The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
Why running is the worst way to lose weight
Taking up jogging in midlife may not give you the results you want, discovers Maria Lally
With 50,000 runners and thousands of spectators lining the streets around some of the capital’s most famous landmarks, the atmosphere at today’s London Marathon is hard to beat.
And I should know. My husband has run in several London Marathons (plus one in Manchester). And every year, as I watch hordes of runners stream past, being cheered on by love from the crowds, I vow to take up running, despite hating it.
It’s a similar story every New Year, with the nickname January Joggers being given to those who decide to take up running in the first week of January in a bid to get fit and lose weight. But just how good is running when it comes to midlife exercise?
“Running always seems to be the default exercise when people think of getting fit or losing weight,” says personal trainer Matt Roberts, who has worked with David Cameron, Tom Ford and Amanda Holden. “Most weightloss journeys begin with somebody thinking, ‘Right, I’ll start by going for a run.’ But it’s actually one of the worst things you can do to a midlife body that’s not conditioned to run.”
Max Lowery, personal trainer and author of The 2 Meal Day, agrees: “When it comes to losing weight or getting fit, there’s this belief that running is the way to do it, but that’s definitely not the case. And for people who need to lose weight, I would say that running is actually really high risk. If you have 10 or 20 kilos [1½-3 stone] to lose, then essentially you’re running in a weighted jacket, and that jacket is going to put a lot of stress on your ligaments, tendons, joints and muscles, which increases the risk of injury.”
Roberts says the amount of pressure put on the Achilles tendons, knees and back during a run makes it a tough exercise even for people who don’t need to lose weight, but especially for those over the age of 40. After years of long-distance running, my husband – a slim and otherwise healthy 41-year-old – now walks crablike down the stairs, wincing as he goes, and suffers from sore feet, hips and plantar fasciitis.
“That’s not to say running is all bad,” says Roberts. “It’s not. But don’t start a fitness routine with it, and don’t overdo it, especially if you’re over 40, because running – or any other type of cardiovascular exercise – can cause high cortisol levels [cortisol is a stress hormone]. Things such as strength work, meanwhile, create a better hormone balance, which is particularly important for men and women as they get older.”
And then, of course, there’s the enjoyment factor. We’ve all heard of the “runner’s high”, and running over the finish line of any race – let alone a marathon – is an incredible feat. But for many (my husband included), running can often feel like a fairly joyless task.
“My clients’ feedback after a run is that they often feel puffed out, their Achilles hurt, or their knees or shins hurt, which is caused by micro tears,” says Roberts. “And this matters, because if you don’t enjoy the exercise you’re doing, you’re more likely to be put off the idea of doing any other type.”
So, what should you do instead? “Think about your mobility, your flexibility and your strength, by doing Pilates or yoga, and lifting weights,” says Roberts, who says that even things such as carrying heavy shopping bags and gardening count. “Fitness and longevity start with strength and mobility, which are the base for running and all exercise.”
Muscular strength, in particular, has been linked to a longer life, a lower risk of obesity, better bones, better mental health and improved heart health, according to several studies.
In a June 2021 study from Iowa State University that looked at records for 12,000 middle-aged adults, researchers found that two or more sessions of weight training a week reduced the risk of obesity by 20 to 30 per cent, even for those who do no aerobic exercise. Research shows that strength training also protects the midlife brain, and improves memory, cognitive function and decisionmaking, and a 2018 study from the University of Limerick found that resistance training had a significant impact on those with mild to moderate depression.
Yet despite this wealth of evidence, research also shows that most people still value aerobic exercise over lifting weights.
And this is particularly true of men, says Roberts. “If you look around any gym, you’re more likely to find women in Pilates or body-pump classes, and men on the treadmill,” he says. “Flexibility exercises are often seen as not being intense enough, but, ironically, men tend to be less flexible than women, especially as they get to midlife and beyond, so they should work more on their mobility and see things like yoga and Pilates as a necessity, rather than a bolt-on exercise or as some gentle class to help you unwind.”
So, can running play any part in a healthy fitness routine? “Absolutely,” says Lowery. “I enjoy running myself, and it can be a really useful exercise for staying fit, improving heart health and boosting your mood. The key is to start slowly and build up, to reduce the risk of injury.”
Last year, a study found that more than six million runs were completed using the NHS Couch to 5K app in 2022. Designed for people with little or no running experience, the app provides guided commentary and helps users track their progress.
“Ultimately, any type of exercise and movement is good for us,” says Lowery. “But the fact is, lots of people don’t like running, which is still held in such high regard, and they shouldn’t feel bad about not enjoying it. Because while running, as part of a routine that also includes walking, stretching and lifting weights, is good for us, too much can put a lot of stress on your body, and impact mobility and flexibility as you get older, when those things start to really become important. And remember, if anybody watching today’s London Marathon is thinking of taking up running to help them lose weight, they’re probably going to be sorely disappointed.”
‘It’s actually one of the worst things you can do to a midlife body that’s not conditioned to run’