Hey there – are you feeling out of sorts in your body? Feeling “too big” or “too wide” and wanting to change? There are a lot of things that people try to change their bodies…does running burn belly fat…or is something else better?
I’ve got you.
Hi, I’m Colleen, a non-diet-y registered dietitian here to help you feel good in your body and to cultivate eating and wellness habits that you truly love. That may be running, or it might not. I’ll explain everything.
But first off: let’s talk about belly fat.
Is belly fat bad?
Let’s talk about it. Our society has the wildly unrealistic expectation that all of our bellies should be flat as an ironing board. Even better: with six-pack abs. Doesn’t matter if your genes won’t shape you in that way or if you just had a baby or ate a taco or two – flat abs or bust.
Whew. In an era of crop tops and photoshopping, I totally understand wanting to have a flatter belly. You might even be thinking about health: doesn’t your waist circumference matter? It might, but I’ll explain how to approach those health goals in just a moment.
It’s important to think about our health and wellness goals in a way that serves our mental AND physical health. Real health honors the things that we can (and the things that we absolutely can’t) change.
Picture two wonderful doggos: a scrappy little Chihuahua and a fluffy German Shepherd. Both may go on long walks every single day, but no amount of running is going to shrink the German Shepherd into a tiny Chihuahua. They are each beautiful examples of the genes that they were born with.
And even if you were to take the German shepherd on super duper long runs and limit her kibble, she may get really lean, but she probably isn’t going to feel all that great. Her sole focus might be on food and becoming a counter thief, anxious and irritable.
As much as society would have us believe that everything is possible through enough willpower, we can’t just decide the way we want our bodies to look. It’s actually NOT all about drive & determination, even though those darn “beauty” magazines would have you believe that.
And – even more important – we can’t just “spot” burn fat. My, how I wish I could go back and tell my high school self that: I’d have saved myself from a lot of heartache (and a lot of punishing sit-ups).
Belly fat is normal
It’s very NORMAL to carry some fat around your middle!
Actually NOT having any fat may be worse. If your body fat levels are too low, it is a signal that you’re not adequately fueled. In this case, you might lose your period and have your hormones get all wonky.
If your period hasn’t been all that regular – or missing entirely – you might want to give this post a skim: How To Get Your Period Back – Period Diet To Regulate Your Cycle.
How much belly fat is OK? You and your body get to figure out your sweet spot where you feel and function well.
Now I know you might be thinking “But the research shows belly fat is so bad for you! It’s tied to worse health outcomes!” and ya know what? Fair point! But there is one very important thing to point out…. Correlation does not mean causation.
Just because someone is worse off health-wise and also has more belly fat doesn’t mean it was the belly fat that CAUSED the not-so-fab health status. I would want to know more about this person’s health-promoting behaviors.
- Did they nourish their body with nutrient-rich foods?
- Did they make an effort to move their body in a way that felt good and that they were capable of?
- Had they been working to improve their mental well-being, ease stress, and get enough sleep?
Those ACTIONS are what impact our health, whether or not they impact your belly fat. .
Another way to think about it is this: in the summer months, more shark attacks occur because more people are going to the beach. That makes sense, right? But also in the summer months ice cream sales increase. Are shark attacks correlated – aka – happening at the same time? Sure thing!
But would you say the ice cream sales are what CAUSES the shark attacks? Probs not.
The same goes for health and belly fat.
Introducing: your set point
The best weight for you is something that is called a set point. The set point is actually a range of a few pounds at which your mental and physical health is thriving. You have a good level of energy, you aren’t obsessed with food or food rules and you can maintain this weight without trying too hard.
Check out this post for more info about your set point: Set Point Weight Theory: What It Is & How To Find It.
Here’s what might be the most surprising thing about weight, set point, and body fat as an Intuitive Eating dietitian: I can’t predict what your best weight, set point, or body fat levels *should* be. Some people might lose weight when eating intuitively, some may gain and others may simply maintain their weight. That’s between you and your perfectly capable body that is worthy of respect right now.
So what is healthy? Your habits matter, as does your why. Let’s explore that now.
Exercise shouldn’t be a punishment
Running *can* be a great activity…if you actually like doing it.
Don’t get me wrong: movement is something that can serve your physical and mental health.
But – and this is very important – movement shouldn’t be a punishment for eating or punishment for your body for looking a certain way.
Your why matters.
If your reason to exercise is about a certain number on the scale or a certain size of jeans, that is a motivation that will cause resentment.
But if you’re moving because you enjoy it, enjoy being able to sleep better, and your body generally feels good doing it – enjoy. For me, that’s running (and my body pump classes).
For other people, walking, bike riding or swimming might actually be their jam. All good!
The reason behind your choices is the difference here.
And your reasons might make or break how often you actually exercise.
People who enjoy their exercise will be more consistent
There was a recent study that looked at usual exercise patterns in mid-life women and divided the women up based on how they talked about their own bodies. The women that focused on calories and their weight were categorized as “body shapers”. The women who didn’t use that kind of terminology were placed in the “non-body-shaper” group.
Here’s where it gets interesting. The women, all of them, weighed about the same amount. But the non-body-shapers tended to exercise a lot more.
Surprise surprise: we tend to do things that we like more than the things that we dread.
The takeaway is that we’re more likely to perceive exercise positively and actually do it when we focus on our well-being rather than our weight. For some, the incentive may be an improved mood or less stress. Others may find that exercise makes them feel physically and mentally stronger or more in control of their lives.
Check out this post for more info about how to build a constructive relationship with movement: Fall in Love with Intuitive Exercise. And wouldn’t you know, we call this “intuitive exercise”, just like we call our relationship with food “Intuitive Eating”. If it ain’t broke, right?
Benefits of Exercise
So, it is probably no surprise that there are many benefits of movement. We just have to do it for the right reasons.
Eating kale can be a healthy choice, but if you hate kale, forcing yourself to eat it isn’t a healthy choice for you. Make sense?
In that same vein, running can be a healthy choice, if you actually enjoy it and are doing it in celebration of what your body can do, to lower your stress levels, and to get some time to yourself (or as a chance to connect with your running buddies. You do you boo boo).
But, as we said earlier, forcing yourself to run even if you don’t like it, are injured, or just for the sake of changing your body is doing this activity for the wrong reasons.
If you take up running and generally enjoy it, you may notice changes in your body, including a reduction in belly fat. But just as a reminder, we don’t get to pick and choose where changes happen in our bodies. If your habits are changing your belly fat, you’re probably observing changes elsewhere in your body, too.
Many factors influence belly fat
This may surprise you, but there are actually a lot of other factors that influence how much belly fat you have right now.
Some we’ve already covered, such as your overall exercise habits and genetics, but that actually isn’t all.
One factor that is worth mentioning is your stress hormone levels. We’re talkin’ cortisol, folks.
Research has shown that folks with more belly fat tend to have higher cortisol levels. Cortisol, when it helps you to escape physical danger – is a great thing. But the fight or flight response that cortisol creates isn’t all that great to experience 24/7 for a long time. High cortisol levels for a long time have consequences, one of which is a greater risk of belly fat.
Not only that, but stress can actually slow your metabolism down…making it more likely that you’ll gain weight.
And you know what can spike your cortisol levels faster than your boss on a deadline or a saber-toothed tiger? Long ass runs. Or running because you’re “punishing” yourself for being a certain size or because you ate some Oreos last night.
So: just like variety is the way to go for having a nourishing meal plan, a variety of movements is great, too. If you like some HIIT exercises, sprints, or long runs, you’re not injured, and you’re not doing the exercise as penance – enjoy it. But also mix in some meditation, walks, yoga, and strength training.
If you love running – go for it!
I’m a runner- I love running! My run of choice is a 25k (15.5 miles). I usually do it every 2 years- every year is too draining and I lose my spark with running!
I’ve done this race four times now. I notice a DRASTIC difference when I focus on WHY I’m running and I’m actually more motivated to do it than when I think about what it may/may not do to my body.
That’s a wrap
In a society that is entrenched in diet culture and fatphobia, I totally get it that you may want to change your body in order to feel like you fit in or are worthy.
Gorgeous: you’re worthy right now. You don’t need to change your belly fat…and might not even be able to. Your genes are running the show.
If you love running – go for it.
If you don’t – skip it! Find other ways to move in a way that celebrates your strength and resilience and makes you feel like the queen you are.
And if you’re like most people, you’re probably worried about gaining weight if you don’t do the running, count the calories or keep track of every little bite you eat. I hear you. That’s why I made a comprehensive guide all about how your weight may (or may) not change as you let go of dieting. I cover all of the common questions in juicy detail: check out the weight gain guide right here.
Intuitive eating sounds great but…won’t I just gain weight?!
Find out what might happen to your weight when you get rid of your food rules, the research behind Intuitive Eating, and why if your goal is long-term health, breaking up with diets is the way to go.