Featherstun. That way, you’re ensuring your performance and your recovery aren’t impacted. Then, “you can skim calories off the rest of the day, not by skipping a meal or restricting snacks, but via small amounts each time you eat,” she explains.
It’s not going to lead to rapid weight loss, but that’s OK—healthy weight loss is about the long game, not quick fixes or fad diets. And if you’re hitting a plateau, talk to a health professional; a meta-analysis in the journal Patient Preference and Adherence determined that having support will improve your chances of long-term success.