If the latest infomercials and magazine covers are any indication, it seems like weight loss is on everyone’s minds these days. And while a healthy weight is a good goal, when it comes to eating right and exercising, it shouldn’t be the sole focus. In fact, when you tally all the reasons to eat well and exercise, we’re not even sure it should make the top 10. Face it: The number on the scale is not a reliable indicator of overall health. Even worse, according to one study, people who diet or exercise just to lose weight quit a lot sooner than people who make healthy changes for other reasons . Oh, and they really don’t lose weight in the long term. The researchers found that the most successful motivation for sticking to a healthy lifestyle was “feeling better about themselves” for women and “better health” for men.
And yes, those are both great rationales to exercise and eating right, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the good things you’ll bring into your life. Here are 45 science-backed reasons to start living a healthier life today that have zilch to do with your weight.
1. It works as an antidepressant.
Whether you suffer from the winter blahs or have chronic depression, the blues can make everything in life feel harder. Antidepressant medications have been a godsend for many people, but one study found that depression sufferers who did aerobic exercise showed just as much improvement in their symptoms as people on medication. In fact, after four months, 60 to 70 percent of the subjects couldn’t even be classified as having depression. Even better, a follow-up to the study found that the effects from the exercise lasted longer than those from the medication.
2. It reduces PMS symptoms.
Ladies, that monthly crying jag brought on by a commercial for a Nicholas Sparks movie or the hulk-like rage when your boyfriend slurps his soup may not be entirely your fault (hormones, holla!). But that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything to help it. In one study, teen girls—was there ever a moodier bunch?—performed 60-minute cardio sessions three times a week for eight weeks . Afterward they reported their symptoms from PMS, especially depression and anger, were markedly better, so much so that the researchers concluded that exercise should be prescribed as a cure for PMS.
3. It reduces stress and anxiety.
Pop quiz: When you’re super stressed out and worried about ________ (work/relationship status/the end of Serial/life in general) what is the fastest way to chill out? A) Mainline a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. B) Go for a serious sweat fest. or C) Call your mom. Sorry, Mom, but science says that working out is one of the fastest ways to clear cortisol, the stress hormone, out of your system and calm a frantic mind. Plus new research points to the fact that ice cream or other “comfort foods” won’t make much of a dent in stress levels—not that we have anything against an occasional scoop of chunky monkey!
4. It boosts creativity.
The next time writer’s block hits or you need new ideas for your departmental meeting, try taking a quick stroll around the block. Arecent study found that walking improved both convergent and divergent thinking, the two types associated with enhanced creativity.
5. It wipes out allergies.
Sneezing, watery eyes, and snot-cicles (’tis the season!) can really take the fun out of a workout, but there’s a good reason to lace up your gym shoes even with an allergy attack. Researchers in Thailand reported that running for 30 minutes can reduce sneezing, itching, congestion, and runny nose by up to 90 percent.
6. It strengthens your heart.
It may feel like your heart is thumping itself out of your chest during those hill sprints, but your ticker will thank you later. As shown in anextensive report from the American Heart Association, exercise strengthens your heart muscle as well as reduces your risk of heart disease and other related conditions. So the next time you’re sweating through spin class, just imagine it’s a Valentine you’re sending to your body.
7. It helps you resist temptation.
They don’t call it a “runner’s high” for nothing! Whether you’re addicted to sugar, cigarettes, or even heroin, exercise could play an important role in resisting your substance of choice. In one study, scientists found that the endorphin rush released during exercise acts on the same neural pathways as addictive substances . The result? Mice in this study opted for the treadmill over the high from an amphetamine-laced solution, suggesting that humans could do the same.
8. It reduces risk of metabolic syndrome…
If there’s a modern-day health villain, it would be the scary-sounding metabolic syndrome. Comprised of three factors—increased blood pressure/cholesterol, high blood sugar, and excessive fat around the waist—it’s one of the strongest indicators you’re headed for an early grave. But before you start planning the funeral (open bar, smoke machines, and a 12-piece band, check!), researchers say that exercise can almost totally obliterate metabolic syndrome and even reverse the damage. Not all exercise works equally well, however, as one study proves intensity is key . So rather than stay at one steady pace, try intervals that will take your heart rate up and down.
9. … And lessens the risk of oodles of other diseases too.
Many types of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, lung disease—we’d be here all day if we listed all the illnesses that exercising lowers your risk for. Exercise is such a health preventative superstar that Jordan Metzel, M.D., recently declared it to be “a miracle drug that prevents almost every illness, is 100 percent effective, and has very few side effects.” Even better, we don’t have to wait for FDA approval for this magical panacea!
10. It protects your peepers.
We hate to break this to you, but you’re staring at a screen right now. Welcome to the eye-strain club! (T-shirts available online… if you can squint enough to find ‘em.) But recent research found that one of the best ways to protect your eyes and stave off age-related vision loss is regular cardiovascular exercise. In one study, active mice kept twice as many retinal neurons as the sedentary fur balls. But it isn’t just a benefit for the four-legged; a separate study found a similar correlation in humans.
11. It adds years to your life…
People who exercise live longer. Yeah, we said it. Research has shown that you can add up to seven years to your life by exercising a minimum of 150 minutes a week (that’s just three days of working out for 50 minutes), regardless of what you weigh.
12. … And life to your years.
Even better, those extra years will be happy ones: A recent study found that people who exercise reported feeling happier, more excited, and had more enthusiasm for life than their couch-potato peers.
13. It makes you respect your body.
It’s supremely easy to focus on the six-pack abs or bikini bridges or other (possibly unattainable) physical attributes. But instead of getting caught up in comparisons, lace up your shoes and head to the gym. Using our bodies not only strengthens them but builds our gratitude for all the cool stuff they can do, and research supports this . After all, being an athlete has nothing to do the mirror—it’s about how your body can move.
14. It strengthens bones.
Bone density may not be the sexiest subject, but we all should be aware of it, especially as it helps us maintain a strong and mobile body. And according to one landmark study, the best way to build bone density and reduce the risk of fractures and osteoporosis into old age is to do weight-bearing exercises like running or dancing. (But really any weight-bearing sport will do, even “wife-carrying,” if that’s your thang.) The researchers found that adults who exercised moderately or strenuously had better bone density than those who exercised little or not at all. Keep it up though: Adults who quit exercising later in life lost bone mass even if they’d exercised regularly earlier in their youth.
15. It saves money.
We know. Gym memberships are expensive. Home equipment can be an investment. And have you priced running shoes lately? But it turns out that investing in your fitness is as frugal as it is smart. One Fortune 500 company estimates that for each dollar spent on preventative health, including exercise, it saves $2.71 in future health costs. That’s a wise practice to for you to adopt as the CEO of your health too.
16. It helps your fertility.
Is there a baby in your future? Better hit the weight floor. Harvard researchers found that men who exercised had a higher concentration of sperm in their semen and that the sperm was of better-than-average quality. Women also get a boost in fertility from getting their run (or kettlebells or yoga or… ) on. A meta-analysis looking at nearly 27,000 women found that those who worked out had lower rates overall of infertility, higher rates of implantation, and lower rates of miscarriage. One caveat: Women who exercised too strenuously or too much impaired their fertility, so it’s all about balance. Researchers advise hitting the gym three times a week for an hour each time.
17. It makes you a sex god.
Good news for both ladies and gents: Sweating in the gym can improve your sweating in the bedroom. But in this case women really score (ahem), as certain exercises have been linked to “coregasms,” or getting an orgasm from doing abs work. (Strong abs and strong orgasms? It’s win-win.) But even if hanging leg raises don’t send you into ecstasy, you still benefit from increased strength in your pelvic floor . And a separate study found that men who work out have a lower incidence of impotency and erectile dysfunction while experiencing more powerful orgasms. Plus these guys reported having sex more often.
18. It improves self-esteem.
Mirror, mirror on the (gym) wall, who’s the fairest of them all? It doesn’t take magic to know that working out makes you look better on the outside. But scientific research
adds that it also makes us feel better about ourselves on the inside. In an analysis of research on the subject, exercisers report higher self-esteem and lower incidence of negative thoughts about their bodies. Plus it boosts confidence at work and other in areas of life too.
19. It helps you sleep like a baby.
Getting a good night’s sleep is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Snoozing helps your body recover and repair damage, renews your energy, and clears out your mind. But sometimes sleep does not come easily, oftentimes on the nights you need it the most. Exercise is like all-natural Ambien (minus the freaky sleep-driving stories). In a meta-analysis that looked at dozens of sleep studies, researchers found that people who exercised regularly had less incidence of insomnia and a higher quality of sleep. In addition, for people who did suffer from insomnia, adding consistent daily exercise significantly reduced their sleepless nights.
20. It doesn’t just make you look younger, it makes you beyounger.
Thanks to that sweaty glow and leftover runner’s high, people who work out often look younger than their friends, and now research has found that exercisers truly are younger, on a cellular level, than their same-aged peers. Telomeres, the cap on the ends of DNA, start out long at birth and get progressively shorter with age. Up until recently it was thought there wasn’t much we could do to change that, but anew study showed that endurance athletes have longer telomeres than their peers, while a second study found that moderate exercise can lengthen your telomeres by up to 10 percent . So now you can feel free to lie about your age with impunity!
21. It pumps you up.
Hey there, He-Man (or She-Ra)! You don’t need a scientist to tell you that working out builds muscle and coordination. If you’ve ever needed to lift a 50-pound bag of cat litter off the bottom shelf at the grocery store or shovel two feet of snow off a driveway, you’ll be grateful for all the sweat sessions that make it look—and feel—like a cakewalk. (It’s just part of being an everyday hero.)
22. It blasts bad fat and boosts good fat. (Yes, there is good fat!)
In our fat-phobic society, the squishy stuff is public enemy No. 1. But not all fat is problematic. Brown fat is a metabolic boon, and hip and thigh fat in women has some possible hormonal benefits too. But the one kind you definitely don’t want is visceral fat, the type in your midsection packed around internal organs, which can do a ton of damage. Exercise to the rescue! We know busting a sweat can reduce fat in general, but belly fat is particularly susceptible to exercise, and a study from last year found that high-intensity interval training blasted belly fat the fastest .
23. It makes you a good example for your loved ones.
We don’t want to creep you out, but people are watching you. Whether it’s your friends, your parents, your siblings, your significant other (or just the cute neighbor next door), your circle of friends and family observe what you do and take note. And your exercise encourages others to do the same. We regularly mirror others around us in our gestures and behaviors. So consider that every time you’re heading to the gym, you’re setting an example, encouraging others to do the same. And the more, the merrier—when it comes to cardio, nothing’s more fun than a conga line, right?
24. It makes you smarter.
So much for the dumb bodybuilder stereotype—building muscles also helps you build brain cells. A meta-analysis of the effects of exercise on the brain found that fitness improves memory, boosts cognition, helps you learn faster, increases brain volume, and even makes you a better reader. In addition, recent studies have found that working out helps prevent the cognitive decline as we age and diseases like Alzheimer’s.
25. It manages chronic pain.
When you’re living with chronic pain, getting out of bed is hard enough, much less heading out to pump some iron or go for a run. Yet research shows that a moderate exercise program gives both short-term and long-term improvements for people who have chronic pain, even if the underlying condition remains. In short, exercise may not fix all your problems, but it will help you deal with them better.
1. It fattens your wallet.
Oh, kale, why must you cost so much? People often lament that healthy food is pricier than processed junk food. And a recent studyfound that all that produce and lean meat adds about $1.50 a day to food costs. But before you ditch that apple for an apple fritter, the researchers continued to say that when you include the cost savings from preventing health problems—a savings of $2.71 for every dollar spent—you still come out way ahead.
2. It protects your bones.
No walker for you, sonny! Eating a healthy diet full of calcium from dairy products, vitamin D from produce, and folic acid from leafy greens supports your skeleton, preventing osteoporosis and fractures in later life.
3. It revs up your fertility.
This one’s for the dads-to-be: A recent study found that eating swimmers (as in fish) boosts your swimmers (as in sperm). For women, the effect of a good diet is even more potent, as a separate study found that access to a wide variety of healthful foods was the number one predictor of high fertility rates in women who aren’t using birth control.
4. It conquers cramps.
Ladies: Pick your PMS poison, and there’s a nutritional remedy for it. And no, it’s not based on old wives’ tales. Modern science backs up these claims: The fiber in fruits and veggies fights bloat, magnesium-rich foods (like dark chocolate!) prevent cramps, iron in red meathelps with fatigue, calcium in dairy products is calming, and the zinc in green plants helps can smooth out mood swings .
5. It makes you happier.
An apple a day keeps the blues away, say researchers from New Zealand. Their study found that on the days young adults ate more fruits and vegetables, they reported feeling calmer, happier, and more energetic than they normally did. And the scientists say it wasn’t just happy people eating more honeydew. The data showed these positive feelings were a direct result of hitting the salad bar.
6. It gives you an iron-clad immune system.
In life, you’re going share pens, trade business cards, and shake hands with people of questionable hygiene. Translation: You will get hit with germs. But research has found that getting your five-a-day of fruits and veggies can boost your immune system and save you five (or more) sick days. One study found that people who ate more produce got sick less often, regardless of whatever other foods they ate. Another argument that carrots and cookies can coexist. And you might want to season those veggies with garlic: People who ate the clove daily got 64 percent fewer colds and recovered faster than those with less stinky breath .
7. It fixes your DNA.
Have you ever bemoaned your “bad DNA” that, say, gave you a hooked honker or a family history of heart attacks? Well, complain no more. A recent study in the brand-new field of epigentics found that eating a healthy diet can “turn on” good DNA and “turn off” some bad DNA, leading to long-term and even generational benefits. So while you probably can’t get a nutritional nose job, you can eat your way to less heart disease—and spare your children from inheriting the risk too.
8. It can help cure irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
IBS is to stomachaches what Godzilla is to the Geico gecko. Sufferers experience debilitating pain, bloating, tenacious constipation, and embarrassing (sometimes public) displays of diarrhea. But new research has found a link between the bacteria living in a person’s gut and their chance of having IBS, saying that eating probiotics helped the majority of sufferers find some respite. And don’t just look to yogurt to get your fix. Remember the three Ks: kefir, kimchi, and kombucha.
9. It makes your (future) children smarter…
There’s nothing fishy about this: A pediatric study shows pregnant women who eat a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids, DHA specifically, go on to have kids with higher IQs at age four than do moms who avoid seafood. And another study demonstrated that children who supplemented with DHA or ate a lot of fish also showed cognitive improvements.
10. … And it makes you smarter too.
Fish oil isn’t only for kids! Eating more fish can boost your cognitive capacity. But it is not just about towing the (fishing) line; a diet rich in healthy fats, protein, and antioxidants from produce increases cognition and prevents memory loss later in life too, says a neuroscience study .
11. It’s the ultimate workout booster.
Just like exercise can help you eat better, eating better can help you crush it in the gym. Exercise, by definition, breaks you down. It’s tough on your muscles, bones, and cardiovascular system. It’s how your body heals all that damage that makes you stronger, and healthy foods support that growth and recovery process. Good carbohydrates boost your endurance, protein builds and maintains muscle, and vitamins and minerals keep everything working together as it should.
12. It chills you out.
People credit turkey’s tryptophan for a comfy food coma post-Thanksgiving (which isn’t strictly true: Blame the carb-overload for that). But tryptophan can help you chill out. Researchers found that men deprived of tryptophan experienced an immediate rise in anxiety, and some even had panic attacks. But once they were given tryptophan again, they calmed down like babies in a bubble bath. And no need to dig out your turkey baster—tryptophan is found in lots of healthy foods like dark chocolate, oats, dried fruit, seeds, eggs, fish, and dairy.
13. It delivers clearer skin.
Breakouts in high school are expected with the swing of teenage hormones. But, alas, adulthood doesn’t guarantee the end of the acne era. If you’re still struggling with red spots, look to your plate. Scientists say you may be able to eat your way to a clearer complexion. Sugary foods, dairy, and processed grains have all been linked to outbreaks of acne and rosacea. And new research showed removing those foods seems to clear the problem up. While the effects weren’t consistent through all subjects, the American Academy of Dermatology says it’s worth trying eliminating these things and seeing if it helps.
14. It amps up your sex drive.
While many foods (think wine, chocolate, and oysters) have been hailed as aphrodisiacs, in scientific study, the effects have been mostly chalked up to the placebo effect. But new data suggests we look in the spice aisle. Researchers found that eating healthy spices like saffron and ginger measurably improved sexual desire and performance in both genders. Stay away from the booze, though. While “liquid courage” could improve your flirting game, and researchers found that it did significantly improve desire, it also significantly decreased performance.
15. It prevents insomnia.
With about 50 percent of adults experiencing at least one bout of sleeplessness lasting longer than three weeks, insomnia is one of the major complaints people have about their health. Fortunately good nutrition can help you catch your zzzs. One study found that adults who drank a tasty smoothie made from tart cherries got, on average, 90 more minutes of sleep a night. Other research has shown that magnesium, found in foods like dark chocolate and whole oats, helped people fall asleep faster with less incidents of nighttime waking . Finally, in a third study, people who ate fermented dairy products like yogurt and kefir slept longer and had higher quality sleep .
16. It soothes sore muscles.
According to several studies, what you eat can greatly affect how quickly and how well your muscles recover after a workout. (Read: Eat right, and you’ll be able to sit like a normal person after bootcamp squats.) According to research, the biggest factor was getting enough protein, as that nutrient is responsible for building and repairing skeletal muscle, but blueberries also provided measurable relief.
17. It reduces cravings for bad food.
File this under odd but true: Eating a salmon omelet could stave off cravings for Swedish Fish. Researchers found that starting the day with a protein-rich meal for breakfast helped reduce cravings for junk food later on in the day. Rather than feel deprived of their favorite treats, subjects reported, well, not thinking about treats much at all. The researchers think that eating a healthy, protein-packed breakfast increased levels of dopamine in the brain. Since 91 percent of us report having intense food cravings, according to a Tufts study, we’ll be seeing you at the breakfast bar.
18. It gives you energy.
The next time you’re feeling exhausted, skip the “energy” drinks and head for the blender. Not only can long-term caffeine abuse make you more exhausted in the long run by messing up your sleep, but it can exacerbate the effects of stress, making you mentally tired as well . Instead, whip up a shake with a balance of carbohydrates for quick energy and complex protein to increase performance and help with recovery. A study of athletes found that those who drank the protein shake showed a significant improvement in performance on an athletic test than did those who relied on straight carbs alone .
19. It makes you a faster runner.
Tortoises looking to finally overtake the hares should look no further than their plate, according to researchers. In one study, runners who ate beets experienced a significant increase in their endurance and speed. But stick to whole beets rather than beet juices or extracts, as the effect was most pronounced from eating the food. Another study found that people who ate a Mediterranean style diet (heavy on fish, olive oil, and nuts, and light on gelato) increased their running endurance, upped their tolerance for exercise, and showed improvements in their cardiovascular health .
20. It will make you win at life.
In possibly the cutest study, Stanford researches had children face down delicious marshmallows in the ultimate battle of willpower. The results, chronicled in the book The Marshmallow Test, showed that tots who had strong enough willpower to resist the junk food ended up having higher SAT scores and great professional success as adults. But it doesn’t take a test to see there is a link between living your best life and treating your body well. Taking care of your health will not only give you all the benefits we’ve listed, and many more, but the confidence and self-knowledge in all aspects of your life—so bon appetit!