Good things come to those who wait, or so the saying goes, and that’s never more true than when talking about fitness. While we all want to reap as many of the immediate benefits of exercise, the real magic happens when we are committed to our training.
Science supports this. According to a new study, we should be getting at least double the recommended minimum amount of moderate exercise every week whilst in our 20s not just to stay fit, but also to reduce the odds of developing hypertension in later years. This potential benefit is even greater in those who continue the exercise habit into their 30s and beyond, where it decreased the risk of high blood pressure by up to 18%.
So, it’s not just about gains in the present, but building a routine that helps prepare your body for the future.
Building a stronger and more resilient body and mind happens over the long-term – taking days, weeks, months or even years of training. The results and benefits are worth it though, so pushing through the lulls in motivation and mindset you might be experiencing now are important. If you don’t believe it, let personal trainer from the Strong Women Collective Esmée Gummer explain just some of the big changes you see over time when you stick with exercise.
Studies show that regular exercise can prevent Alzheimer’s disease by up to a huge 45%, but until recently the reason for this brain boost was always a mystery. Now new research shows that it’s all to do with a protein called Gpld1 which is excreted by the liver after exercise. The study then found that this protein improved the brain health in older mice, and the enzyme is also elevated in the blood of elderly humans who exercise regularly.
The day after exercise you can’t help but notice that you have aching muscles, known as DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). This happens because the muscles have been torn and damaged, but get stronger as they repair themselves.
“When you first start out exercising, doing five squats might cause you to ache. A few months on, you could do five squats and it doesn’t even affect you,” says Esmée. That’s because we experience muscular hypertrophy, aka muscle growth, and so it takes more weight, reps or intensity to damage the muscles.
But it’s not just the visible muscles that grow: all of those sessions where your heart is pumping hard will result in cardiac hypertrophy. This means that you’ll have a stronger pump which will push more blood around the body. Combined with an increase in oxygen-carrying red blood cells, your heart rate will be able to lower. “Your heart just won’t have to work as hard to get blood to the organs and cells. That’s why you might find the things that used to make you really out of breath become easy after sustained periods of training,” explains Esmée.
Your respiratory system will also undergo adaptation. Firstly, lung capacity increases, meaning you can hold more breath, and therefore oxygen, at once. That’s coupled with an increase in alveoli, the air sacs in the lungs, which makes gas exchange easier. “In a basic way, all of this just means you’ll be fitter and find movement easier,” says Esmée.
“Another huge benefit is increased bone density,” says Esmée. This is especially important for women as we hit peak bone density in our 20s. “Weak bones lead to severe problems, meaning you’ll be more at risk of breaks and fractures and also that you won’t be able to recover as quickly from any accidents.”
Exercise might get you feeling awake and alert, but studies show that daily exercise will actually help you sleep better. “The reason that happens is because your muscles grow in your sleep. If you’ve fatigued your muscles, your body will force you to sleep in order for them to grow and repair,” explains Esmée. “I know a lot of people overtrain thinking it will help them reach their goals. Actually, you should prioritise sleep, as that is the bit that makes your body change.”
Mental health boost
The link between exercise and mental health is widely reported. In the short-term, that’s because of the endorphin boost, but studies also prove that exercise can reduce mental health issues in the long run too – with some research suggesting it can have as much impact as medication.
It’s thought that the reason for this is because exercise can improve brain plasticity, or the capacity of the brain to develop new neural pathways and for new neurons to grow, which can impact thought process and mood.
“We can’t say exercise 100% reduces the feelings of anxiety and depression, but it definitely helps to reduce them,” says Esmée.
While you might roll your eyes when you hear yogis or fitness instructors tell you to ‘listen to your body’, exercising might make you understand what they mean a bit more as it can improve the mind-body connection. “Because you tune in to your body during workouts, you becoming more aware of how your body’s feeling, how you’re moving and what you’re doing outside of the gym,” says Esmée. “If you’re feeling a little tired or stressed, you will recognise that easier and be able to take steps to help.”
It’s not just your relationship with your body that improves either, as exercise is believed to benefit relationships in the long-term too. While sweating it out with another person has been shown to help the bond between the both of you, a 2001 study also shows that students who exercised generally had better relationships with their parents. “Eventually you project your frustration into your workouts instead of on your colleagues, friends or partner,” says Esmée.
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Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).