We all have our reasons for why we started to run. For some of us, it’s the personal challenge of trying to accomplish a goal as seemingly impossible as completing a chosen race, whether it be as small scale as a local 5k or as large scale as a marathon. For some of us, the motivation to run stems from a desire to get healthy – to change our bad personal habits and maybe set an example for our kids. For others, there is a simple element of vanity – we’re unhappy with the possibly overweight person we see staring back at us in the mirror, and we feel the need to do something serious about it. For me, the decision to become a runner involved all of these factors, but the ones I want to focus on here are the latter – running for health and weight loss, and yes, a touch of vanity.
A controversial article came out in Time Magazine in early August that questioned the efficacy of exercising to lose weight (“Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin,” by John Cloud). Reading this article was frustrating, because the argument it was trying to make ran contrary to my personal experience, as well as the experiences of so many that I have read about on-line and/or been told about in person. The basic premise of the article can be summed up by the final paragraph, quoted below:
“In short, it’s what you eat, not how hard you try to work it off, that matters more in losing weight. You should exercise to improve your health, but be warned: fiery spurts of vigorous exercise could lead to weight gain. I love how exercise makes me feel, but tomorrow I might skip the VersaClimber — and skip the blueberry bar that is my usual postexercise reward.”
To me, any article that makes even the slightest suggestion that people skip exercise is ridiculous, and even borderline dangerous. Sure, there are times during my training when the workload that I put in is balanced out by the amount of food that I consume, and my weight remains more or less stationary. However, it generally only takes a small tweak to one or the other for the pounds to start coming off (or back on), and it can happen pretty quickly. The point I’m trying to make here is that exercise and diet are both important, and when it comes to weight loss, I truly believe that you can’t ignore one and focus solely on the other. To achieve lasting weight loss requires a combination of exercise and being conscious about your food intake. Stop exercising and you’ll probably gain weight. Keep exercising and dramatically increase food intake and you’ll probably gain weight. Decrease exercise and increase food intake and you’ll gain weight even faster (and who hasn’t experienced this during the winter holidays???). However, when you pay careful attention to both diet and exercise, it’s relatively easy to maintain weight or begin dropping off the pounds. The point of this post isn’t to take apart the Time Magazine article (others have done this quite well – see episodes 140 and 141 of the excellent Fitness Rocks Podcast by Dr. Monte Ladner for example), but rather to tell a little of my own story and to direct you to the stories of others who have realized a dramatic personal transformation by adding exercise (in this case running) to their lives.
For me, one of the major impetuses for becoming a runner was a photograph. It was May 2007, and I was at my college’s graduation ceremony (I teach in the Biology Dept.), and as is typical during such events, I had a number of pictures taken with graduating students. In looking at some of them afterward, it became clear that I had really let myself slip – I was disgusted by what I saw (see picture at right – I never thought I’d post this!), and something needed to be done about it.
I had run on and off for several years, but never more than 2-3 miles at a time, and the one time I tried to run over 3 miles I nearly passed out. Starting a new job and having 2 kids had eaten up my personal time, and exercise was one of the first things to go. My weight was the highest it had ever been (pushing 190 lbs on my 5’10″ frame), and I was largely sedentary. I needed to change my habits, so I began to run, slowly at first, but in ever increasing amounts. My wife and I made a pact that we would train for and run a 4-mile race in Maine that July, and train we did. I began to increase my speed and distance, and successfully completed the 4-miler in 30:41, a pace of 7:40 min/mile. After completing the race, I was hooked on running for good, and since then haven’t turned back. In fact, I think there has been only one full week in the past 2.5 years where I have not run at all (due to illness), and most weeks I get in at least 20 miles (more than that lately).
My speed and distance increased dramatically with additional training, and I re-ran that same 4-mile race the following year in 26:04, a pace of 6:30 min/mile. I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, but the pride that came with discovering a decent runner inside my formerly sedentary self was one of the primary factors that kept me going – I honestly didn’t know that I had the ability to do some of the things that I have done since those early days of running in 2007. I now own a 5k PR of 18:51 (I struggled to pass the 21:00 3 mile test for varsity soccer in high school!), a half-marathon PR of 1:29:47, and have completed 3 full marathons with a personal best of 3:32:35. Marathons 4 and 5 are set to be run in the next 3 months (Manchester, NH on Nov.1 and Disney in January). If you had told me 2.5 years ago that these things could be possible for me, I would’ve said you were crazy. The point I’m trying to make is that if I can do this, anyone can – I believe that we humans were meant to run, and all it takes is a bit of motivation and determination. A simple photograph was enough to get me off of the couch and eventually running marathons – if that’s all it took for me, then maybe that’s all it would take for you.
Getting back to the topic of weight loss – my own weight now hovers around 170 lbs (high 160′s right now), which is about a 20 lb decrease from where I started. There have been ups and downs for sure, but I’m in a good place now and I owe it all to running. So when I read stories saying that exercise doesn’t lead to weight loss (like the Time article cited above), I just don’t buy it – my experience doesn’t support those reports. Here’s the side-by side for me (left = May 2007, right = October 2009):
Some might say that my story is anecdotal, that I’m just one data point that doesn’t fit the usual pattern, but I don’t buy that either. My story is not unique – in fact, more often than not the runners I talk with on-line or in person share similar stories, and many of those are far more dramatic and inspirational than mine. With that, I’d like to share some of their stories, and provide further evidence that anyone can become a runner, and in the process realize a physical transformation that you might not otherwise think was possible.
If you have a story that you’d like me to link to or share, please send me a link either via e-mail (use the Kontactr button below), by leaving a comment below, or via Twitter (I’m @oblinkin). I look forward to reading your stories and sharing them here!
Stories of Transformation Due to Running:
Three and a half years ago, at the age of 42, Brian weighed 260 lbs and was diagnosed with Type II Diabetes. Since then he’s lost 100 pounds, and keeps the weight off with running. You can read his about his personal transformation at: http://unclebooboo.
Greg Chance (@gchance on Twitter)
In 2003, Greg weighed over 250 pounds. He started walking, then running, and has now lost over 60 lbs and completed his first full marathon in May 2009. You can read his personal story here: http://gregchance.blogspot.com/2009/05/shall-we-get-autobiographical.html. You can also read the report from his first marathon here.
Lacy Jaye Hansen (@lacyjhansen on Twitter)
Lacy used dieting to lose weight after her pregnancy in 2006, took it too far, and used running as a way to get herself back on track and eating healthier. You can read her story here: http://blog.lacyjhansen.com/2009/06/running-lite.html
Jay Parker (@jayparker on Twitter)
Jay has lost about 35 pounds since becoming a runner – you can see his before and after pictures here: http://www.dailymile.com/people/jayparker/entries/542390. Amazing!
Steve Poling (@drpoling on Twitter)
Steve became a runner in January 2009, has lost 50 lbs in the last ten months, and will be running his first marathon in December. You can read his story on his brand-new running blog at: http://drpoling.blogspot.com/2009/10/transformed-or-why-i-keep-running.html.
Tanya Reynolds (@tanyamr on Twitter)
Tanya decided to get healthy in 2008, the year of her 40th birthday. Using a combination of diet and exercise, she has lost over 85 pounds since early 2008, and has become an avid runner. She states that it took her 8-9 months before she truly developed a love for running, but has been going strong ever since. You can read Tanya’s story at: http://tanyareynolds.blogspot.com/2009/07/my-story-how-i-lost-85-pounds.html.