Running is Good For Your Health, Right? Maybe Not

Tuesday May 13 | BY |
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Running

We all think running is a great way to lose weight, but that’s not always the case.

This was the joke of the day that recently appeared on my calendar:

Two men were hiking through the forest when they heard a bear approaching. One man dropped his hiking gear and searched through it until he found his running shoes. Watching the man put on the running shoes, the other man said, “What are you doing? You can’t outrun that bear!” The man said, “I don’t have to outrun him. I just have to outrun you.”

Whether you run for your health, to lose weight, or for the joy of taking it on the road, calling ourselves runners is a badge that many of us wear with pride. So before we begin this discussion, please ask yourself why you run or fitness walk. The answers I get most often are:

  • It’s good for my health.
  • I want to lose weight/control my weight.
  • Anyone can run, so there’s nothing I have to learn.
  • It helps me handle my stress.
  • I like to run and like the way I feel when I’m done.

I’m thinking for most of us, those answers would rank high on the list. So let’s consider each of these answers and whether or not they are indeed the benefits of running.

It’s good for my health and helps me handle stress.

Maybe, maybe not.

Aerobic training increases adrenal stress, which can make you fatter and may produce other undesirable health consequences. Without going into the science of adrenal fatigue, for right now, know that when you do too much continuous aerobic exercise, the adrenal glands are stressed in a way that disrupts your hormonal balance, causing adrenal fatigue. This leads to tiredness, allergies, frequent colds and flus, arthritis, anxiety, reduced memory, insomnia,
feeling worn out and the INABILITY to lose weight, even after extensive effort.

So while you are gaining cardiovascular and respiratory benefits, which I believe are the health benefits we think of when we say “we run for the health benefits,” please be aware that TOO much of a good thing can be stressful. Remember, being fit and being healthy are not the same. It’s important to bring a level of self awareness to your running so you know when you are dipping into an unhealthy stressful state.

Dr. Alan Sears, the author of Pace: Rediscover Your Native Fitness, says
“forcing your body to do the same continuous cardiovascular activity over and over again is unnatural. Long-duration exercise downsizes the heart’s capacity to provide you with big bursts of energy when you need them, increases LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, elevates clotting and inflammation factors and creates loss of bone density.”

When looking for a population that blends low-intensity exercise with quick bursts of energy resulting in great health, we look to the Amish. Amish men average 18,000 steps a day and get 10 hours of vigorous physical activity a week. The women average 14,000 steps a day and get
3.5 hours of vigorous physical activity a week. Obesity in the Amish community is only 4% compared to a sad statistic for American adults of 31%.

Also, when I think of how to link health and movement, I prefer to think of becoming generally athletic, and then taking that general athleticism into whatever exercise or sport I play. In other words, I want to move well, REALLY well.

Istvan Balyi and others wrote an article entitled, “Long Term Athletic Development and Canadian Physical Literacy.” By physical literacy, he means fundamental movement skills and fundamental sport skills. Think agility, balance, coordination, speed, jumping, walking, hopping, swimming, skipping, throwing, kicking, catching. Too many of us have focused on too few of these.

The idea is to be active throughout your life and discover your own pathway to Joy-in-movement. We can learn all of these skills—which by the way, most of us learned when we were kids—if we take the time to train and learn them and we continually improve.

The first rule is to practice and master these fundamental movement skills before sport-specific skills. Balyi also talks about the ABC’s of athleticism: agility, balance, coordination and speed. Most of us probably went through a learning phase before we were in our
teens and acquired many of these, but they have been forgotten due to lack of practice and use.

We have spent too much time in the training to win/compete phase of our specific sports and lost our general physical preparedness. Adapting a philosophy towards sports/movement and
health/fitness like the one I’m suggesting might take a paradigm shift for you, but I encourage you to be open to what I’m saying. As we all age, these fundamental movement skills will keep us functional as we go about our days, and keep us less prone to injury.

Best way to lose weight and burn fat.

NOPE.

Not steady-state running, at least. Going for miles and miles or for hours and hours is not the best way to burn fat. Will you burn calories? Of course.

Want to burn fat? Listen up.

Remember, we are talking about CONTINUOUS aerobic exercise, called LSD (long slow distance
running) or steady-state cardio. There are other ways to train that are more effective and take less time.

Unfortunately, we have been brainwashed with the idea that to burn fat you have to do continuous
aerobic work. It is not the most effective choice and I’m all about effectiveness and efficiency.

In order to lose fat, we need to stoke the body’s furnace to burn up our fat reserves. To do this, we need intense oxygen-depriving anaerobic exercise.

This does two things:

  1. It increases the percentage of calories and fat burned as compared to the percentage of carbohydrates burned.
  2. It raises your metabolic rate, which helps you burn off even more calories when you are at rest. This is called EPOC, and we’ll go into this more in a minute.

Intensity (% of your max HR) is what’s important in the number of calories burned per minute. The kind of running that is most effective for fat loss is called “interval training.” You alternate minutes of high intensity exercise with low to moderate intensity exercise. You will more effectively burn fat and improve both aerobic and anaerobic fitness.

There are many different ways to set up an interval protocol (and intervals can be done with many different exercise modalities).

I am also assuming that you have a good understanding of the differences between aerobic
and anaerobic exercise. If not, let me know and we’ll cover it in more depth in another article.

EPOC stands for “excess post-workout oxygen consumption,” and some in the fitness field assign great meaning to it, so it’s something you should be aware of. There is a higher increase in caloric expenditure that occurs during the EPOC phase after resistance or anaerobic exercise
versus aerobic exercise. And the EPOC over the 12-24 hour period following your exercise session can be from 10-150 calories. Not a huge number, but worth noting.

Also, let’s consider something else with steady-state running and fat burning/calorie expenditure. If we are economical and mechanically efficient when we run, we will expend LESS calories than if we are unskilled and utilize unnecessary movements during physical activity.

At first you might think, great, I don’t (run, swim bike ) well, so I’ll burn more calories, but remember, inefficiencies increase musculoskeletal stress and lead to overuse injuries. So it’s an interesting Catch-22. Though it takes time to develop efficient running mechanics, your economy will improve over time and you’ll be able to prolong the activity and get a greater total energy expenditure, but that means running for longer and longer time periods. This may not be what you want: longer runs to burn the same number of calories.

As for a fitness take on all this, let’s look at what Charles Poliquin, a well-known strength and conditioning coach, has to offer when he talks about why aerobic work can be counterproductive. He includes many of the things we have already mentioned.

  • Continuous aerobic work plateaus after 8 weeks of training, so anything more is
    counterproductive.
  • Aerobic training worsens your power locally and systemically, making you slower. If you play team sports needing speed or jumping power, this is of interest to you.
  • Aerobic training increases oxidative stress, which can accelerate aging. Oxidation is a process that forms free radicals in the body. Normally, we use antioxidants to neutralize them. If there is an excessive build up due to excessive aerobics, your body will be
    challenged to handle all the free radicals. This will change your metabolism and can accelerate aging.
  • Aerobic training increases body fat in stressed individuals by contributing additional stress. Again, stress to an already stressed organism actually adds body fat, as it messes with your hormone balance.
  • Aerobic training worsens testosterone/cortisol ratios, which impede your ability to add fat-burning lean muscle. Adding lean muscle will help increase the caloric expenditure that we need to lose fat.
Anyone can run, so there’s nothing I have to learn.

NOT!

Yes, running will burn calories, and you can ease joint stress and move with less effort if you take the time to learn how. And running can be learned by anyone. It involves understanding physics, physiology and your anatomy. Too often though, what I see published in articles is
something that says, “If you can walk, you can run.” This is not the case and I surely would not want most of the people I see walking to take their walk into a run!

Everyone needs exercise, yet why do so many people interpret this to mean all you need to do is RUN? Unfortunately, I see too many people who have never given credence to the idea that it is important to learn good biomechanics for running. I see bobbers, swayers, shufflers, prancers
and clompers, all of whom think they are doing something good for themselves by running. A lot of people out there running look miserable and in pain and as I often say, “Running is something we do in the name of good health that makes us miserable.”

Biomechanics, or technique, and how we move as runners, is easy to address. It is, after all, under our control. Yet it is often forgotten. Runners don’t understand the “why” of the running movements, starting with why they should even be concerned with “how” they move.

The injury rate amongst runners is alarming and changes all the time, so I won’t give you an exact number. I can say that I’ve never read a study that quoted less than 50% of all runners
having had an injury during the year. Learning how to run with correct form will make running less punishing so your fitness efforts won’t be constantly derailed by injury. You can be comfortable while you run!

Correct running form is not for most of us second nature, and contrary to what many people think, it is not just stepped-up walking.

What I wanted to do with this article is to have us look at the exercise we do—in this case, running—and ask ourselves why we are doing it, and are we in fact getting the results we seek. Mindlessly doing anything, and particularly running, can do just as much harm as good, and we need to know the difference between when running is helping us or hurting us.

If you have any questions, please let me know!

Shelli Stein

Shelli Stein

Shelli Stein holds a Master’s degree in exercise physiology and has completed over 12 advanced certifications in the field of health and fitness. She coaches and teaches from her home base in San Diego, California. Her specialties include hormone health for women, run coaching, and helping her clients move from pain to performance. She offers free newsletters both weekly and monthly from her websites: www.joyinmovement.com and www.activemenopauselifestyle.com

6 COMMENTS ON THIS POST

Comments are closed for this post.

  1. Mary Attard says:

    Please can you help me to do a diet? Thanks in advance!

    • Shelli Stein Shelli Stein says:

      HI Mary, and thanks for your question. It’s best to contact me directly for help with your diet.

  2. Tara says:

    I know people who train for marathons who create more stress in their bodies from over training and not training in the most beneficial way.

    • Shelli Stein Shelli Stein says:

      HI Tara,

      Good comment. You touched on two important topics. Overtraining can be very detrimental for your body and surely hamper your efforts. And knowing HOW to train properly must come before the training itself.

      Thanks for reading and for taking the time to remind us of some important run training ideas.

  3. Peter says:

    I thought ANearobic exercise isn’t always healthy for you.
    Anearobic=without oxygen, high intensity like ,running.
    Is it me or did Shelli Stein mean inearobic instead of earobic?
    Because earobic excerise, like walking etc are always good for you right?

  4. Shelli Stein Shelli Stein says:

    Hi Peter,

    We use running and walking to train our aerobic capacity. That means our intention is to improve the efficiency of the body’s cardiovascular system in absorbing and transporting oxygen.

    I hope this answers your question.

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