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Running for Weight Loss


I used to be a 30-mile a week jogger.  I've since gained 60 lbs. (from 140 to 200).  I am currently walking about 3 miles 3-5 times weekly, but it just doesn't burn the calories like jogging.  I would like to start jogging again, but am worried about the extra weight strain on my joints.  Is it safe to jog with this much baggage?


That's a very good question, as many people believe that unless they are jogging they are not getting a good workout.  Having been a runner throughout my teens and twenties, I understand that the "runner's high" is psychologically hard to match.  However, it is possible to achieve a good cardiorespiratory workout and burn sufficient calories while utilizing a low impact mode of exercise.  In fact, you can even achieve that endorphin rush associated with the runner's high while walking!

At this point in time, I would encourage you to continue to pursue lower impact modes of exercise.  Running is definitely a high impact mode of exercise and it is estimated that the impact stress to the lower extremities during running is two to three times that of the runner's body weight.  Stress fractures and overuse injuries are frequent among runners, even for those within ideal body weights.  There is no reason to increase your risk for injury, which would subsequently hinder your weight loss plan should an injury occur.  However, keep faith that running can definitely be in your future.  In the meantime, let's look at ways in which you can safely increase the calories utilized during your exercise regimen.

First and foremost, check with your health care provider to ensure that you have a green light to increase the duration and intensity of your exercise regimen.  Upon receiving that okay, assess your target heart rate zone.  If you're not already walking at 60 - 75% of your heart rate max (220 - age), slowly work up to this range.  Working with a certified personal trainer will provide you with individual guidelines tailored to your specific needs.  However, the following sample program will give you an idea of how to do this from your described current status.

Progression chart for individual currently walking 3 miles, 3-5 times per week

Week Frequency Miles Goal Time Pace Comments
1-2 5 3.0 60 min 3.0 mph Attempt a frequency of 5 times / wk
3-4 5 3.0 57 min 3.2 mph Quicken your pace by ~1 min / mile / wk
5-6 5 3.0 54 min 3.3 mph  
7 5 3.0 51 min 3.5 mph  
8 5 3.5 60 min 3.5 mph Increase distance by ½ mile / week
9 4 3.5 55 min 3.8 mph  
10 4 3.5 53 min 4.0 mph  
11-12 4-5 4.0 60 min 4.0 mph  

Once you can walk 4 miles at a 15-minute pace on most days of the week, you can start integrating higher intensity intervals, hills and inclines to increase the caloric expenditure of your workout.  Once you are within reach of your goal weight, you can also start integrating jogging intervals.  The key to progressing your exercise program is to vary frequency, intensity and distance independently of one another (i.e., don't increase more than one variable per week).

Have confidence that walking faster, especially up inclines, can burn as many or more calories as slow jogging.  The following table illustrates this for you:

Speed Incline Kcals Speed Incline Kcals
3.0 0 230.89 4.5 0 391.76
3.5 0 257.71 5.0 0 445.38
4.0 0 284.52 5.5 0 499.00
3.0 6 404.63 6.0 0 391.76
3.5 6 460.40 6.5 0 445.38
4.0 6 516.16 7.0 0 499.00
Note: For a 45 min workout and nutrient mix yielding 8.9 Kcals/L VO2, for a 200 lb (90.74 kg) person.  Speed is in mph and incline is % grade.

Note that increasing your walking pace to 4 mph at a 6% grade will actually burn more calories during a 45 minute workout than jogging at 7.0 mph!  The take home message is clear: there is nothing magical about jogging, caloric expenditure and weight loss.

Make sure that you purchase a good pair of walking/running shoes that will provide you with motion control and stability, and shock absorption cushioning.  In addition, always remember to include a short warm-up and cool-down period in your exercise sessions.

Finally, an excellent option for those carrying extra body weight but who still want to pursue running is deep water or aqua running.  This can be accomplished by either running in a water depth in which your feet still strike the bottom of the pool, or by running in deeper water while wearing a floatation belt.  Runners who are rehabilitating an injury frequently use aqua running to maintain their fitness level.  Water running greatly reduces the impact stress of running while providing an excellent cardiorespiratory workout.  Check with your local YMCA or fitness center for more guidance on integrating water running into your exercise regimen.

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Our expert, Dr. Sharon E. Griffin, holds a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in the areas of exercise science/physiology.  She also holds a second M.S. degree in Nutrition and is a licensed nutritionist and an ACSM certified health and fitness instructor.
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