When most of us launch into a new fitness routine, it is for one common reason: to shed fat. But it turns out focusing on your weight loss goal alone can slash your odds of success by over half, say researchers. A better inspiration: The amazing health rewards you get by being active. Finding the right motivation can make you 70% more likely to keep it up for the long haul, reports the American College of Sports Medicine.
Next time you're too busy, tired, or achy to lace up your sneakers, remember these health-transforming benefits of exercise.
1. Be Happier at Work
Increase productivity...and maybe get a raise
An active lifestyle may help you check off extra items on your to-do list, says a study from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. On days staffers participated in on-site fitness activities, they reported thinking more clearly, getting more done, and interacting more effectively with colleagues. You'll be less likely to miss work due to illness, too. Research shows that people who participate in vigorous leisure-time physical activity (such as jogging or bicycling) just once or twice a week take about half the sick time of those who are more sedentary.
Do this: Sign up for workplace fitness classes. None on-site? Recruit coworkers to go for a lunch hour power walk. Or ask HR to designate a room for a noontime stretching or workout session, using DVD instruction.
2. Improve Your Vocabulary
Brush up on your Scrabble skills
A single treadmill session can make you brainier. Exercisers who ran just two 3-minute sprints, with a 2-minute break in between, learned new words 20% faster than those who rested, in a University of Muenster in Germany study. Getting your heart pumping increases blood flow, delivering more oxygen to your noggin. It also spurs new growth in the areas of the brain that control multitasking, planning, and memory.
Do this: Add a bout of exercise, like running up and down the stairs, before trying to memorize anything--say, Spanish phrases for your trip to Mexico.
3. Get Natural Pain Relief
Keep moving to ease stiff, achy joints
It may seem counterintuitive, but rest isn't necessarily best for reducing pain and stiffness in the knees, shoulders, back, or neck. Healthy adults who did aerobic activity consistently had 25% less musculoskeletal pain than their couch-bound peers, says Stanford senior research scientist Bonnie Bruce, DrPH, MPH, RD.
Exercise releases endorphins, the body's natural pain reliever, and may make you less vulnerable to tiny tears in muscles and tendons. Staying active can also provide relief for chronic conditions such as arthritis: In a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study, arthritis sufferers experienced 25% less pain and 16% less stiffness after 6 months of low-impact exercise like balance and strengthening moves. Most people start to feel improvement within a few weeks, says study author Leigh Callahan, PhD, an associate professor of medicine at UNC.
Do this: Practice yoga or tai chi twice a week; both increase flexibility and range of motion and reduce pain.
4. Feel Sexy at Any Size
Flaunt a figure you can be proud of
A good workout practically ensures a better body image. The simple act of exercising-regardless of your weight or fitness level-can make you feel positive about how you look, possibly due to the release of feel-good hormones, finds a review of 57 studies on exercise and body image.
Working out can also boost your libido by increasing blood flow to the genitals. University of Washington research found that just one 20-minute cycling workout enhanced sexual arousal up to 169% in women. And the benefits stand the test of time: A Harvard study of swimmers found that those over age 60 were as satisfied sexually as those decades younger.
Do this: Try 20 minutes of aerobics before a romantic evening. To feel good naked anytime, walk or do yoga daily.
5. Lower Dental Bills
A health-boost worth smiling about
Flossing and brushing, it turns out, are not the only keys to a healthy smile, says Mohammad Al-Zahrani, DDS, PhD, a former associate professor at Case Western Reserve University. Exercise plays an important role, too. In his recent study, Al-Zahrani discovered that adults who did 30 minutes of moderate activity 5 or more times a week were 42% less likely to suffer from periodontitis, a gum disease that's more common as you get older. Working out may thwart periodontitis the same way it does heart disease--by lowering levels of inflammation-causing C-reactive protein in the blood.
Do this: In addition to staying active, get a twice-yearly dental cleaning (or more often if your dentist says you are at high risk for gum disease).
6. Unlock Hidden Energy
Rouse your body out of a slump
If you're among the 50% of adults who report feeling tired at least 1 day a week, skip the java and go for a walk. University of Georgia researchers who analyzed 70 different studies concluded that moving your body increases energy and reduces fatigue. Regular exercise boosts certain fatigue-fighting brain chemicals such as norepinephrine and dopamine, which pep you up, and serotonin, a mood enhancer.
Do this: Take a 20-minute stroll for a quick pick-me-up, or aim for 40 minutes of activity daily for a sustained lift.
7. Shrink Stress Fat
Combat anxiety-related weight gain
Just two 40-minute workouts a week is enough to stop dangerous belly fat in its tracks, according to University of Alabama at Birmingham research. The waistline of those who worked out less expanded an average of 3 inches. Exercise may lower levels of hormones such as cortisol that promotes belly fat.
8. Slash Cold Risk 33%
Build up your body's defenses
Moderate exercise doesn't just rev your metabolism--it boosts your immune system, too, helping your body fight off cold bugs and other germs. Women ages 50 to 75 who did 45 minutes of cardio, 5 days a week, had a third as many colds as those who did once-weekly stretching sessions, a University of Washington study found.
Do this: Add more cardio to your routine by turning your walk into a run.
9. Improve Vision
Carrots are great, but exercise might be better
What's good for your heart is good for your eyes. An active lifestyle can cut your risk of age-related macular degeneration by up to 70%, according to a British Journal of Ophthalmology study of 4,000 adults. This incurable disease makes reading, driving, and seeing fine details difficult, and it's the most common cause of blindness after age 60.
Do this: Protect your eyes during all outdoor activities (if you're a walker, shoot for a mile a day). Be sure to wear UVA/UVB-blocking sunglasses all year long.
10. Reach the Deep-Sleep Zone
Decent shut-eye is not a far off dream
Say good night to poor sleep. Women age 60 and older who walked or danced for at least an hour, four times a week, woke up half as often and slept an average 48 minutes more a night than sedentary women, according to a study in the journal Sleep Medicine. That is good news for the many women who toss and turn more as they get older. As you age, sleep patterns start shifting, so you spend more of the night in lighter sleep phases, says Shawn Youngstedt, PhD, an assistant professor of exercise science at the University of South Carolina.
Do this: Aim to exercise for at least half an hour, even if it's after a long day. Evidence suggests that for most people, light to moderate activity in the evening won't disturb sleep, though trial and error will tell you what works for you.
11. Never Get Diabetes
Walk to keep your blood sugar in check
Walking 2 miles 5 times a week may be more effective at preventing diabetes than running nearly twice as much, report Duke University researchers. Because fat is the primary fuel for moderate exercise, walking may better improve the body's ability to release insulin and control blood sugar.
Do this: Start a walking program
12. Eliminate Belly Bloat
Shrink the muffin top
The next time you feel puffy around the middle, resist the urge to stay put. A study from Spain's Autonomous University of Barcelona suggests that mild physical activity clears gas and alleviates bloating. That's because increasing your heart rate and breathing stimulates the natural contractions of the intestinal muscles, helping to prevent constipation and gas buildup by expediting digestion.
Do this: Walk or pedal lightly on a bike until you feel better.
13. Clear Out Brain Fog
Build your mental muscle
Exercise is linked to a lower risk of Alzheimer's disease among older people; now, new research shows it can prevent brain fog at a much younger age too. Japanese researchers assigned sedentary young adults to two groups; one took aerobic exercise classes, and the other did not. After 4 months, MRIs revealed that the nonexercising group experienced shrinkage of gray matter in some areas of the brain, while the active participants had no change.
Do this: Try a new fitness routine, or sign up for a new class at the gym. Besides the obvious benefit of getting a workout, trying something fresh can help stimulate the growth of brain cells.
14. Save Your Heart
Reduce dangerous inflammation
Sedentary, obese women age 50 and older who began exercising lowered their levels of C-reactive protein-an inflammatory blood marker linked to heart disease—by 10% after 1 year, found research recently published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
15. Add Years to Your Life
Stay healthy and active for years to come
Being physically fit can actually change how your body works. Vigorous exercisers have longer telomeres-cellular biomarkers that shorten as we age-compared with healthy adults who rarely work out.
16. Ease Your Ailments
Heal your body with yoga
Yoga has a well-earned reputation as a surefire stress reducer (particularly when combined with meditation), and new studies show the simple stretching regimen can also help treat and prevent a number of other ailments, from back pain to diabetes. Other research reveals regular yoga practice can put an end to mindless eating by creating an outlet for emotions that can lead to binging. Unfortunately, less than 15% of women over age 35 say they do yoga frequently, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.
17. Survive Breast Cancer
Increase your defenses against the disease
Exercise not only reduces breast cancer risk, it can also save your life if you're diagnosed. Overweight women who were exercising more than 3 hours a week before they were diagnosed were 47% less likely to die than those who exercised less than a half hour per week.
Do this: Sneak in mini bouts of exercise. Take a quick walk when you get the morning paper, hit the stairs before lunch, or knock out a few pushups and crunches while watching TV. Just two to three 10-minute workouts a day is enough to fill your quota for the week.