Weight loss and mental benefits

Marianne in Hyde Park; photo by David Knight

Marianne in Hyde Park

Weight loss

Running is an excellent way to achieve lower levels of body fat and improved physical appearance.

The obesity epidemic

In England, the statistics are alarming.  According to the National Audit Office, one in five adults is obese, and two-thirds of men and half of women are overweight, causing about 30,000 premature deaths a year in the UK alone. Treating obesity costs the NHS at least £½ billion a year. The wider costs to the economy in lower productivity and lost output are estimated to be a further £2 billion each year. Nearly six in 10 adults, about 20 million people, need a change in lifestyles.[i]

It is not necessary to accept the stereotyped images of models portrayed in the media (many of whom are below their most healthy body weight) to recognise that many people in rich countries (and increasingly in developing countries too) would be better off if they were less fat.  Losing weight would improve their health, quality of life and life expectancy, as well as increasing their self-esteem and enjoyment of life.

Poor diet, especially processed and intensively produced food, and lack of exercise, are contributing to a major epidemic of obesity that is rapidly becoming the most important health challenge facing the world.  According to the World Health Organisation,

“the spectrum of problems seen in both developing and developed countries is having so negative an impact that obesity should be regarded as today’s principal neglected public health problem.[ii]

Running to lose weight

As we shall see in Chapter 6, running is an excellent way to lose weight, reduce body fat and improve your physical appearance.   If you eat more calories than you use, your body will store the extra energy as fat.  So to lose weight, you have to burn more calories than you eat. Running is an excellent way to increase the calories you use.

“It is a simple choice. Either I diet, and feel hungry all the time.  Or I run regularly, eat exactly what I want, and still control my weight.  I feel good about myself.”

Laura, runner for 6 years

Many runners find that, as their lifestyle becomes healthier, their choice of foods changes naturally and they instinctively begin to prefer more nutritious foods. So while they may still enjoy the occasional blow‑out on a tub of ice-cream or fast food, they know that they can do this now and again without feeling too guilty or hating themselves.

Exercise provides a much more positive framework for weight loss than dieting. While dieters often feel perpetually unsatisfied, and suffer from a negative self-image, runners usually benefit from a continuing sense of achievement, self-confidence, and a weight level that can be sustained in the long term without continuing self-denial.

The mental benefits of running

“Running is ‘my time’.  It’s the only time I don’t have to give to my boss, my husband, or my daughters.  It keeps me sane.”

Charlotte, mother of two, marketing manager and superwoman

In addition to the health and weight benefits of running, there is good evidence for the psychological benefits of exercise in general, and running in particular.  Surveys have shown a strong correlation between being fit and being happy.[iii] Exercise reduces anxiety levels and has been found to reduce depression (gentle running is now sometimes prescribed to patients with mild depressive symptoms).  Some studies have shown that exercise increases mental performance and creative thinking.

Studies of the correlation between exercise and personality produce some striking results.  Healthy adults who exercise regularly have greater energy, patience, humour, ambition, emotional stability, imagination, self‑sufficiency and optimism, and to be more amiable, graceful, good-tempered, elated and easy-going, than similar people who don’t exercise.[iv]

Of course, these studies don’t prove that exercise helps people to have these characteristics. It might be that people who already have these characteristics are more likely to exercise.  Scientists don’t know yet exactly how physical exercise reduces stress in a physical way.  There are chemicals – called endorphins – which are produced during exercise and which appear to reduce stress.  (These chemicals are also responsible for the sensation known as “runners’ high”).  The faster metabolism and more effective cardiovascular systems of fit people also appear to contribute to their mental well-being.

As well as reducing stress through its physical effects, running also creates a space in which we can get time away from sources of anxiety and pressure. As George Sheehan vividly portrayed, runners are better able to cope with the pressures of every‑day life, partly by permitting a different perspective on minor problems.

Many runners value their running because it gives them time alone, away from the pressures of work or family life. For them, there may be a simple pleasure in watching a city awake as dawn breaks; or enjoying a a run after work, perhaps as the sun goes down, or in the dark, as a way to shake off the stress of the day.

“Running is the physical break between my work world and my evening that allows me to have personal time with my family and friends.”

Phil McCubbins


[i] National Audit Office, Obesity in England, Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General, February 2001.

[ii] Report of a WHO Consultation on Obesity, 3-5 June 1997, Geneva, WHO/NUT/NCD/98.1

[iii] For a summary of these, see Tim Noakes, ‘The Lore of Running’, Oxford University Press, 2001, p718-723.

[iv] For a summary of these, see Tim Noakes, ‘The Lore of Running’, Oxford University Press, 2001, p718-723.

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