Running has little effect on weight loss but has other health benefits

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What, specifically, is the correlation between running and weight loss?

New research shows that running helps with weight loss – but only to a certain point. The silver lining, though, is that regularly running can prevent fat or weight gain from creeping back up.

Researchers from the University of Jyväskylä in Finland have published these findings in the journal Frontiers.

While the evidence shows that running is an effective way to maintain healthy fat mass, it doesn’t mean that an all-running regimen is the best way to stay in shape.

Instead, a balanced approach – one that combines endurance activities such as running with strength or resistance training – is preferable, according to Simon Walker, a lead study author and an academy research fellow at the university.

“For the general population that wants to do a bit of both, two to three sessions each of endurance and resistance training every week is likely a very good recommendation in general,” Walker, a docent in exercise physiology from the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences at the university, told Medical News Today.

“The frequent exercise sessions of four to six times per week is also highly effective for reducing body fat – much better than blasting yourself twice a week and doing not much else for the rest of the week,” he added.

Strength versus endurance

Researchers pulled data from larger cohort studies that analyzed younger (ages 20 to 39) and older (ages 70 to 89) physically active males. Competitive sprinters, runners, and strength athletes, along with non-competitive but still active men were all accounted for.

Walker said that he and his colleagues anticipated that strength athletes would have more muscle mass and that endurance athletes would have low body fat with lower muscle mass. While the data proved this to be true, he did say that it was somewhat surprising that most endurance athletes – even in the older cohort – still had muscle mass above the sarcopenia threshold, which means that distance running was sufficient to keep runners above the level that might lead to lower functioning.

While this is an endorsement for the health benefits of running – and perhaps its underrated role in maintaining muscle mass – Walker said a more balanced approach is still the best way when it comes to overall health.

“Running high volumes and/or high intensities has been shown to blunt increases in muscle mass, whereas other endurance forms like cycling and rowing do not seem to have a negative effect,” he explained. “But for most people who go jogging two to three times per week, there will be no ‘interference effect,’ so the fear is overexaggerated. Nevertheless, even in those athletes that do not gain and do not want to gain muscle mass from resistance training, they still improve muscle force production capacity and improve their running performance.”

Getting started and keeping habits

Running can help maintain muscle mass, and strength training can help add more muscle mass – but in order for this to be effective, the body needs fuel.

“It’s critical to make sure you’re consuming enough calories because if you’re not consuming enough for the activity that you’re doing, then you actually start breaking down muscle instead of building it up, even though you’re exercising,” Dr. Tracy Zaslow, a primary care sports medicine specialist at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles and a team physician for Angel City Football Club and LA Galaxy soccer team, told Medical News Today.

To get started on the right track, Zaslow, who was not involved in the study, recommends following the guidelines set out by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that advises 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week.

“So let’s say you break your 150 minutes into a five-day workout. That’s 30 minutes for each of your five days,” Zaslow explained. “You’d want three days of endurance training and two days of strength training, and that combination would be a really good standard protocol to follow to build or maintain that muscle mass while also maintaining that lean body mass and cardiovascular fitness.”

In addition to CDC guidelines, Walker points to the Sport Training Principles as another helpful protocol to follow. These guidelines are overload, reversibility, progression, individualization, periodization, and specificity.

“As our study showed, consistent life behavior led to certain body composition in our athletes and physically active controls,” he said. “Some goals can be achieved inside a few weeks, but some take years. For real health benefits, exercise should be part of our lives consistently, in whatever form the person wishes.”

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