Starting on the road to fitness can be a daunting task. When both the scale and the mirror are telling you things you don’t want to hear, it is easy to get overwhelmed and even consider giving up. What makes things especially difficult is switching on the TV and hearing about miracle fitness programs that will get you ripped in 30 days. If you’ve been working out for a month and you still don’t have a six-pack you might start to think you’re doing something wrong. The truth is, getting fit is a process and it takes time. In particular, changes to you physical appearance can be frustratingly slow in coming. Rest assured though, every time you work up a sweat you are accomplishing something, even if you can’t see it.
The First Week: Your Brain and Your Blood
It is important to have realistic expectations about your fitness goals. You won’t be able to run a marathon after two training runs and you won’t be as chiseled as a Greek God after a week of lifting. There are however changes that happen after just a few workouts that are worth the effort. In his 2011 book Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights? Dr. Alex Hutchinson describes the changes your body goes though as you climb the ladder of fitness. Within the first few days your brain forms new connections linked to movement, allowing you to contract your muscles with more power and precision. For aerobic exercise, changes start happening after you first run or spin class. For 2 days following a bout of exercise your muscles will consume more glucose, helping to balance your blood sugar and reduce insulin sensitivity.
The First Month: Mighty Mitochondria
A month may seem like a long time to work out without being able to see results, but that is just a myth perpetuated by companies that want you to buy their new workout gadget. According to Hutchinson, a recent study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin showed that precisely following workout routines that promised 6-pack abs or bulging biceps in just 6 weeks produced no apparent change in body composition. What does happen on that time scale is that your cells get fitter. Each cell contains small organ called mitochondria that convert oxygen and food into energy. After 6 weeks of aerobic exercise, the number of mitochondria in a person’s cells has been shown to grow by 50 to 100%. While that may not make you look better in a bathing suit, it is a change that allows you to run further, faster, and more efficiently, unlocking the door to further gains.
Three Months and Beyond: The Long Game
You may acquire all the tools you need to get ripped in the first 6 weeks of working out, but how long will it take to actually see a difference? Hutchinson explains that even highly trained technicians working with top of the line equipment are often only able to detect changes in muscle composition after around nine weeks. A 2010 study from the University of Tokyo (cited by Hutchinson) suggested that the most apparent visible gains in muscle mass took place only after three months of exercise. Even then, subjects were working out intensely 4 times each week. For a more average routine, expect to start seeing the changed you want after about 6 months.
Exercise isn’t a quick fix for all your health problems, it is a long-term commitment to a better life that depends on you sticking with it regardless of the challenges. For that reason, you are better off not focusing on the physical changes that go along with exercise. Choose activities that are fun and do them because you enjoy them. Don’t overlook the changes in how you feel that come long before the changes in how you look. Fitness is what you make of it, and you’re best off making it a habit.