Chances are you're pretty familiar with the visible ways exercise does your body good—sleeker legs, a firmer backside, flatter abs—but what about the benefits you can't see? Yes, it reduces your risk of heart disease and diabetes, but researchers have found that working out can also improve everything from your mood to your memory. Check out all the other ways an afternoon kickboxing class or stroll with your dog can perk up your day-in, day-out routine—you won't be able to put on your sneakers fast enough.
1. MORE EXERCISE = FEWER SICK DAYS
Work out for 30 minutes a day and you'll catch half as many colds this year, according to a study in the American Journal of Medicine. That's because exercise prompts more white blood cells to circulate in your body, where they kill disease-causing invaders. Physical activity also lowers your estrogen levels, which helps explain why women who exercise regularly have a 30 percent lower risk of breast cancer.
MAKE IT WORK FOR YOU When you don't have time for a full-on sweat session, squeeze in three 10-minute bursts of activity (try speed walking) during the day.
2. YOU'LL GET BETTER ZZZ'S
"Amp up your calorie burn during the day and you'll sleep more soundly at night," says Mark Stibich, Ph.D., a health research consultant at Columbia University. "Your body shuts down faster if you've exercised because it needs sleep to repair workout-induced muscle damage [that's how you get stronger] and replenish your energy."
MAKE IT WORK FOR YOU Exercise (this includes cardio and strength training) later in the day. Your body temperature will dip for up to six hours afterward, which many experts believe may help you fall asleep. Hitting the gym post- work also blows off steam, setting the stage for a relaxing evening.
3. YOU'LL BE A SOCIAL BUTTERFLY
"When you take a group fitness class or run with a club, you connect with like-minded people," says Timothy Church, M.D., PhD., a researcher at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "In fact, the women in our studies often stay with the exercise programs we give them after the research is finished because they've become friends with people in the group." Health clubs have also noticed that there's more power in numbers, and many of them now offer group programs, like adventure vacations and marathon training.
MAKE IT WORK FOR YOU If you're a runner, find a club to train with at rrca.org. Interested in something more adventurous? Check out the trips and courses (everything from rock climbing in New Hampshire to cycling through Cambodia) at rei.com/adventures.
4. PICK UP WEIGHTS AND YOU'LL LOVE YOUR THIGHS
"Strength training improves your muscle tone, which naturally increases your body confidence," says Stibich. University of South Alabama researchers found that when women completed a 12-week circuit strength-training plan, they felt significantly better about their appearance then women who did only cardio workouts.
MAKE IT WORK FOR YOU Hit the weights at least twice a week. Target your entire body with eight to ten moves; do one set of each without resting, then repeat, once or twice.
5. "I FORGET..." WILL VANISH FROM YOUR VOCABULARY
Your brain shrinks as you age, making your memory fuzzier. But scientists at the University of Illinois found that exercise increases the volume of the hippocampus, the area of the brain that helps sort and store new information.
MAKE IT WORK FOR YOU Bust a move on the dance floor. "Doing something that engages you physically, mentally, or socially helps keep your brain healthy," says Joe Verghese, M.D., a researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "Dancing does all of those things at once, so it's really an ideal activity."
6. YOU'LL BE HAPPIER
You know you feel better after a workout, but now there's evidence that the exercise high is real. German scientists discovered that after a two-hour run, athletes experienced a surge of endorphins (mood-lifting hormones) in brain regions associated with pleasure. And the lift lingers. Research shows that exercising three times a week is as effective as common prescription medications for decreasing mild to moderate depression.
MAKE IT WORK FOR YOU When your schedule permits, extend your cardio workouts (think weekend hikes and bike rides). We produce endorphins at different rates, but most mood-related research has been done on sessions that lasted at least an hour.
7. STRESS WON'T MESS WITH YOU
When you feel anxious, your heart rate increases, you breathe faster, and you sweat more—and the same things happen when you work out. Exercise regularly and your body associates those reactions with something positive (like a good run), so it doesn't get as worked up about them.
MAKE IT WORK FOR YOU Try this to get the stress-busting benefits of exercise in less time. Warm up, then alternate between increasing the resistance of speed for a minute and recovering for a minute. Do eight work-rest intervals.
8. KICKING BAD HABITS WILL BE EASY
Researchers from England's University of Exeter found that exercise significantly reduces the urge to have a cigarette. "We're hardwired to associate physical activity with reward because we once had to exercise to get food," says study author Adrian Taylor, Ph.D. As a result, exercise quells cravings for a smoke-and even candy-by triggering the pleasure you'd typically get from nicotine and sugar.
MAKE IT WORK FOR YOU Walk for 10 minutes every day to prevent the urge-whether it's to light up or dive into a bag of M&M's.
9. BACK PAIN WILL BE A BAD MEMORY
An om a day keeps nagging aches away, says researchers at the Group Health Cooperative, a nonprofit health-care systems in Seattle. They divided 100 people with chronic back pain into three groups that either performed yoga daily, participated in physical therapy, or followed an exercise pan. After 12 weeks, those doing yoga saw the biggest improvements in pain. "Yoga prevents back tightness and aches and boosts your postural awareness, so you're more likely to sit and stand in ways that don't strain your back," says Alison Trewhela, a yoga instructor who is assisting with a clinical trial on yoga and back pain at the University of York in England.
MAKE IT WORK FOR YOU Hit the mat for an hour or more at least once a week.
10. YOUR PERFORMANCE AT THE OFFICE WILL SOAR
Exercise pumps more blood to your brain, which improves your concentration. "Just one sweat session is an instant boost," says Sian Beilock, Ph.D., of the University of Chicago. Her research found that students who walked or ran for 30 minutes before performing tasks involving "working memory," like reasoning, saw better results. "Working memory is your ability to focus while other things are vying for your attention," Beilock says.
MAKE IT WORK FOR YOU Try Eastern-based exercise. People who take tai chi, for example, score higher on tests of attention than those who do only cardio and strength training, according to researcher Ruth E. Taylor-Piliae, Ph.D. "Tai chi requires you to remember complex sequences and coordinate your movements," she says. "Both take concentration."
SELENE YEAGER is a writer and certified personal trainer in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.