You might be inclined to look in the mirror or step on the scale to gauge if your workouts are working. And while physical changes like losing weight or sculpting muscle can be valid fitness goals, judging your workouts based solely on aesthetic changes isn't a good idea.
"Realistically, most people are exercising for extrinsic reasons, like losing weight or putting on muscle mass," Amber Shipherd, PhD, performance psychology program coordinator at Texas A&M University - Kingsville, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "The problem is that those changes are usually the last or slowest to occur."
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Not only that, but appearance-based goals also require a lot of changes to how you eat, not just the way you move. If you're exercising only for aesthetic reasons, it's easy to get discouraged when change doesn't immediately happen, and ultimately give up, Shipherd says.
That would be a shame because there are so many other amazing exercise benefits that have nothing to do with how you look.
Here are seven signs that your fitness routine is working, regardless of the physical changes you do or don't see.
1. Your Stress Has Lowered
Exercise can be an amazing stress reliever, Shipherd says. Although experts aren't totally sure how it works, exercise seems to lower the body's levels of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine, according to the American Psychological Association.
In turn, this can help you manage stress more effectively. Reduced stress can also improve your mood, productivity, concentration and overall cognition, she says.
2. You’re Sleeping Better
Exercising regularly can help you get more rest at night — a sure sign that your gym routine is accomplishing something important. One of the big reasons exercise promotes sleep is because of how it boosts mood and reduces stress.
A lot of people have insomnia because they have anxiety, says Ryan Greene, DO, an osteopathic physician specializing in sports medicine with Monarch Athletic Club. By exercising, you can burn off some of the emotions of the day and reduce the chance that you'll lie awake at night with your mind racing.
"The best time of day to exercise for better sleep varies from person to person," Dr. Greene says. For some people, exercising later in the day wears them out and helps them sleep better; for others, late-night workouts actually rev them up too much and keep them awake. Find what works for you and stick with it.
3. You Look Forward to Your Workouts
One big sign that your fitness routine is working is if you look forward to working out — especially if you used to dread it, says Morit Summers, CPT, a certified personal trainer and owner of Form Fitness Brooklyn.
Feeling like you want to work out means that you've made legit mental progress. It means you've found something you like, and you've been able to stick with it long enough to see progress (maybe you're stronger or faster) and feel like you're accomplishing something. Oh yeah, a nice confidence boost is another great benefit of exercise!
4. Your Relationships Are Getting Stronger
Exercise is a mood booster, prompting the release of feel-good chemicals that lift your spirits. Or as a wise lawyer once said: "Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don't shoot their husbands, they just don't."
And as Dr. Greene puts it: "I have not met anyone who has not felt subjectively better after completing an exercise routine." Being in a good mood, and having a better grip on healthy stress management, vastly improves your interactions with other people.
Exercise — whether it's going for a walk or run with a friend or taking a group fitness class via Zoom — can also be a great opportunity to socialize and connect with other people over a shared goal and interest, Shipherd says.
5. You Feel Stronger in Everyday Life
"It's a hard thing to explain, but many of our clients will say they just feel stronger, even if they can't quantify it," Summers says. Maybe you notice that you can pick up your laundry basket without aching or walk up the stairs without getting as winded as before.
Being able to do everyday activities without feeling tired or like you're really pushing yourself to your limit is one of the biggest benefits of exercise. So if you notice that everything just feels easier, and you just feel overall stronger and more capable, that likely means your fitness routine is doing its job.
6. Your Health Numbers Are Improving
There are countless health perks that come with regular physical activity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exercise can help reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and even some cancers.
It can also help reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels, help those with type 2 diabetes control their blood sugar levels, slow down the natural bone loss that happens with age, reduce the risk of hip fractures and falls and even help with arthritis and other joint conditions.
If you have any of these health conditions with measurements attached (blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, etc.), an improvement in your numbers or reduction in symptoms is a sure sign that your exercise routine is doing its job.
7. You’re Getting Better at Prioritizing Yourself
Learning how to develop and maintain an exercise habit has rewards that can spill over into other aspects of your life.
"If you make time for things that are health-promoting, you will tend to be better with time management and make time for things that are important in other aspects of your life," Dr. Greene says.
It's all about making a commitment to investing in yourself. Once you allow yourself to do it with fitness, you'll likely find it easier to do in other areas of life. That might mean finally making the time to prepare home-cooked meals or prioritizing some much-needed solo time.
Maybe it even gives you the confidence you need to start that business you've been mulling over for years. For some people, the time and mental commitment required to establish a consistent fitness routine can teach you a whole lot about yourself and what you're capable of in life.