When Exercising & Eating Well Have Nothing To Do With Weight Loss

Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
By Charlotte Andersen 

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. 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 15 science-backed reasons to start living a healthier life today that have zilch to do with your weight. 

RELATED: Squeeze These Healthy Habits Into Your Busy Schedule 

Reasons To Break A Sweat:

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% 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.

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.

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!

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 an extensive 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. 

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.

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. 

RELATED: How To Be Happier (According To Science)

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. 

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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Reasons To Eat Right: 

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 study found 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.  

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. 

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. 

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 meat helps with fatigue, calcium in dairy products is calming, and the zinc in green plants helps can smooth out mood swings

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: kefirkimchi, and kombucha

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. 

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.

It prevents insomnia.
With about 50% 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

Next: Need Even More Convincing Reasons To Exercise And Eat Healthy? 
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