The Biggest Mental and Physical Benefits of Working Out

We’ve got some happy news that will rev up your exercise routine: The moment you head out on your run, launch into your spin class, or start your Pilates session, the benefits of working out kick in. “We see changes in the body within seconds,” says Michele Olson, Ph.D., senior clinical professor of exercise physiology at Huntington University in Montgomery, Alabama. Your heart rate increases and blood is delivered to your muscles. You start burning calories for fuel. And you get an almost immediate mood boost. As little as 30 minutes of cardio (including these top three styles) three to five days a week can add six years to your life, according to research at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas. Do that plus a couple of days of resistance training and you’ll not only live longer but also look younger, feel happier, and have more energy. Keep reading for our timeline on the quick and long-lasting benefits of working out regularly.

As You Work Out…

Your lungs are getting stronger. When you do cardio, your brain sends signals to them to help you breathe faster and deeper, delivering extra oxygen to your muscles.

Your motivation is at its peak. Thanks to a flood of endorphins, which trigger the classic runner’s high, a big benefit of working out is that you feel psyched and energized.

You’re burning cals. “During typical cardio exercise, your body taps mainly fat for fuel,” Olson says.

Within One Hour of Exercise…

You’re protecting yourself against colds, flu, you name it. Exercise elevates your level of immunoglobulins, which are proteins that help bolster your immune system and ward off infection. “Every sweat session you do can help strengthen your immune function for about 24 hours,” says Cedric Bryant, Ph.D., chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise.

You’re feeling zen. Mood-enhancing chemicals, like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, flood your brain for a couple of hours post-exercise. This benefits of working out lasts for up to a day if you’ve competed in an endurance event, like a marathon. Stress? What stress?

You’re blasting more calories, even at rest. “For every 100 calories you burn during your workout, you can expect to burn 15 calories after,” Bryant says. If you went on a three-mile run, you would torch about 300 calories, which could mean zapping an extra 45 later.

You’re hungry. Now that you’ve burned through your energy stores, your blood sugar levels are dropping. Just how low they go depends on how much you ate or drank before your workout and how long and intensely you exercised, says Kristine Clark, Ph.D., R.D., director of sports nutrition at Pennsylvania State University in University Park.

Within One Day of Exercise…

You’re adding lean muscle. If you did a strength-training routine, your muscles are now starting to rebuild themselves and repair the microscopic tears that come with lifting weights, says Paul Gordon, Ph.D., chair of the department of Health, Human Performance, and Recreation at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Preliminary research shows that women respond to and recover from resistance training faster than men.

Your heart is healthier. One of the major benefits of working out can be found in how your heart functions. One sweat session lowers your blood pressure for up to 16 hours. (Did you know the number of push-ups you can do may predict your heart disease risk?)

You’re a quick study. You’re super alert and focused post-exercise. That’s because a good workout increases the flow of blood and oxygen to your brain, says Henriette van Praag, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical science at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

Within One Week of Regular Exercise…

Your risk of diabetes goes down. The more you work out, the greater your sensitivity to insulin. That, in turn, lowers your blood sugar levels, reducing your risk of type 2 diabetes.

You can push harder next time. Your VO2 max, a measure of your endurance and aerobic fitness, has already increased by about 5 percent, according to Olson. Translation: You can go a little harder and longer than you could before.

You’re slimmer (if that’s your goal). Cutting 500 calories a day through exercise and diet will help you drop one pound a week.

Within One Month of Regular Exercise…

You’re getting stronger. Those eight-pound weights don’t feel quite as heavy, because your muscular endurance is starting to increase, Bryant says. Ten reps is no longer a struggle; you can now do 12 or 13.

You’re blasting belly fat. After four weeks of regular workouts, your body is ditching flab and gaining muscle. Overweight people who took part in a four-week program of moderate aerobic exercise in an Australian study reduced ab fat by 12 percent.

You’ve got more brainpower. Working out activates growth-stimulating proteins in the brain that may help form new cells there.

Within One Year of Regular Exercise…

Working out is way easier. “Your endurance and aerobic fitness can increase by up to 25 percent after eight to 12 weeks of regular training,” Gordon says. In a year you’ll notice a big benefit of working out: Your endurance can more than double.

You’re a fat-melting machine. Your cells are now super-efficient at breaking down fat and using it as fuel, Olson says. That means you’re zapping more flab 24-7. 

Your heart rate is lower. Thanks to regular workouts, your heart is pumping more efficiently. For instance, if your initial resting heart rate was 80 beats a minute, it will have dropped to 70 or lower. The less work your heart has to do, the healthier you’ll be.

You’ve cut your cancer risk. In a study of more than 14,800 women, those who had the highest levels of aerobic fitness were 55 percent less likely to die from breast cancer than those who were sedentary. Women considered moderately fit had about a 33 percent lower risk of developing the disease. Exercise may also help protect against endometrial, lung, and ovarian cancer, researchers say. (Some women are using working out as a way to reclaim their bodies after cancer, too.)

You’re adding years to your life. Fitness buffs have better telomeres, the DNA that bookends our chromosomes and protects them from damage, which can slow the aging process, studies show.

You feel fantastic. Just four months of exercise is as good as prescription meds at boosting mood and reducing depression, according to a study at Duke University. Keep it up and not only will your life be longer, it will be happier, too!

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4 Tips to Get Even More Benefits of Working Out

As if all those benefits of working out weren’t enough, we scored a few bonus tips from the pros for how to turn up the volume even more.

  1. Strength train twice a week or more. It will supercharge your metabolism so that you’ll continue to burn calories for up to 38 hours. Make the most of this benefit of working out by turning up the intensity of your workouts to burn more fat and calories. Raise the incline on the treadmill, run up stairs or hills, crank the resistance on the stationary bike.
  2. Do fewer crunches and more planks. (Might we suggest our 30-day plank challenge?) To ace high plank form, begin on all fours, hands under shoulders, knees under hips, then lower forearms to floor and extend legs straight behind you, balancing on toes. Keeping abs engaged and back flat, hold for 30 seconds; do 10 reps three or four times a week. Limit crunches to no more than three sets of 15 at a time. Anything beyond that isn’t doing you much good, experts say.
  3. Add LBs. Once you can do 15 reps a set, switch to a weight that’s two pounds heavier and go back to 10 reps (the last two should feel hard). Work your way up to 15 again and then repeat the process. By increasing the number of pounds you lift, you’ll sculpt and strengthen better and faster. 
  4. Try HIIT (or other interval-style workouts). You may feel even happier. Women who do interval training experience a bigger boost in mood immediately following their workout than those who exercise at a steady pace, Olson says.

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