Want to be sharper at work? Feel less tired at home? Spend some quality time with your spouse? How about enjoying a cookie without guilt?
If you answered "yes" to all of these questions (and who wouldn't?), exercise is the answer.
Being physically active offers benefits far beyond the obvious. (Of course, an improved physique and a clean bill of health aren't too shabby, either.)
If you've been looking for the motivation to begin an exercise program or get back into working out regularly, here are 10 fitness facts that may help inspire you to get off the couch.
1. Exercise Boosts Brainpower
Not only does exercise improve your body, it helps your mental function, says certified trainer David Atkinson.
"Exercise increases energy levels and increases serotonin in the brain, which leads to improved mental clarity," says Atkinson, director of program development for Cooper Ventures, a division of the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas.
All that makes for a more productive day.
"It is clear that those who are active and who exercise are much more productive at work," says Todd A. Astorino, assistant professor of kinesiology at California State University-San Marcos.
Improved productivity not only makes you a better worker, it makes things better for everyone in the workplace. Companies with less wasted work hours and less sick time end up with lower health care costs -- and an improved bottom line, Astorino says.
2. Movement Melts Away Stress
As much as it may stress you out just to think about exercising, once you actually start working out, you'll experience less stress in every part of your life.
"Exercise produces a relaxation response that serves as a positive distraction," says Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise. He says it also helps elevate your mood and keep depression at bay.
You're not the only person who will benefit from more happiness and less stress in your life. When you're less stressed, you're less irritable, Atkinson says -- and that could improve relationships with your partner, kids, and co-workers.
3. Exercise Gives You Energy
You might be surprised at how, say, popping in a workout tape for 30 minutes in the morning can change your whole day. When endorphins are released into your bloodstream during exercise, says Astorino, "you feel much more energized the rest of the day."
And when you improve your strength and stamina, it's easier to accomplish everyday tasks like carrying groceries and climbing stairs. This also helps you feel more energetic over the course of the day.
A common excuse among Atkinson's clients is that they're too tired to exercise, he says. While exercise may make you feel more tired at first, he says, that won't last long.
The physical tiredness you feel after working out isn't the same as everyday fatigue, he says. Besides, once your body adjusts to exercise, you'll have more energy than ever.
4. It's Not That Hard to Find Time for Fitness
The key, says Atkinson, is to use your time more wisely. Think about killing two birds with one stone.
Take your kids to the park or ride bikes together, and you're getting physical activity while enjoying family time, he says. Beyond that, go for a hike, take the kids swimming, or play hide-and-seek, tag, softball, or horseshoes in the backyard.
At work, he says, schedule a meeting on the jogging track or on the golf course.
Also, forget the idea that you have to trudge to the gym and spend an hour or more doing a formal workout. Instead, you can work short spurts of physical activity into your day.
"Everyone has 20 minutes," Atkinson says. "Everyone has 10 minutes to jump rope, and sometimes that's better than 20 minutes of walking or running."
Indeed, squeezing in two or three bouts of 15 or 20 minutes of activity is just as effective as doing it all at once, says Astorino. Vacuuming the house in the morning, riding bikes in the park with the kids in the afternoon, then taking a brisk walk in the evening can add up to an active day.
Recent U.S. government guidelines say that to lose weight and keep it weight off, you should accumulate at least 60 minutes of exercise a day, says Astorino. But half an hour a day is all you need to reap the health and disease-fighting benefits of exercise.
5. Fitness Can Help Build Relationships
Think of what exercising with a partner can do for a relationship, whether it's with a spouse, a sibling, or a friend you used to go to lunch with once a week.
Not only that, says Astorino, but exercise is always more fun when there's someone to do it with. So plan to walk with your spouse after dinner every night. Meet your sister or that friend for tennis or an aerobics class instead of lunch.
Besides, Astorino says, people who have exercise partners stay with their programs and reach their goals more often than those who try to go it alone.
"For long-term weight loss, you need to have social support," Astorino says.
6. Exercise Helps Ward Off Disease
Research has shown that exercise can slow or help prevent heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis (bone loss), and loss of muscle mass, says Astorino.
It also helps ease some aspects of the aging process.
"Because exercise strengthens the muscles and joints, it is going to reduce your odds of having some of those aches and pains and problems most adults have, mostly because of the inactive lives they lead," Bryant says.
Provided you don't overdo it, he says, exercise can even boost immune function -- so you spend less time down with a cold or flu.
"There isn't a major health problem where exercise cannot have a positive effect," says Byrant.
7. Fitness Pumps Up Your Heart
Not only does exercise help fight disease, says Bryant, it creates a stronger heart -- the most important muscle in the body. That helps makes exercise -- and the activities of daily life -- feel easier.
"Your heart and cardiovascular system will function more effectively," says Bryant. "The heart will build up less plaque. It will become a more efficient pump."
And "when the heart becomes stronger, it pumps more blood per beat, so at rest, the heart rate is lower," says Astorino. "It's not going to have to beat as fast" to expend the same amount of effort.
Within only a couple days after you start exercising, Astorino says, "the body readily adapts to the stimulus it's getting and it becomes easier. You will feel less fatigue. It will not take as much effort when it comes to breathing. You shouldn't have as much pain or soreness."
8. Exercise Lets You Eat More
Pound for pound, muscle burns more calories at rest than body fat. So the more muscle you have, the higher your resting metabolic rate. And, of course, you also burn calories while you're actually exercising.
All this means that "cheating" with a cookie once in a while isn't going to take you back 10 steps. "Can you eat anything? No," says Atkinson. "But you can afford to enjoy some of the things you really like when you exercise regularly. You can better get away with those things in moderation than you can when you're not working out."
9. Exercise Boosts Performance
After a few weeks of consistent exercise, you may feel your clothes fitting differently and see that your muscle tone has improved, Atkinson says.
You may also notice your newly pumped-up muscles in other ways, especially if you're a recreational golfer or tennis player, or like a friendly game of pick-up basketball, says Atkinson. Exercising consistently will strengthen your muscles, increase flexibility, and improve your overall performance.
"Your muscles will work much more efficiently and you'll gain a greater sense of endurance," says Bryant. In addition, he says, your reaction time and balance will improve.
10. Weight Loss Is Not the Most Important Goal
Weight loss is the reason many people exercise in the first place. But it's certainly not the sole benefit of an exercise program.
Bryant says the long-term goal of weight loss is sold too heavily to people starting fitness programs, and that can be discouraging. People have trouble sticking with something if they don't see results quickly.
"Really, they should think about the level of functioning in the activities of daily living," says Bryant. "That can serve as the motivation to keep them coming back for more."
So whatever weight loss goal you have when starting a fitness program, don't make it your only goal. Strive to feel better, to have more energy, to be less stressed. Notice the small things that exercise does for you quickly, rather than getting hung up on the narrow goal of the number on a scale.
"With a goal of losing weight and enhancing health, exercise has to become a part of a person's life, not an afterthought," Astorino says.