Did you resolve to get to the gym more this year? Sadly, most new exercisers quit within six months of starting a program, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. Expecting immediate results in the form of muscle tone or weight loss makes it easy to go back to old habits when goals take longer than you’d like. Setting reasonable expectations at the start may help you stick with your program long enough to reap exercise’s benefits — immediate ones and ones that you’ll see over time.
Immediate Benefits of Exercise: Improved Mood and More
When you begin exercising, bodily changes occur within seconds, says Michele Olson, professor of exercise science at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala.
“Your heart rate speeds up and extra blood is delivered to your muscles,” she says. “Your metabolic machinery gets into action right away, increasing the rate of calories you burn. This provides the extra nutrient and oxygen needs of your active muscles.”
Your mood should also improve almost immediately, says Heather A. Hausenblas, professor of kinesiology at the School of Applied Health Sciences at Jacksonville University, Jacksonville, Fla.
Although weight loss takes time, blood fats like triglycerides drop after just one exercise session.
— Michele Olson, Auburn University at Montgomery
“Your brain releases a number of different feel-good neurotransmitters — brain chemicals — including endorphins, [responsible for] the ‘runner’s high,’ and serotonin, also known for its role in mood and depression,” Hausenblas says. In fact, short, 10-minute bouts of activity improve focus and concentration, she adds. “You will also quickly sleep better, feel better, have more energy and be less stressed,” notes Hausenblas.
After a Week or Two: Weight Loss, Tone and Flexibility
When you implement a regular exercise regime, you can see a difference in the numbers on the scale in as little as a week, says Hausenblas. “If you combine your physical activity with healthy eating changes and reasonable calorie consumption, you will see bigger weight loss.”
Keep in mind that in order to lose a pound of fat you need to create a calorie deficit of 3,500 calories, says Olson. So to lose a pound in a week you’ll need to either cut out 500 calories a day, burn 500 extra calories a day or do a combination of eating less and moving more. “Although weight loss takes time, blood fats like triglycerides drop after just one exercise session,” says Olson.
If you’re striving for greater flexibility, a week of stretching should enable you to feel more limber and agile, says Hausenblas.
Consistent strength training for the entire body (avoid focusing only on the “vanity muscles,” such as biceps or abs), practiced alongside cardio and eating a healthy diet can show the beginnings of muscle definition in as little as two weeks, says Hausenblas.
Within Three Weeks: Cardiovascular Benefits
Pushing yourself with cardio four to five days a week should start to produce major changes within two to three weeks, says Hausenblas.
“When you exercise, heart rate increases to circulate more oxygen (via the blood) at a quicker pace,” she says. “The more you exercise, the more efficient the heart becomes at this process, so you can work out harder and longer. Eventually, this lowers resting heart rate in fit people.”
An average adult’s heart beats between 60 to 100 beats per minute, while a trained athlete may have a resting heart rate as low as 40 to 60 bpm. In addition, the growth of new blood vessels leads to a decrease in blood pressure as you become more fit.
Long-Term Benefits of Exercise: Many
The impact of exercise doesn’t change if you’re over 50, either, says Olson. “The body responds similarly regardless of age. Research studies on the benefits of weight training show that those in their 70s and 80s experience the same 20 percent increase in strength after just eight weeks.”
And there’s plenty of other change happening.
“Despite slow-to-see changes in the mirror, the inside of your body and the health enhancements experienced by your key body organs come on quickly,” says Olson. So while weight loss and muscle tone may be your initial motivation, continuing a regular exercise and overall healthy lifestyle routine is vital to maintain the improvements you gain.
Regular physical activity not only helps you feel and look younger but helps you stay independent longer, too. Exercise also lowers your risk for a variety of conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, obesity and high blood pressure.
“Regular exercise, by building strength and stamina, prevents loss of bone mass and improves balance, actually reducing your risk of falling,” says Hausenblas.
In addition, cardiovascularly fit older adults (55 to 74 years) show more active brains and better memory, according to a new study from Boston University Medical Center. Fit older adults showed increased brain activity patterns in regions of the brain associated with typical age-related decline.
And while changes in hormones, metabolism, bone density and muscle mass decline with age, you can still derive a sense of accomplishment from physical activity, says Hausenblas.
“A sedentary lifestyle takes a much greater toll on athletic ability than biological aging,” she says.
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