What Happens to Your Body During a Workout?

What happens to your body during a workout? Well, pull up an exercise ball and I’ll tell you. You’re going to like it.

what happens during a workout

In this post, I’m answering these questions:

Are you one workout away from a better mood?

What changes does a single session of exercise make?

What happens to your brain and body if you do a 20-minute workout?

This isn’t just a list of the benefits of exercise. It is very specifically a list of the things that happens to your body during a single workout, your next one.

How One Skipped Workout Matters

I was busy as ever one day last week. As Monday turned into Tuesday turned into Wednesday, I hadn’t guarded my strength training time very well. I was mad at myself. I’m not on top of my game – the brain benefits of exercise are huge – when I’m telling myself I don’t have time. So, I had no more than 30 minutes to stop and do it. By the time I actually was in right shoes, set up, ready to start a masterclass 15 minutes after I finished… I then had 21 minutes.

Some of that 9 minutes I’m sure was wasted thinking, Is this the best use of my time? Is this as worth it as longer tomorrow morning?

And when I was finished, I realized what a cumulative effect that would have had if over 39 years of regular exercise (especially the 14 months at 49 I was barely doing more than 20 minutes most days) I had skipped those 10 and 20-minute windows I did have.

What Happens to Your Body During a Workout? (yes, just one)

That is the difference between disease and ease long term and between energy and fatigue every day. Exercise has to be taken on a dose-basis. That is, the regular frequency of the right amount is one of the most important things you’ll do. You can’t “catch up.”

When your motivation is slip-sliding away, pull out this list and remind yourself, there is value in one (even short) workout.

Stretching Exercise

You’re one workout away from:

  • Better problem solving/executive function
  • Better memory
  • More focused attention
  • A better mood
  • Greater fat burning
  • Reductions in anxiety and depression
  • Improved cortisol
  • Increase your insulin sensitivity
  • Increased libido
  • Note: Each of these is dependent on you doing the right timing and intensity exercise for you. A long endurance run for instance has been proven to decrease libido. Crossfit workouts daily or two-a-day workouts are more likely to cause cortisol imbalance than they are to be beneficial. Work with a hormone balancing fitness specialist to find your sweet spot.

You Smarter and Funnier

Part of the brain benefit happens because during activity there’s somewhat less blood flow to areas of the brain while it’s shunted instead to working muscles. It’s the compensatory surge you get after (imagine a dam breaking) that gives you the boost in brain function.

Positive Effects on the Brain

Positive High Activation:

  • Alertness
  • Excited
  • Happy

Positive Low Activation:

  • Calm
  • Content
  • Relaxed

If you have more room for improvement, say you have anxiety or depression, you can potentially have even more profound changes.

Earlier research indicated the most improvements in mood come from rhythmic aerobic sessions. More recently however, research on strength training shows equal promise in its effect on anxiety and depression in older adults. It’s not that strength training didn’t show positive influence in the past, it just hadn’t been studied before. There was a time, you probably remember well, when cardio was thought queen.

In addition to full body strength training, aerobic exercises using large muscles for about 15-30 minutes do the most good.

That is:

  • jogging
  • swimming
  • cycling
  • walking

After a single session of exercise you experience reduced anxiety and depression and improve your mood thanks to these:

  • Endorphin and monoamine hypothesis
  • Increase body temperature, blood circulation in the brain, and impact of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and physiological reactivity to stress

Exercise for Your Brain Combats Stress

Stress attacks the hippocampus (memory central) so if you’re forgetting why you came into the room, can’t remember your speech, or your kids’ names (call them by the dog?) a single bout of exercise can help prevent that.

The morning of a speech I always get up and exercise. Even if I’m driving to an early morning event, it is the best possible way to be “game on.” Exercise, frankly is like a physical matcha. Same effects. Alertness and calm. (Are you drinking matcha? It’s also a fat-burning babe. Just make sure it’s absent of toxins and mold… here’s the only quadruple-screened one I use). And no, in case you’re asking, you can’t just drink matcha and get all the effects on your body and brain you want to. You need to move!

Quick Confidence Boost from a Single Session of Exercise

Your one workout away from feeling thinner and stronger. Your perception of your body fat and strength improves in about 20 minutes. That causes you to feel better about your body during and immediately after exercise. The best news of course, is if you use those little hits of body image boost through exercise at the right frequency, you’ll make them true permanently.

The way those changes in anxiety, depression, and mood change is through improvements in your self-efficacy, distraction, and something called cognitive dissonance.

The Results?

Even if you don’t have a great workout you will almost always feel a sense of accomplishment for checking the box. “Done is better than perfect.” It still makes you feel good about having done it! At this very moment our Flipping 50 Facebook community is doing a month long informal “core challenge.”

Commenting “done” or “did it later” truly has a positive effect on not only you, but an encouraging and collaborative effect on others too. There is something to be said about completion. We all like to have a streak of hitting all the days, or all the exercises even if “catching up.”

Your Future Self Will Thank You

And it’s good for your future exercise self. Small wins and consistency has been proven in research to boost your “exercise identity.” More important to me, it’s been proven in our community over and over.

A woman joins a strength training program and decide she’ll add strength training. Maybe next she’ll make the nutrition and lifestyle choices. And when she completes 24 simple workouts after 12-weeks she’s now thinking of herself as a consistent exerciser. She joins the membership. And like many of our members, years later they are still exercising, getting stronger, fitter and better … while they’re aging.

If you’ve ever wondered how long before you see results or wondered what happens to your body during a workout, research is clear results from an acute exercise session are very worth it. 

what happens to your body during your workout

Is Now the Time for You?

Stronger is a 12-week signature strength training program pulled from my exclusive members-only online “gym-bership” where 6 unique Stronger programs live. When doors open a few times a year, nonmembers can get access to one special 12-week program based on research featuring women in menopause, proven to benefit thousands of women in Flipping 50, and made easy and reasonable for busy women to do at home.






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2 thoughts on “What Happens to Your Body During a Workout?”

  1. Great article. I’m so guilty of getting (and staying!) in the mindset that one short workout doesn’t make any difference. So easy to get overwhelmed with the mountain of fitness before me and not stop to think that one can’t climb a mountain if one doesn’t step out of the cabin!

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