Does running make you fat?

Many of us take up jogging to help lose weight. But the latest research shows it could have just the opposite effect. Sophie Morris, who ran a marathon and ended up heavier, explains why

Not long ago, a friend called me on a Sunday morning, flushed with fresh air and pride after completing an early run. "I can already smell that lunchtime burger," she reported. I wasn't going to deny her the pleasure of a good burger. I probably had one lined up myself. But after jogging for 40 minutes, she would have burned off around 400 calories. Even if she cooked a burger herself at home, chose a healthy bun and passed on the butter and mayo, the minimum possible calorie intake would cancel out those she used up running. It's much more likely, given the sort of treats we like to indulge in after exercise, that she went out and ordered a cheeseburger with fries on the side. The result being that she consumed far more calories than if she hadn't gone running.

The idea that exercise, and running in particular, will lead to weight loss, is a common misconception. I have been running for years. Net weight loss: zero. When I ran a marathon, under the extremely naive apprehension I would cross the finish line looking like Paula Radcliffe, I put on weight. At the time, this seemed astonishing. In fact, it is quite common. This is partly because muscle is denser than fat. But there is also a more subtle connection. Getting up at 6am for long runs demands an increase in calorie intake. My response? Two breakfasts, minimum, and then protein-based snacks before and after runs. Ah yes, and the cake.

"It is possible to lose weight with dietary changes alone," explains Laura Clark, a registered dietician with the British Dietetic Association, "but to lose weight just through exercising is very difficult. You would have to exercise at high intensity for three to four hours or more a week, and not many people can fit that in."

It is fair to describe my behaviour during marathon training as gluttonous, but it exemplifies the two principal reasons why anyone exercising to lose weight is unlikely to succeed.

First up is the reward element. "An apple is rarely appealing after you've worked up a sweat," confirms Clark. "It's very easy to think, when you've been to the gym, that you merit a treat. The reality is that the number of calories you have to make up for is usually very few."

"People gravitate towards rewarding themselves after exercise with sweet treats," says James Duigan, the trainer responsible for the bodies of Elle Macpherson and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, no less, "which is like taking two steps back."

One pound of fat equates to 3,500 calories. You need a deficit of 500 calories a day to lose a pound, so rewarding yourself with a burger or a cake will automatically cancel out that deficit. The catch is that this is so easy to do. "It can take an hour to burn off 400 or 500 calories, and just two minutes to eat that," says Clark.

Exercise has been found both to curb and stimulate hunger. Unfortunately, only very intense exercise will suppress appetite. A Loughborough University study found that vigorous exercise increases levels of peptide YY, an appetite-suppressing hormone, and reduces ghrelin, an appetite-stimulating hormone. But an hour later, the appetite will kick in again. Another study, from the University of Massachusetts, found that not only does exercise increase hunger, by increasing levels of insulin and leptin, both appetite-stimulating hormones, but that women are affected more than men.

A few years ago, the American peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE, the publication of the not-for-profit Public Library of Science, ran a surprising study. It suggests that even holding back on the treats and ignoring post-exercise hunger pangs will have little effect. The study put 464 overweight women who did not exercise regularly into four groups. Three of the groups worked out for different lengths of time each week with a personal trainer, and the control group remained inactive. The women were asked to stick to their usual diets. Although all groups lost weight (though some individuals gained more than 10lbs), those who exercised did not lose significantly more weight than the inactive participants. They did reduce their waist measurements a little, but lost no more body fat overall than the control group.

One theory for this is that the women who worked out most did the least at other times of the day to compensate. After all, exercise wears you out. When I am in a training programme for a race, I often take the escalator and avoid long walks. So all those calories I would have burnt stagnate. Where do they stagnate? Often around the tummy. "Running is great. I don't want to discourage people," says Duigan. "But a lot of people overdo it. Getting up at 5am to run 1.5hrs per day is an obsessive approach. Doing too much increases our levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which leads to tummy fat.

"When you're purely running, you're not creating lovely lean muscle fat, so people end up having that 'skinny fat' look, where there is no real muscle tone because they haven't done any resistance work. Half an hour of running every few days is plenty, along with resistance work."

This encapsulates why running fares worse in the weight-loss stakes compared with other forms of exercise. If you are preparing for a long run, the likelihood is you're trotting along at little more than a fast walk, so your muscles hardly get going. Then there are the different consequences of aerobic versus anaerobic exercise. We burn fat during aerobic exercise (running, cycling, walking, dancing), but as soon as the exercise is over, so is the fat burning. With anaerobic workouts (weights, circuits, sprints, interval and resistance work) you burn fat and also convert some into muscle while training, but the muscles keep working out after you have stopped, so you end up with a higher calorie burn and a higher proportion of lean muscle to boot.

"It is now commonly thought that varying the intensity of your training is better than grinding along at a slow pace, because you work the heart harder and you get this afterburn," says Andy Dixon, editor of Runner's World magazine, "It's not running that makes you fat, it's eating. It's a common habit for runners to think that everything else will look after itself, but even more important than the exercise is looking at nutrition.

"What's more, and the reason I put my trainers on when it's raining, running is easier than going to the gym or engaging in team sport. It's accessible, easy to get into, cheap and a very effective mode of burning fat," says Dixon.

As for those, like me, who are too tired to take the stairs after workouts, the NHS recommends between 75 and 150 minutes of exercise per week, depending on the intensity, plus two sessions of muscle-strengthening activities. But the exercise doesn't have to be done in one go: the message is to become more active, rather than to offset a sedentary lifestyle with bursts of exercise.

It is important not to downplay the benefits of exercise. The part it plays in weight loss has been overstated, but it has a crucial role in most aspects of our physical health, in fighting disease and in moderating mental health. Even better, a morning jog will put a smile on your face.

Running and weight loss: the dos and don'ts





* Eat an hour-and-a-half before a run and have a healthy snack available for afterwards.



* Mix up the intensity of your run. Running for 30 minutes with bursts of sprinting is better for fat burning, lean-muscle building and fitness than a 45-minute trudge.



* Exercise followed by a treat is better for overall health than not exercising. But be aware of the calories burnt. Running for 40 minutes does not buy you two doughnuts – more like three or four oatcakes with hummus, 80g of dark chocolate or two eggs on slices of wholemeal toast.



* Avoid isotonic drinks if you're exercising for less than 60 minutes. You don't need them because the carb reserve in muscles and the liver sustains us for an hour. Rehydrate with water instead.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
Neil Young performs on stage at Hyde Park
musicAnd his Hyde Park set has rhyme and reason, writes Nick Hasted
News
Women have been desperate to possess dimples like Cheryl Cole's
people Cole has secretly married French boyfriend Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini after just three months.
Arts and Entertainment
AKB48 perform during one of their daily concerts at Tokyo’s Akihabara theatre
musicJapan's AKB48 are one of the world’s most-successful pop acts
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Extras
indybestThe tastiest creations for children’s parties this summer
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Paolo Nutini performs at T in the Park
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Web / Digital Analyst - SiteCatalyst or Google Analytics

    competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

    Campaign Manager

    competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading marketing agency is currently ...

    Software Engineer - C++

    £35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Software En...

    Software Team Leader - C++

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Software Tea...

    Day In a Page

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

    Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
    Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

    The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

    Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
    Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

    Meet Japan's AKB48

    Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
    In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

    Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

    The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor