Josh Hafner , USA TODAY
Corrections & clarifications: An earlier version of this article misstated a detail from a University of Western Ontario study. Both groups in the study gained some muscle mass.
In the United States, a nation fatter than any other, running remains the most popular workout activity. That’s according to a Fitbit analysis of fitness tracker user data.
And if tied-up treadmills across the country are any indication, much of that running is long distance.
Here’s the cruel catch, though: Running miles at a time doesn’t shed fat as efficiently as other forms of exercise. In some ways it doesn’t help much at all.
As fitness author Lou Schuler explains in his book, The New Rules of Lifting For Women, relying on long-distance running to lose weight poses a key problem. The human body, ever-resourceful, eventually adapts to the repetitive nature of running. And that added efficiency means the body burns fewer calories for the same amount of work.
“If your goal is to be leaner, then greater endurance isn’t really to your benefit,” Schuler concludes.
Dr. William Roberts, a University of Minnesota physician and former president of the American College of Sports Medicine, likes running. He’s blogged for Runner’s World and served as medical director for the Twin Cities Marathon in St. Paul.
“But If I’m looking at a gym and looking at what can I get the most bang for my buck from, it’s whatever I can use that moves and works the most muscle groups at the same time,” Roberts said.
That means adding strength training to any pure running routine, Roberts said, the latter of which neglects upper body muscles. Losing weight requires about 40 to 60 minutes of activity most days of the week, he said, and at least half that time should be spent bulking up.
“If you can build strength and build muscle mass, you’re going to burn more calories,” Roberts said. “Even if you’re idling.”
That’s because strength training causes tiny tears in the muscles. Those require calories as they repair, meaning your body keeps working long after you leave the gym. That’s less so with steady, moderate jogging.
Fitness coach Adam Bornstein put it this way in Shape: “With cardio, you can slog away for 30 minutes at a lower intensity and burn 200 calories — or you can just eat 200 fewer calories per day. It’s the same thing.”
If you love running, fear not: Sprinting may work as well. A study from the University of Western Ontario asked one group of people to run at a slow, steady pace for 30 to 60 minutes, three times per week. Another group ran 30-second sprints, between four and six of them, three times each week — a way less time-intensive routine.
Both groups gained some muscle mass. But after six weeks, the sprinters shed more than twice the body fat of the joggers.
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