What's the difference between a fit life and one that, well, isn't? More often than not, it's just a question of perspective. At first, training hard may not make sense, but you do it anyway. Then, over a period of weeks and months, it begins to make sense. Then, one day, you realize it doesn't make sense not to train, and fitness becomes integral to who you are.
The initial push to get fit can spring from something personal—like a doctor's warning or a telltale photograph—but it can also come from hearing one stat or fact that really seems to bring everything into focus.
Any one of these five facts could be the thing that pushes you over the edge, or keeps you there for life instead of mere months. Change your mind today, and change your life for good!
Fact 1: Getting In Shape Now Will Make It Easier To Get Back There Later
Each strength-training session you perform is, slowly but surely, ensuring your body's ability to bounce back if you ever slip back into a sedentary state.
Yes, muscle indeed has "memory." Not in the same way your mind does—it doesn't hold a grudge over that particularly gruesome leg workout—but it sets you up to come back faster after a layoff, according to research out of the University of Oslo.
According to Kristian Gundersen, lead researcher of the study that appeared in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, our muscles "remember" their former strength levels, perhaps indefinitely. Specifically, training muscle generates new nuclei, local memory mechanisms in the muscle that help to explain the long-lasting effects of training and the ease with which previously trained individuals are more easily retrained. Even when we lose muscle mass, the nuclei remain, giving muscle a head start when you start training again.
Like most good things in life, though, there's a catch: You need to start now. Our muscles' ability to remember diminishes as we age. But Wittrock says you can point yourself in the right direction every day simply by prioritizing activity whenever possible.
"The decision to become more active and healthy is far more than just the work and effort you put in at the gym," he says. "You'll find many circumstances throughout a typical day that allow you to make a 'healthy decision.' For example, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or visiting a park or walking around your neighborhood. Instead of sitting in a chair at your desk, you can switch to sitting on a stability ball. Additionally, if you find yourself watching TV, you can make it a challenge and do sit-ups, push-ups or planks during commercial breaks."
Fact 2: You Don't Need As Much Movement As You Probably Believe
In this era of ultramarathons spanning 100+ freakin' miles, it's easy to think that more is better when it comes to cardio. The science doesn't bear that notion out. Consider a Mayo Clinic "study of studies" published in November 2015, which reviewed research published since 2000 on running and its effect on health and cardiovascular disease.
The conclusion: Running for only 50 minutes a week, or about 6 miles, was enough to lower the risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol, stroke, and some cancers, and could improve lifespan by up to six years.
Meanwhile, a just-released paper out of the Cardiovascular Physiology and Rehabilitation Laboratory at the University of British Columbia suggests that the current physical activity guidelines commonly cited by experts—about 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week—could be halved and still lead to noticeable health benefits.
Such evidence of "shorter is better" falls neatly in line with the science of high-intensity interval training, which has bolted past the epic steady-state cardio sessions that once dominated the fitness landscape.
In HIIT, you do short bursts of nearly all-out effort interspersed with slower "recovery" speed training, such as in a 1:2 or 1:3 ratio. Popular protocols include a 30-second sprint followed by 60 seconds at a slow recovery speed, or a 15-second sprint paired with 45 seconds at recovery speed. HIIT has been shown to increase calorie burn beyond traditional continuous cardio. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, beyond the training session itself, HIIT burns 6-15 percent more calories in the two hours after a workout.
Fact 3: New Habits Can Be Formed Faster Than You Think
According to a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, a new behavior can become "habit" in anywhere from 18-254 days, or 66 days on average.
This means that in just two months, anyone could potentially transform their lifestyle, adopting training and nutritional habits. It's not an instant turnaround, but for those attempting to undo years of neglect, it's a powerful concept.
However, don't try to tackle more than one habit at a time, suggests fitness model, lifestyle coach, and athlete Nikki Walter. "Admittedly, new habits can be a challenge for me, especially when it's a more complex lifestyle change," she says. "I encourage others to focus on that change, and stick to it for 90 days. After 30 days, it may get easier, but you run the risk of falling back into bad habits without a consistent pattern."
When it comes to replacing bad habits with good, fitness model and athlete Jason Wittrock points to a certain group of clients who gave him a new perspective. "I've worked with several recovering alcoholics and drug users," he says. "Through that, I've seen that the best way to beat an old bad habit is to replace it with a positive habit.
"I've also worked with kids who suffer from mental illness, each of whom had several bad habits that led to deep depression and suicidal tendencies," he continues. "Working out in the gym was very new and uncomfortable to them, but with persistence, it became a new habit they couldn't go without. It made them feel better about themselves and improved their self-worth."
Fact 4: Exercise Can Make You Feel Mentally Refreshed Almost Instantly
If you've ever gone to the gym dog-tired, done a few sets, and suddenly found yourself energized and having the workout of your life, congratulations—you've experienced the power of your brain chemistry in action.
Often, people attribute this effect to endorphins, a peptide hormone produced in response to stress. That hormone can act like a dose of morphine, binding to opiate receptors and reducing pain sensation while increasing feelings of euphoria.
The thing is, while endorphin levels elevate pretty quickly in the bloodstream, they don't necessarily seep into the brain until after a typical workout is complete. While science is still sorting out the facts, it's likely that the neurotransmitters anandamide, serotonin, and norepinephrine are responsible for the more immediate "runner's high" you get when you're just 15-20 minutes into intensive exercise.
No matter the exact mechanism, however, the effect is undeniable. "That natural 'high' or excitement that makes you feel good is real," Walter confirms. "Everyone is a little different for what type of activity makes them feel invincible, but if you notice you're more productive, positive, or happier, keep doing whatever gets you there. As your best self, you'll accomplish more."
Fact 5: Exercise Is The Only Proven Preventive For Several Serious Diseases
Sure, drugs work sometimes. Nutritional changes have their place in treatment and preventative medicine too, of course. But even more than dietary interventions, exercise has been linked to a reduced risk of various ailments, including heart disease, dementia, and many cancers.
Some of the more recent examples:
Exercise stalls coronary artery disease's progression by positively influencing risk factors such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure, as well as blood-vessel function, according to a 2015 review study in Progress in Cardiovascular Disease.
Exercise may slow down the progression of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, according to a review published in the Journal of Clinical Neurology. Specifically, aerobic exercise promotes new blood-vessel development, spurring the growth of nervous tissue and synapses and improving memory and cognitive functions.
A study in the September 2015 issue of the International Journal of Sports Medicine found that a 12-week resistance-training program that included squats and push-ups, done three times a week, helped improve the metabolic parameters of fatty liver disease.
Exercise can battle conditions that are otherwise extremely difficult to treat, such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). In research published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, it was shown that strength training could improve hormone levels, reproductive function, and body composition in women with PCOS.
"If we had a pill that conferred the proven health benefits of exercise, physicians would prescribe it to every patient, and healthcare systems would find a way to make sure every patient had access to this wonder drug," says Robert E. Sallis, MD, FACSM, chairman for the Exercise Is Medicine initiative, who previously served as president of the American College of Sports Medicine.
The takeaway for you: Every step is a step forward. Make better choices now, and start reaping a lifetime's worth of benefits!