Running has been hailed as a fast route to many things — happiness, a longer life and reduced stress — but not, apparently, to weight loss. Last week a researcher revealed that many joggers find their efforts are in vain when it comes to shifting stubborn pounds. According to Mary Kennedy, a lifestyle and nutrition researcher at Harvard University, even those running 50 miles a week or more in training for a marathon might struggle to lose weight if their pace is too slow. To lose fat, Kennedy says, speed is key, and “just because you cross the finish line doesn’t mean you were running at a really vigorous pace seven days a week”.
In her small trial, Kennedy charted the progress of 64 volunteers who were running four days a week. Over three months, 75 per cent of the subjects neither lost nor gained any weight. And while about one in ten lost weight, an equal number put on several pounds. Of the seven runners who gained weight, six were women. “This idea that you’re going to run a marathon and the pounds are going to melt away is not realistic,” Kennedy says.
It’s certainly something that resonates with Julia Buckley, a personal trainer and the author of The Fat Burn Revolution (Bloomsbury, £16.99), who now has an impressively hard-worked torso but for years was among those who struggled to lose weight despite covering many miles in her trainers.
Ironically, Buckley says she was at her fattest when entering ultra-marathons (any race on foot longer than the marathon distance of 26.2 miles) several years ago. “I would lose a bit, but then it would creep back up,” she says. “I’d find myself increasing my running mileage and would lose a bit more weight, but then the same plateau would occur.”
Buckley says that only when she reduced jogging in favour of workouts geared towards explosive movement did her body shape transform. “I started to train more intensely and with weights in a way that would boost my metabolism and increase my strength,” she says.
Are all runners really wasting their time? Not necessarily, says John Brewer, a professor of sport and applied science at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. “Running burns somewhere in the region of 100 to 120 calories per mile,” Brewer says. “That means you would need to run 80 miles just to lose a kilogram of weight.”
However, picking up speed can mean that, proportionately, calorie-burn soars. “If you run for 30 minutes at a pace of ten minutes per mile, you will cover three miles and burn around 300 calories,” he says. “Run much faster at a six-minutes-per-mile pace, and you will not only cover five miles in the same duration but will use up 500 calories.”
It’s worth pointing out that some of the weight gained by subjects in the Harvard study is likely to come from lean muscle. Or from “refuelling” after a run. Appetite can soar after endurance sessions. Marathon runners report consuming mountains of carbs when they return ravenous after a long training run. However, lots of training miles isn’t a green light to eat as much as you like. “It’s very easy to eat more calories than you are expending when you run,” says Professer Brewer. “Physiologically, you don’t need as much food or as many energy products as you think.”
Dr Sarah Schenker, a nutritionist, agrees. “The concept of thinking you have to eat after running or exercising is not a good one,” she says. “If you are running for weight loss, there is no need to replace the calories you have just burnt off. It makes no sense and you should hold off until your next proper meal.”
What, then, does work for weight loss? “What you’re looking for is to drive up levels of hormones that accelerate fat-burning,” says Zana Morris, of The Library gym in London. “And the only way to do this is to work your whole body really hard.”
There are plenty of options that transform your shape, even running — if you are fast enough. So what are the exercises that are scientifically proven to result in fat loss?
Jogging long distances at plod pace might not be a route to slimness, but inject some sprints and it’s a different story. Replacing your regular run with shorter, faster bursts — anything from six seconds to a minute in duration — is one of the most effective routes to fat-burning. Scientists in Australia found that sprint training for 60 minutes a week burns the same amount of body fat in men as jogging for seven hours a week. Just eight-second bursts of sprinting (either outside or on the treadmill) repeated intermittently for 20 minutes helped overweight men to lose 2kg (4lb) of body fat over 12 weeks. There was a 17 per cent reduction in fat stored around their liver, kidneys and other organs that is associated with an increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
Julia Buckley, a personal trainer, says that she ditched long, slow runs for “shorter distances at faster speeds” as part of her fat-burning plan. “You don’t need to cut out running altogether, just speed it up and cut the duration for weight loss,” she says.
Where to try it Try a treadmill workout in which the sprints are set out for you. V-tread at Virgin Active (virginactive.co.uk) or the Beat HIIT sessions at Fitness First, which incorporate a lot of treadmill sprints (fitnessfirst.co.uk).
Circuit training is back in vogue thanks to its ability to help you to slim down. A study in 2013 at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse human performance laboratory found that circuit training using only your bodyweight for resistance could burn fat fast. For the study, 16 fit adults participated in a 20-minute bodyweight circuit, that included exercises such as push-ups, burpees, squats and lunges. According to John Porcari, the lead researcher and head of the university’s performance lab, the participants burnt an average of 15 calories per minute, nearly twice the rate expended during a long run.
Although CrossFit (a multidiscipline strength and conditioning class that began in America and is popular in gyms across the UK), British Military Fitness and the like have helped to popularise circuit training, a standard home circuit will more than suffice. Chris Jordan and Brett Klika, of the Human Performance Institute in Florida, devised the seven-minute circuit, a form of “high-intensity circuit training”, or HICT, that took New York by storm. It requires nothing more than a chair, a wall and your bodyweight for resistance, plus old-fashioned brute effort for results: 30 seconds each of jumping jacks, press-ups, wall sits, crunches, step-ups (on the chair), tricep dips (on the chair), squats, lunges, side plank, plank, high-knee running on the spot and press-ups with side rotation in quick succession, with only a five to ten-second breather. As you get fitter, the seven-minute workout can be repeated two to three times, but once a day with maximum effort will make a difference.
Where to try it CrossFit classes (find your nearest class atmap.crossfit.com), British Military Fitness (find classes atbritmilfit.com), Barry’s Bootcamp (based in London,barrysbootcamp.com) or one of the many seven-minute workout apps (there are lots available in the app/play stores).
Indoor rowing classes are the new spin studios in New York. Hard-bodied Jason Statham and Zac Efron are fans. According to studies carried out in the Work Physiology Lab at Ohio University, rowing for 20 minutes at a given perceived rate of exertion (say a six on a ten-point scale) burns 10 to 15 per cent more calories than running or swimming for the same time and difficulty. “This is because rowing engages more muscles than most other forms of aerobic exercise, thus burning more energy,” says Matt Roberts, a trainer who is a big fan of the activity. “Every stroke requires you to work the muscles in your calves, upper legs, buttocks, core, upper back and arms.” Only cross-country skiing comes close in terms of calorie-burn, which can be as high as 700 in an hour.
Where to try it Concept2, the indoor rowing machine manufacturer, is holding “Row Zone” classes at some gyms. Or you can log on to its website to try one of the free training programmes (three are uploaded every day, at varying difficulties) atconcept2.co.uk.
Fashionable hardcore group bike classes, such as Psycle and Cyclebeat, as well as spin classes in the gym, are said to burn up to 1,200 calories in a single session (normally 45 minutes long). Indoors or out, cycling can send fat-burning into overdrive, provided that you incorporate full-throttle sprints into your ride. Alternating between standing and sitting as you cycle, as most spin-style classes recommend, is also a good idea.
“Standing on a bike raises your heart rate so you burn more calories and also builds lean muscle in your shoulders, triceps, and core muscles,” Roberts says. “Outdoors, try to add short sprints between lampposts or bus stops to raise the intensity of your ride.”
Research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that two weeks of alternate-day interval training boosted cyclists’ fat-burning ability by 36 per cent. Outdoors, try hill climbing. Find a climb that takes five to ten minutes to reach the top and repeat two or three times.
Where to try it Spinning at Fitness First (fitnessfirst.co.uk), Psycle (psyclelondon.com), Cycle at Nuffield Gyms (nuffieldhealth.com), Les Mills Immersive Cycling at David Lloyd (davidlloyd.co.uk), Cyclebeat (cyclebeat.co.uk).
Zana Morris, a trainer to the well-heeled and time-poor, says high-intensity weight training “is the fastest way to boost strength, stamina and weight loss”, and her celebrity clients love the effects. It might seem contrary to suggest that pumping heavy weights will result in the pounds dropping off rather than your body bulking up, but the evidence is convincing. A trial at Harvard University published in the journal Obesity found that a group of healthy men who did 20 minutes of daily weight training had less increase in age-related belly fat than men who spent the same time doing aerobic exercise such as swimming and cycling.
A trial involving premenopausal women at the University of Pennsylvania showed that weight training twice a week prevented waistlines expanding, despite no dietary changes.
There are other pay-offs. In one particularly encouraging study carried out in January, researchers at the University of Alabama asked 100 female volunteers, all of whom were overweight and previously sedentary, to follow a strict 800-calorie-a-day diet alongside one of three exercise approaches: 40 minutes of walking or jogging on a treadmill at a brisk pace three times a week, a supervised upper and lower-body weight training session three times a week, or no exercise at all. All lost weight because of the diet, but the weight-training group, by incorporating more general movement into their lives, burnt more calories and would be more likely ward off weight regain in the future.
Where to try it Body Pump at gym chains such as David Lloyd and Fitness First and other gyms nationwide, high-intensity weight-training classes at gyms nationwide,
Tabata is a very intense way of working out — the session lasts only four minutes — in which you work out hard for 20 seconds, rest for ten seconds, for eight very intense rounds. Studies show that ultra-fast Tabata workouts really are miracle fat-burners. Researchers at the Auburn University Montgomery Kinesiology Laboratory got participants to perform a typical Tabata-style workout of 20 seconds of jump squat exercises with maximum effort followed by ten seconds of rest for a total of four minutes. Results showed they blasted an average 13.5 calories a minute (more than twice the amount you use swimming breaststroke) and doubled their metabolic rate for half an hour after they stopped.
Another study on behalf of the American Council on Exercise produced similar findings, with exercise physiologists showing that subjects averaged 86 per cent of their maximum heart rates and burnt up to 360 calories during a 20-minute session that included 16 gentle minutes of warm-up and cool-down and four very intense minutes of Tabata high-knee running, jumping jacks, burpees, mountain climbers, kettlebell swings or Russian twists.
The Olympic gymnast Louis Smith is among those who has used it to shed the pounds. He put on weight after the 2012 Olympics, when he relaxed his training. Last year, needing to get back into shape for the Commonwealth Games, Smith used Tabata to regain his six-pack quickly, claiming: “It feels like you’ve had a good gym session and because it’s so short you can slot it in easily.”
Steve Barrett, a trainer who has worked with various celebrities and sportsmen, including the Wales rugby union team, says that you need to be reasonably fit to try it. “Around two to three times a week, allowing at least 48 to 72 hours of rest between each session, is recommended, alongside other activity like running and cycling,” he says.
Where to try it The nearest you can get to Tabata-style classes are Grid at Virgin Active (virginactive.co.uk), HIIT 360 at David Lloyd (davidlloyd.co.uk) or HIIT Pro 90% at Fitness First (fitnessfirst.co.uk). There is also an official Tabata workout DVD available from Amazon, £13.99, to try at home.
David Beckham and his teenage son Brooklyn have said that they use boxing to stay in shape. Super-fit pop star Ellie Goulding is also a fan. Already popular in New York and Los Angeles, where fitness-centric boxing gyms such as Overthrow New York and Gloveworx are sprouting up everywhere, similar venues are opening here.
Regular gyms such as the Reebok Sports Club, Virgin Active and Gymbox are also offering boxing exercise classes, which teach versions of the sport. What draws fans is the sport’s reputation for toning upper body via jab, cut and upper hook, and lower body with sprints, skipping and non-stop movement. “It’s one of those sports that maximises use of the body’s large muscle groups to great effect,” says Professor Brewer.
Where to try it Virgin Active’s Body Combat; boxing classes available at gyms nationwide.
And why these won’t make you slim
A typical 50-minute class of hatha yoga burns off 144 calories, no better than heading out for a gentle stroll. Even a power yoga class of the same duration was shown to burn only 237 calories, half the amount you might expect to expend in an aerobics class.
According to the American Council on Exercise, a beginner’s class did not meet the recommended levels of exertion for improving even basic cardio-respiratory fitness, burning only 174 calories. Even advanced Pilates used up fewer calories (254) than most aerobic activities of the same duration.
The slower the pace, the slower the fat loss. Better to reduce the duration of your run and increase the intensity. Norwegian researchers found that a single four-minute burst of running on a treadmill at a hard pace three times a week was enough to boost the health and fitness levels of middle-aged men.
Weight loss will be slow if you plod endless lengths. As with running, if you increase your pace and reduce the duration of your workout, or if you add bursts of speed, results will come more quickly. Use a mixture of crawl, breaststroke and backstroke, with intervals to work every big muscle group in the body during a swim session if you want to slim down.
While 10,000 steps a day is widely regarded as the ultimate goal for fitness, to lose weight requires more effort. Studies show that you would probably need to tot up at least 16,000-20,000 steps a day before the pounds start dropping off.