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running for weight loss

Many exercisers flock to running for the cardiovascular benefit and high calorie burn. Running fans also love it for stress reduction and mental well-being. The downside is that running can be especially challenging if you are overweight. Don’t be discouraged. If you want to run, there are safe and effective ways to incorporate it into your exercise routine.

Keeping your joints safe.

Running is often blamed for knee damage, but research says otherwise. Many long-term studies show that running doesn’t appear to cause knee damage in people without previous knee injuries. A 21-year study conducted at Stanford University showed that the knees of those who ran were no more or less healthy than the knees of non-runners. Some research shows that activities like running may even benefit the joints. The pounding action can stimulate proteins to make cartilage stronger while also flushing out toxins. As with most types of exercise, moderation is key. Running at fast paces and for long distances can increase the risk of knee arthritis.

While running isn’t directly linked to knee damage, being overweight or obese is. Obese women have almost four times the risk of developing arthritis of the knee when compared to non-obese women, and obese men have five times the risk. When you run, the knee absorbs a force up to eight times your body weight. If you are more than 20 pounds overweight, avoid jumping into a vigorous running routine, but this doesn’t mean running is off limits. The key is to start slow, and as the weight comes off, you can begin to increase your time, distance, and speed.

Taking it one step at a time.

Check with your healthcare provider to ensure that you have a green light to increase the duration and intensity of your exercise routine. Once you have approval, the following walking program is ideal for someone who can walk three miles, three to five times per week and wants to eventually incorporate running.

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

The key to progressing your exercise program is to vary frequency, intensity, and distance independently (don't increase more than one variable per week). Once you can walk four miles at a 15-minute pace on most days of the week, you can start integrating higher intensity intervals with hills and inclines to increase the calories burned during your workout.

Once you are within reach of your goal weight, you can start integrating jogging intervals. When you begin your jogging program, aim to include these walk/jog sessions three to five days per week. For the first two weeks, you will walk four minutes and jog one minute. You will repeat this five-minute interval six times until you have exercised for 30 minutes. It may be tempting to jog more, but sticking to the program will ensure that your stamina builds gradually, decreasing burnout.

Every two weeks, walk one minute less and jog one minute more. Repeat any of the weeks as necessary based on how quickly your fitness is improving, but do not skip any of the weeks. Take it slow and stick with the program. In eight to ten weeks, you will be running a full 30 minutes.

Week Frequency (days/week) Goal Time Walk/Jog Interval
1-2 3-5 30 min Walk 4 minutes, Jog 1 minute
3-4 3-5 30 min Walk 3 minutes, Jog 2 minutes
5-6 3-5 30 min Walk 2 minutes, Jog 3 minutes
7-8 3-5 30 min Walk 1 minute, Jog 4 minutes
9-10 3-5 30 min Jog 30 minutes

*Jogging program modified from Ready to Run? Fit Facts from the American Council on Exercise.

Lori Rice, M.S., is a nutritional scientist and author with a passion for healthy cooking, exercise physiology, and food photography.
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