When it comes to getting healthy — losing weight and getting fit and strong — you’re probably thinking of the visual benefits: “I’ll fit into smaller clothes! No more belly pooch! I’ll finally have muscles!”
But the benefits don’t stop there. No matter how far away your “after” feels, regular exercise and losing weight — even a small amount — can positively impact your overall health and well-being.
You may notice changes in your sleep patterns, energy levels, and even your mood, just to name a few. So, if you’re ever tempted to throw in the towel, keep these benefits front of mind:
1. Better Sleep
Sleep and weight loss have a mutually beneficial relationship. Losing weight and being more active can help you sleep better. In turn, getting more sleep can help you fight cravings and keep your hunger hormones in check. It can also help boost your willpower so you’ll be ready to get out there and do it all over again tomorrow.
Lack of sleep is all too common — more than a third of American adults regularly get less than seven hours — and skimping on sleep is linked to all kinds of long-term health issues.
“Poor sleep leads to fatigue, which decreases motivation to exercise and resist overeating, which leads to more weight gain or at least failure to lose weight,” says Patricia Salber, M.D. and editor in chief of The Doctor Weighs In.
Bottom line: Getting healthy and fit can help you sleep better, which can then kick off a cascade of healthy decisions and actions throughout your day.
2. Less Stress
Collective stress levels are rising, and it affects our work life as well as our physical health, according to the 2015 Stress in America survey.
While losing weight won’t magically make your stress disappear (hello, work deadlines and cranky toddlers), exercise is a known stress-buster, so think of your daily workout as a natural chill pill.
Like sleep, stress can affect your weight, and vice versa: “Chronic stress can lead to weight gain,” says Salber. “Chronic stress causes levels of cortisol, an important stress hormone, to be chronically elevated. Cortisol stimulates appetite and drives us to crave foods high in sugar. These foods seem to counteract the stress sensations, providing temporary relief of the unpleasant feelings. So, they rightfully deserve the term ‘comfort food.’ If you are overeating because of chronic stress, you must address the underlying cause of weight gain — the stress — and not add to stress by trying to lose weight through diet alone.”
Find an activity or workout you love, and it’s a win-win for your body and mind.
3. Less Joint Pain
Excess weight puts additional force on your bones and joints, which can impact your ability to work out as you might like. “When you increase the number of pounds on a body, it’s physics,” says Heather Bartlett, M.D., a board-certified family medicine physician and founder and owner of The Bartlett Medical Clinic & Wellness Center, a direct primary care clinic in Columbus, Ohio.
“Most people psychologically think if they’re gaining weight, their body must be adapting to the weight. It’s not true.” The body “can’t provide the support it needs to function properly, and that translates into pain,” Bartlett says.
The good news is that for each pound lost, there is a four-pound reduction in the stress put on the knee joint, according to 2005 research published in Arthritis & Rheumatism. That means that shedding 50 pounds of body weight would eliminate 200 pounds of pressure.
According to that study, over the course of the thousands of steps taken each day, this would yield a meaningful reduction in force on the knee — which could translate to less pain and discomfort while working out.
And a 2017 study published in Radiology found that losing even five percent of your body weight could reduce the breakdown of knee cartilage — and losing 10 percent was associated with even less degeneration.
4. Better Mood
A diet high in processed carbohydrates (read: sugar) is disastrous for your endocrine and nervous systems, says Bartlett. Moving toward a diet with healthier sources of carbs can lift your mood since healthy fats and lean protein take longer to digest, thereby eliminating sugar crashes that can lead to mood and energy fluctuations.
And a diet that includes a healthy balance of carbs, protein, and fat doesn’t just provide the fuel your body needs to perform at its best — it frees you from the emotional stress that can come from making unhealthy food decisions.
At the beginning of a weight-loss program, Dunston asks patients to check off any issues they’re having — and she includes plenty that seem unrelated to weight. She says her patients are surprised that the benefits of weight loss reach from head to toe, inside and out. “It affects everything,” she says.
The journey to lose weight can be empowering, and that self-confidence boost can positively affect all aspects of your life — family, work, and home.
5. More Balanced Hormones
Losing weight can support your hormones — including the hunger hormones that influence hunger and satiety.
“Fat is not just decoration,” says Kyrin Dunston, M.D., FACOG, who also lost 100 pounds and kept it off. “It’s metabolically active and produces hormones and inflammatory chemicals that alter the way your body functions,” she explains.
“Fat makes estrogen,” Dunston explains. “A lot of women will report that when they lose weight their periods become lighter, less painful, they have decreased PMS, decreased breast cysts,” she says, adding that this is the direct result of the hormonal balance that comes from shedding excess pounds.
Healthy levels of thyroid hormones, cortisol and other adrenal hormones, and insulin are also linked to weight loss, she adds.
Hormones get a bad rap (who hasn’t used “hormones” as an excuse for an outburst or a bad day?), but these essential messengers carry important info throughout the body. Keeping them in balance can feel like your body has 4G service instead of just a couple of bars.
The Bottom Line
We know, we know: Getting healthy — and all that it entails — is easier said than done. And we’re all-too familiar with the excuses we come up with to avoid getting started. But a healthy body isn’t built in a day, or a week, or a month — with small changes here and there, consistency, and motivation, you can start a ripple effect that will put you on the path to better health for the rest of your life.