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Power Surge: The Hidden Benefits of Exercise

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Instant Benefits of Exercise

We've got some happy news that will rev up your workout routine: The moment you head out on your run, launch into your Spinning class, or start your Pilates session, the benefits of exercise kick in. "We see changes in the body within seconds," says FITNESS advisory board member Michele Olson, PhD, professor of exercise physiology at Auburn University at Montgomery in 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 three to five days a week will 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, have more energy, and stay slim. Ready for some inspiration for getting your move on? Keep reading for our timeline on the quick and long-lasting benefits of regular exercise.

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, you feel psyched and energized.

You're fighting flab. "During typical cardio exercise, your body taps mainly fat for fuel," Olson says.

FIT TIP: Push yourself to go harder. The more intensely you do aerobic activity and the longer you do it, the more efficiently your body uses oxygen, and this boosts its fat-blasting power throughout your workout, 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, PhD, 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 and for up to a day if you've competed in an endurance event, like a marathon. Stress? What stress?

FIT TIP: Do intervals, on the elliptical or the treadmill or while running outdoors, and you may feel even happier. Women who did interval training in a recent study by Olson had a bigger boost in mood immediately following their workout than those who worked out at a steady pace.

You're blasting 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.

FIT TIP: To turbo-charge your calorie-incinerating quotient, strength-train at least twice a week. It will charge your metabolism so that you'll continue to burn calories for up to 38 hours, according to a study from Ohio University in Athens.

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, PhD, RD, director of sports nutrition at Pennsylvania State University in University Park.

FIT TIP: If you exercised on an empty or almost-empty stomach, you're probably feeling light-headed or even nauseated or headachy. Your immediate food fix: A high-carb nosh, like a banana or half a bagel, will refuel you and kick-start your recovery. And don't forget to drink plenty of water with your snack. Intense or long workouts can leave you dehydrated.

Post-Workout Benefits

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, PhD, director of the Laboratory for Physical Activity at the University of Michigan School of Medicine in Ann Arbor. Preliminary research shows that women respond to and recover from resistance training faster than men.

Your heart is healthier. One sweat session lowers your blood pressure for up to 16 hours.

FIT TIP: A vigorous workout is especially heart smart. Go for a run, hop on the elliptical, or take a dance class and your LDL levels will be lower than if you went for a brisk walk, according to research from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

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, PhD, a researcher at the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore.

FIT TIP: After a workout is the perfect time to memorize a speech or tackle a tough project. Your brain is operating on all cylinders then, studies show.

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.

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.'re>

FIT TIP: Step up your routine and your results will be even better. People in a Canadian study who did six workouts of four to seven 30-second sprints followed by four-minute periods of recovery doubled their endurance within two weeks. Plus, you can burn more belly fat by doing intervals rather than keeping a steady pace, other research shows.

You're slimmer. Cutting 500 calories a day through exercise and diet will help you drop one pound a week.

FIT TIP: We'll help you boost your weight loss with an easy, customized workout and eating plan. Want to trim your lower body, lose 10 pounds, or flatten your abs?

Long-Term Benefits of 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.

FIT TIP: 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.

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.

FIT TIP: To trim your tummy, do fewer crunches and more planks: 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.

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

FIT TIP: The more challenging your workout, the stronger your mental muscle. Aim for 30 minutes of vigorous cardio at least three days a week.

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 your endurance can more than double."

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

FIT TIP: To keep your metabolism stoked, turn 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.

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.

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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