The first question from every fitness novice when they first start a new training program is, "How long will it take to see results?" The question comes from a good place, but hinges on what counts as "results."
What most people mean when they ask this question is usually something along the lines of, "The whole reason I started dieting and exercising was to make my body look more attractive; how long will it be before I notice that my body looks more attractive?" The answer to a question like that is entirely subjective. In truth, the question is unanswerable. No one else can tell you how long it will be until you've changed enough to notice it. Some people work out for years and never "notice" anything, no matter how much their bodies actually change. Other people swear they see a difference after just three days, even though no one else can see it. Who's to say what the truth is? The Beachbody people have the right idea in that they recommend doing a basic fitness test and taking comprehensive photos before starting every new workout program, and at various checkpoints along the way. Your eyes can fool you for a long time, but there is no arguing with photographic evidence. For people whose goals are mainly aesthetic, I recommend Beachbody's approach. Just take photos every 30 days or so and call it macaroni.
For people whose goals are non-aesthetic, or whose aesthetic goals are incidental to their non-aesthetic goals, the question runs a little deeper. It might begin with the bald, empirical question. "How long will it take before I run X seconds faster per mile?" "How long will it take before I can bench press my body weight?" "How long will it take before I'm ready to summit Mount Rainier?" These are good, specific questions whose answers are, unfortunately, uncertain. A sixteen-week training schedule will improve your race time, your bench press, or get you in better shape for a big expedition, but there is no guarantee that doing X, Y, or Z over the course of sixteen weeks will result in a particular improvement. That is, if you engage in a good training program, you'll improve, but there's no telling by how much you'll improve. You just have to keep at it until you reach whatever goal you're aiming for. And if your goal is to do something like summit Mount Rainier, then you might just have to give it a try and see if you're ready.
But that doesn't mean there won't be any observable changes. The truth is, exercise produces a lot of observable changes in a relatively short span of time, and most of these are changes people don't expect. Some they even possibly ignore completely or thoughtless attribute to other factors.
Let's talk about some of the changes you can see when you start to exercise.
Six weeks of exercise is enough to create a statistically significant difference in a patient's microbiome. If you ask me, though, two or three days is enough to observe microbiome changes. Pardon my bluntness, but after taking on a new and vigorous exercise regimen, you should notice changes to the frequency and consistency of your stool in as little as a few days. Confirm this for yourself. The above link goes on to state, "Further, the genetic expression of the bacteria changed so the bacteria produced more short-chain fatty acids, which reduces inflammation in the body and enhances metabolism." This means that it's not just that your microbiome consists of new bacteria; there are also felicitous physical changes within the old bacteria.
One to two weeks of exercise is enough to notice your changing relationship to food. I don't mean that your diet will suddenly become successful or that your cravings will disappear. What I mean is that bad food like pizza and french fries will start to noticeably slow you down. Where you might have once had little problem with a night of greasy pizza, once you take on an exercise regimen, you'll notice that you need good fuel to keep your training up to snuff. The day after pizza night will feel like a total drag compared to the day after lentil soup with fish and vegetables. Again, don't take my word for it; confirm this for yourself. You'll see.
One to two weeks of exercise is also enough for you to notice that beer and serious training is almost completely incompatible. I first noticed this phenomenon while training in college. I noticed that I wouldn't make any significant progress during the first week or two of any training schedule unless I eschewed beer. If I did, everything would be fine. Now, one or two beers every now and then might be alright, but even those one or two beers is enough to make you feel sluggish the next day, ditto for spirits. Wine, by contrast, seems to have little impact on training, so long as you (I?) don't drink more than a glass or two with dinner. Part of this is dehydration: As you tear up old muscle tissue and rebuild it with stronger muscle tissue, your body craves water to feed that process. Still, if this were solely a matter of dehydration, all alcohol would impact the body differently, and it is clear enough to me that wine impacts things a little differently. Wine is known to aid digestion, especially the digestion of meat; perhaps that and the changes to your microbiome account for the difference. I don't know. Your mileage may vary here; try it and find out for yourself. All I can say is that I can drink moderate amounts of wine while training, but drinking any other kind of alcohol is like putting my muscles in a blender.
One week of exercise is enough to increase your insulin sensitivity. This I know firsthand for obvious reasons. Just yesterday I ate a meal with in excess of 45 grams of net carbohydrates, not counting the wine or the tomato sauce that surely involved at least another 10 grams. This is a dinnertime meal that would ordinarily correspond to three units of bolus insulin for me, but due to my increased insulin sensitivity, not only did I go low, but steeply low, dipping down to 50mg/dL of blood glucose for the first time in months; and that, too, after snacking on a few treats because I felt my diabetic body's telltale carb-craving.
Healthy people won't have to worry about hypoglycemia, of course. For you normals, insulin sensitivity is all-upside, no-downside. One week of training is enough to start the process.
A few days, possibly as little as two, are enough to change your sleep patterns for the better. After committing to daily exercise, you'll get more deep sleep and more REM sleep. You'll fall asleep faster, and you'll wake at a time that corresponds more closely to your circadian rhythm (unless, of course, your alarm clock doesn't line up to that). You might even notice that the total hours of sleep you need to feel well-rested decreases as your sleep quality increases. This is certainly true for me. Six to seven hours of sleep is perfectly adequate for me if I am training. Eight hours is what I need if I'm not training.
One week of exercise is enough to make you feel more energetic. This one is a bit of a paradox, since a lot of vigorous exercise will also tire you out. Somehow, though, physical fatigue hits you in a way that doesn't decrease your subjective "energy level." You can be tired from exercise without nodding off at your desk in the morning, which is a marked contrast from being tired from a late night or an extended happy hour. A "girls' night out" will have you in bed all day the next day; a long run will possibly result in a nap that afternoon, followed by a surprising readiness for the next adventure, whatever it is.
So, to sum up: How soon will you notice changes when you start a new exercise program? If you include changes beyond just what you look like in the mirror, then the answer is a highly encouraging two days at the minimum, and two weeks at the maximum. That's not a lot of time at all.
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