You Don't Have to Be a Runner

"I need to start running again."

I've thought or said that about one million times since becoming an adult. (When you're an adult, I've learned, your metabolism has some boundaries to what it can achieve. Erasing the effects of three IPAs and Taco Bell at 2 a.m. is no longer covered under my metabolism's policy.)

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Per magazine covers and gym teachers, I always thought cardio (and, by proxy, running) was the #1 way to tighten up. Because cardio burns a ton of calories, and calories help you burn fat, and when you burn fat, you're thin. Right?

I've been trying to use cardio to get smaller for 10+ years. Cardio workouts I've tried include:

  • Hip-Hop Abs DVDs from Beachbody
  • Dance classes
  • Walking quickly when I was no good at running
  • Running slowly (5.0 mph)
  • Running faster at intervals (5.0-7.5 mph)
  • Training for two half-marathons

To me, running seemed like the most logical way to get toned. Look at runners! They're lean. They have discernible calves. They look great in sports bras.

I remember a number of different stints when I'd take up a hardcore running regime, only to return to my couch potato ways (hey, I work on a computer!). For example:

  • Summer 2009: I started running from complete scratch, logging about 1-1.5 miles at a time.
  • Spring 2011: I left my desk at the publishing company every day at 4:45 to beat everyone else to the treadmill in my office's tiny gym. I did my first race (a 5K) during this time.
  • Winter 2012: I put a treadmill in my apartment's living room so I could exercise without going outside.
  • Most of 2013-2014: I ran at my office gym, trying to exercise and get back to my desk within 60-70 minutes. I did the Indy Mini in 2013 and 2014.

I was never great at running. Think more lumbering ox and less graceful gazelle. But I did it — and even dutifully increased my mileage — because that's what I thought thin people did.

Yet after years of going through the running motions and spending more time on the treadmill than ever, I was increasingly unhappy with the results. I did a DEXA body fat test last fall and was unhappy with that, too.

After doing a ton of online research, I decided to start strength training. I read that it was possible to change your body composition through lifting and body-weight exercises instead of never-ending runs, so I purchased a personal training package to do strength training 2x/week. A personal trainer definitely isn't required, but I was nervous that I couldn't figure out the equipment alone. I'm happy I took this step because a trainer helped me do exercises that I assumed were too difficult before.

Now that those three months of training are over, I realize that running is not required to change your body and get slimmer

While I haven't "arrived" at the picture of health by any means, I lost several pounds of pure body fat while simultaneously improving the way I look in three months. I accomplished this by cutting down on hours spent running and adding some plain and simple strength training (lifting weights, doing push-ups and lunges, and so on).

It's not rocket science, but exercise scientists do support this. These articles explain why strength training is so helpful for decreasing body fat and maintaining a healthy weight long-term.

There are plenty of people who are toned, trim, and run ten miles a day. There are also people who don't own a pair of running shoes, yet look just as good.

It all comes down to what works for you. There's no one-size-fits-all approach to fitness. If running isn't your thing, fine. If pumping iron isn't your thing, that's fine, too. The point is to find a mix of heart-pumping activity and strength training that you enjoy and get results from.

I still enjoy spending 20-30 minutes on the treadmill a few times a week, mainly doing intervals to boost my heart rate. It's my personal time to listen to upbeat music and sweat away stress, and I like it. But now I can relax when I run, knowing that I have more tools in my arsenal beyond the treadmill to stay in shape.

If you desperately wants to tone up but struggle with running, just begging for it to be over, I hope this encourages you. I used to think that I had to wait until I reached a certain size or thinness to begin lifting weights, as if excess fat would somehow hide the muscles below. But that's not true. You can start lifting weights and doing body-weight exercises today, no low BMI or special skinny status required.

I would love to hear your tips about how you've gotten the best results from working out! Please tweet me or leave me a comment.

Copyright-free image from Gratisography.