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New research suggests that running may not aid much with weight loss, but it can help you keep from gaining weight as you age. SolStock/Getty Images
  • A new study reports that running is not an effective way to lose weight.
  • However, it can help you avoid gaining weight as you age.
  • This is because our bodies tend to seek a state of homeostasis.
  • In order to lose fat and gain muscle, it is necessary to combine both diet and exercise.

Contrary to popular belief, running is not an effective way to lose weight, say the authors of a study out of the University of Jyväskylä in Finland.

The study, which was published in Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, did show, however, that continued running over a person’s lifetime can prevent weight gain.

Older sprinters and endurance athletes also had lower fat mass than younger individuals who were strength athletes or who were physically active.

The researchers further found that those who engaged in resistance training throughout their lives were better able to maintain muscle mass than those who participated in sprint and long-distance running.

The older strength trainers additionally had a similar amount of muscle mass as their younger counterparts.

The study authors noted that people tend to gain fat but lose muscle as they grow older.

Since it is known that regular exercise can help prevent this, they decided to look at competitive athletes who have continued to exercise as they aged. They felt that this would allow them to see what part of the changes in body composition are inherent to aging and not preventable.

They looked at two age groups: young (20-39 years) and older (70-89 years). Competitive male athletes and healthy, age-matched controls were included in the study.

Additionally, the athletes were divided into groups based on the type of activities that they engaged in, including strength (weightlifting, powerlifting), sprint (sprinting, jumping), and endurance (long-distance running, cross-country skiing).

Dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA) scans were used to assess their body composition.

These scans were then used to determine if the study participants fell into the categories of low muscle mass, obesity, and sarcopenic obesity (high body fat, but low muscle mass).

After analyzing the data, they found that people who had been lifelong athletes had less sarcopenic obesity than those who only engaged in recreational activities.

However, even older athletes had some increase in fat mass compared to younger people, causing the researchers to conclude that exercise cannot completely mitigate the effects of aging on fat and muscle mass.

Simon Walker, PhD, the lead author of the study, said in a press release that these findings “absolutely” motivate him to continue running.

“I’d certainly be happy with a fat percentage of 16–18% when I’m in my 70s and 80s,” he remarked.

According to Kelsey Costa, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Dietitian Insights, although running is great for overall health, it impacts weight loss less than people might expect.

Costa said this is due to the body’s adaptive mechanisms.

“After an initial decrease in fat mass from commencing a regular exercise regimen,” she said, “the body instinctively adjusts by reducing its basal metabolic rate — the energy expenditure for vital cellular functions and systemic processes — to conserve energy and sustain fat reserves.”

Costa went on to explain that the hypothalamus, which regulates metabolism, sets an energy expenditure target and counters any excess energy use — such as what occurs during running — by curtailing energy consumption elsewhere.

“This physiological safeguard is an evolutionary response designed to avert starvation,” she noted, “a testament to the complexity of weight management and the body’s instinct to maintain homeostasis.”

Costa added that preventing weight gain is the best way to maintain a healthy body composition.

However, there are effective strategies for losing fat while simultaneously increasing lean mass.

Ari Jonisch, MD — who is the President of Main Street Radiology as well as Chief-of-Service at New York-Presbyterian/Queens — said that for effective weight loss, a combination of diet and exercise is best.

“Regular physical activity like running is important for overall health, but dietary choices are key for creating the necessary calorie deficit,” he stated. “A balanced diet focusing on whole foods, lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates is recommended.”

Jonisch also advises adding strength training to your routine. This can help build muscle mass, boost metabolism, and aid in weight loss.

“In summary, while running has numerous health benefits and can certainly be part of a weight management strategy, it may not be the sole solution for achieving significant weight loss,” he concluded. “A comprehensive approach that combines regular exercise with a nutritious diet is key for long-term success in weight management.”

A new study has found that contrary to what many may think, running is not a good way to lose weight.

Our bodies tend to compensate for increased activity by slowing our metabolism as a protective measure against starvation.

However, the study did find that people who continued to run throughout their lifetimes were able to avoid some of the changes in body composition — increased fat mass and decreased muscle mass — that we tend to experience as we age.

Experts say if you want to improve your body composition, combining exercise with a balanced diet is necessary.