How to Start Running Today

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According to Running USA, an organization that tracks national trends, the number of women who finished a running race soared from 791,000 in 1987 to 4.4 million in 2007. Why the attraction?

In a poll of 8,000 runners by the same organization, women said they run to sculpt a toned physique, stave off stress, and achieve personal goals. And those are just a few of running's many benefits.

But perhaps what draws people to the sport more than anything is that everyone can do it. You don't need special skills, pricey gear, athletic ability, or even good genes. All running requires is a pair of shoes and a little determination. Still, it can be intimidating, so we came up with this failproof plan to get you started and keep you on track.

More: Basic Gear for a Beginning Runner

The Perks of Pavement Pounding

Anyone who has hung out in the treadmill area of the gym or watched a road race knows that runners have hot bodies. It takes a ton of effort to move your body weight without assistance, "which is why running burns more calories per minute than pretty much any other exercise," says Lesley Mettler, a running coach in Seattle. Case in point: The average 140-pound woman who runs at a 10-minute mile pace for an hour burns 512 calories. Compare that to an hour spent doing Pilates (384 calories), walking (225 calories), or swimming (448 calories). Torching all those calories sheds body fat to reveal the lean muscle below. So not only do runners have enviable legs, but their entire bodies look trim and toned.

Lose 10 pounds (or more) in six weeks with Women's Health's Run to Lose plan.

Take up running and you'll get benefits beyond just looking amazing — you'll also live longer and stay healthier. Researchers at Stanford University discovered that regular runners have a 39 percent lower risk of dying an early death compared with healthy adults of the same age. "Virtually every system in your body benefits from running," says Christine Hinton, a running coach in Crofton, Maryland. Study after study shows that running can help prevent cardiovascular disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, osteoporosis, and even cancer. Most recently, a 2009 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that running is as good a bone-builder as strength training.

In addition to giving you a physical edge, running improves your mental health too. A 2008 study found that areas in the brain associated with mood are flooded with endorphins—the feel-good hormones—after exercise. This is especially true with running. "When you run, it's just you, your body, and the environment," says Kristen Dieffenbach, Ph. D., a sports psychology consultant and assistant professor of athletic coaching at West Virginia University. Your arms, legs, and breathing fall into a rhythm that eventually lulls your brain into a meditative "no-stress zone" in which bills, boyfriends, and bosses fade away.

More: 5 Key Stretches for Runners

At Last: The Truth Behind Running's Bad Press

Despite its many advantages, running has its share of critics who say the relentless pounding ruins your knees, leads to chronic back pain, and causes wrinkles. But experts say the rewards of running far outweigh the risks. A recent review in the Journal of Anatomy found that running does not increase your risk of osteoarthritis, the cartilage decay that causes pain and inflammation in hip and knee joints. Nor does it wreck your back, according to a research review in the Southern Medical Journal. Researchers suggest that because running builds stronger muscles and ligaments, it actually has a protective effect on these areas.

More: 3 Reasons Strength-Training Will Boost Your Running