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Running for Weight Loss – Stories of Personal Transformation

8/17/05 - not losing weight

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:


Brian
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.livejournal.com/72803.html.

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.

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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

Comments

  1. lacyjhansen says:

    It’s great to have a little more liberty with eating, but sadly there still is a balance required with diet and exercise.
    Congrats on your hard work paying off. And thanks for including me in your story!

  2. michellejacobs says:

    Wow Peter totally and incredibly inspiring story. I had no idea. You are such a great runner WOW!!! You look awesome!!! Congrats and thank you for sharing your story!!!

    • Pete Larson says:

      Michelle,

      Thanks – I’ve been thinking about this post for awhile, and reading everyone else’s stories inspired me to go with it!

      Pete

  3. Tinabiner says:

    There is no doubt in my mind that exercise and endurance training in particular can reset your metabolism at a higher threshold which results in a healthy weight for your body type as well as greater energy and mental spirits.

  4. Great story. I’ve been meaning to write about that Time article for a while – so many flaws with the conclusions the author draws. Congrats on your own weight loss experience with running! I’ve always lost (and gained!) weight fairly quickly (been as heavy as 225 back in the day, am currently 160), and have found that a combination of diet exercise is key for me to lose weight. But I’ve also found that running speeds that process for me by a.) burning lots and lots of calories, b.) providing great motivation for keeping an eye on one’s diet – don’t want to carry a pound more than you have to down that 26.2 mile stretch of road, and c.) decreasing stress, which I think makes weight loss a lot easier. And of course once you lose what you want to lose, running makes it easier to keep it off while still enjoying the good things here and there – steak, dark beer, pizza, cream sauces, martinis…

    Great 5K PR. Man, you’re fast. Wish I had that kind of foot turnover!

    • Pete Larson says:

      Ernesto – I’ve jokingly told a lot of people that I run so that I can eat,
      and there is actually a lot of truth to that. Running lets me be a little
      less careful with eating (and drinking) the things that I like, and I don’t
      necessarily think that’s a bad thing. And you’re right, it makes me much
      more conscious of what I put into my body – every pound does count over 26.2
      miles, Thanks for the comment about the 5K PR, but I’d say the same thing
      about your marathon time at Baystate!

      Pete

  5. caraccident says:

    Hi, Congratulations to the site owner for this marvelous work you’ve done. It has lots of useful and interesting data.

  6. Paul Henry says:

    Call me the Zombie master for digging up dead posts if you like…

    I just read the article, and for me the point its making is not that exercise is useless in weight loss. But that too many people compensate the exercise with additional calories (often bad calories as a treat for ‘working out’) and negate the calorific loss from the exercise.

    The ‘now i deserve it’ menatality is fine as long as you are aware of just what calorific load you burnt off and what your treating yourself with.

    I see a lot of begginer runners starting off with the goal of weightloss, and while the exercise is important for its many health benifits, most of them will see bigger effects from controlling their diet more closely and seeing the exercise as the ‘cherry on the top’ rather than something that allows them to be ‘bad’ occasionally.

    Im also not entirely sure that you can allways contribute the success of runners in weight loss just to their running, along with the runnign often comes a desire to be more healty in general which is often accompanied by a modification to diet.

    But i dont contest that those of us who are ambitious runners find it easy to maintain our weight. The though of the extra weight that the family pack of M&M’s will create for your next race is usually a pretty good motivator for asserting your will power and putting it back on the shelf…. usually…because as the article mentions sometime i am feeling so hungry after a long run that i say bugger it … I deserve them. ;)

    After all since starting running Ive dropped my weight by over 40 pounds… now if i can just cut a further 5 before the next marathon… damn you Mars Inc and your M&M’s

    • Pete Larson says:

      Wow, haven’t had a comment on this one in a long time! I pretty much agree with all that you say here Paul. Well put.

  7. I’ve yet to read the Time article myself, but I’ve heard enough about it to know it has drawn a very poor conclusion. I have never run for weight loss, yet despite a very hearty appetite and not denying myself much of anything, I have still lost weight since I began running. I also had some amazing bloodwork results after a year of training and saw my already good cholesterol levels significantly improved just through running. Great blog! I’m sure I’ll be back!

    • Pete Larson says:

      Kristen – Thanks for the comment! I checked out your blog and saw that you
      were Ernesto’s wife – made for some fun reading! My wife is also a runner,
      though she has had some hip issues lately that have slowed her down a bit
      (being 4 months pregnant doesn’t help either…). I love that we can both
      be active adults – it sets a great example for our little ones (ages 4,
      almost 6, and soon to arrive in April!). -Pete

  8. francesco perri says:

    interesting, you’re just a normal dude!  that is great.  it’s easy to get intimidated by other runners, for instance as a vegan i’m well into what scott jurek does but i’m no where near that well, good at banging out ultra distances, though 10-15 milers are now no big deal.  going vegan helped me drop 25 lbs, and i’ve kept it off by continuing to eat right and upping my miles.  i look forward to hearing your podcast and have added you to my reader feed so keep the posts coming! 

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