The body fat content of Boston dropped precipitously the weekend before Marathon Monday. Most of the blue and gold jacketed (the Marathon colors) people wandering in and out of stores, running the length of the river or on our long city blocks were thin... quite thin. And there were thousands of them.
"Maybe I should start running again," a friend commented, as we waited behind a crowd of skinny legs for the light to change. "I need to lose some weight."
It was a tempting thought, one that I had played with for the several years after a repair for a torn Achilles tendon had made me fearful of running too often and too far. The weather was getting warmer, so exercising outside was a pleasure... and who knows, maybe the pounds would roll off along with those miles.
The editors of Runner's World must have heard our conversation because, a few days later, I was browsing the April edition of the magazine, devoted in large part to running and weight loss.
One section of the magazine was headlined "Why Can't You Lose Weight?" with a sobering subtitle scolding the reader for thinking that weight loss was simply a matter of eating less and running more.
You mean it isn't?
According to the magazine, chubby runners, like the rest of the overweight human race, tend to overestimate how many calories their runs are burning off and compensate for their calorie loss by overeating when they get home. Not moving much after the run is not uncommon; after all, why not take the car to do an errand a block away? There is no need for more exercise. And even worse, some (gasp) are even overeating on a day when they are not running. They rationalize, "Tomorrow I will exercise off the extra calories I ate today."
Alas, there is no magical formula that produces weight loss just by putting on running shoes and cute running tights. The only way a runner can lose weight is to eat sensibly and to commit to a running schedule that increases in time and intensity, so the body never hits a fitness plateau. A generic diet that stresses avoiding high fat, high sugar and highly processed foods, which also provides sufficient carbs to replenish the stored carbohydrate in the muscles used up by exercise, will work to diminish calorie intake. Obviously, it must also include nutritious staples such as fruits and vegetables, as well as lean protein, low-fat dairy products, and high-fiber.
But the exercise component, like running, must be personalized so that the dieter is constantly training to increase both the intensity and duration of the activity. It is not necessary to train as though for a marathon or a long distance bike ride or a climb in the Himalayas. But it is necessary to make sure the body is not too comfortable with the exercise routine. If the effort level remains the same, fewer calories may be used up as time goes on. Runners who want to lose weight are advised, according to the article, to include high intensity runs like speed work, or running fast up hills along with adding, if possible, miles to the distance run. Presumably this can be done on a treadmill as well as outside.
Although running to lose weight may appeal to only a few, the concept behind increasing one's fitness and stamina applies to anyone who wants to include exercise as a way of increasing weight loss. How many of us have complained, "I don't know why I am not losing weight! After all, I go to the gym (or play tennis, or go for bike rides or walk) three times a week." But are we exercising harder as time goes on, or maintaining the same level of physical activity for weeks, months, or even years? I have a friend, a runner (and a little pudgy), who told me quite proudly that he has been running three miles, 4 days a week, for years.
"Well, why don't you run further?" I asked him. He was surprised at my question and shrugged his answer.
"Why should I? I am comfortable doing that distance."
Dieters are often told to engage in some sort of physical activity, especially if their weight loss has stalled, and when they begin to do so, particularly if they have been inactive, weight loss often increases. But eventually, as their bodies become fitter and accustomed to this level of physical activity, the exercise will no longer push their weight loss as much as it did at the beginning.
They, and the rest of us who may wonder why exercise does not seem to be melting away our excess pounds, are rarely told that reaching an exercise plateau will slow down our weight loss. Unless we have a trainer or a coach, or read magazines and journals about physical activity and weight, we are unaware of how important it is to exercise harder and longer to increase the rate of our weight loss. Nor are we given information on how this can be done in such a way as to prevent injury and pain.
The solution is not to diet more strenuously, or give up on the exercise because it doesn't seem to be working. The solution is to become your own trainer. Keep an exercise journal or use an app or wearable device that monitors your physical activity. This will tell you how much you are doing and how often. Resolve to do more. More can mean one minute or an hour, half a block, or several miles. Increase your speed or resistance, again for a few seconds or a few minutes. You don't have to do this more than once or twice a week, but you must do it if you want to climb to a higher level of fitness and increased rate of weight loss. And who knows, one of these days, you may be in a large crowd waiting to run a marathon.