When people think about fitness, body image and aesthetics are often what come to mind first. However, setting aesthetic goals focuses on surface-level benefits and doesn’t lead to long-term improvements in your health. There are more benefits to exercising than physical appearance alone, including preventing chronic disease, increasing your lifespan, and improving your quality of life. In this article, we’ll be discussing health-centered ways to make fitness goals for the long term.
1. Improving body composition
Body composition refers to the distribution of lean mass and fat mass in the body . Unlike weight and BMI, body composition provides the full spectrum of your body makeup and is a better predictor of metabolic health. Someone can have a normal BMI but be metabolically unhealthy due to low muscle mass in relation to fat mass or insulin resistance.
While improving your body composition can have short-term aesthetic benefits, it’s also a key player in your long-term metabolic health. A higher percentage of belly fat is associated with an increased risk of poor health outcomes such as an increased risk for metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and mortality .
Muscle tissue increases glucose uptake from the bloodstream, meaning that when you have a higher muscle mass to fat mass ratio, you’ll burn more calories at rest and have greater insulin sensitivity.
To improve body composition, focus on muscle building via consistent resistance training. Resistance training has been shown to aid in weight loss and improve glucose management due to the increased uptake of glucose from the bloodstream. It has also been shown to increase muscle mass and strength regardless of health status . To get started, begin with at least one hour of strength training per week spread out between two 30-minute sessions of resistance training exercises.
2. Being independent in old age
Aging is associated with cognitive decline, physical changes, and decreased metabolic function. Although aging can’t be stopped, a consistent fitness routine can help slow the progression and impact of aging on our bodies.
As we age, our cognitive motor function — how we understand our movement — slows down . Focusing on fitness and brain health becomes an important part of sustaining our long-term cognitive function. One area of emerging research explores the relationship between brain health (particularly diseases like dementia, or type 3 diabetes), blood sugar regulation, and insulin resistance . Research shows that hyperglycemia (i.e., high blood sugar) is associated with slowing all cognitive performance tests and increasing mental subtraction errors for those with diabetes . Therefore, higher blood sugar is associated with reduced brain function.
Another age-related change to pay attention to is sarcopenia, which is the loss of skeletal muscle and accumulation of fat mass for those 60 years and older . Sarcopenia in the elderly commonly occurs as a result of a lack of physical activity and poor nutrition. It’s dangerous as it can impair mobility, increase the risk of falling, and make it difficult to perform daily activities.
The current treatment for sarcopenia is exercise, specifically resistance training, as it increases muscle strength, improves fat-mass-to-muscle-mass ratio, and promotes mobility . Resistance training is also ideal for improving metabolic health as it increases blood glucose uptake from the bloodstream and your muscles use it as energy.
Engaging in daily movement will not only improve your physical fitness, but will increase your independence and support your long-term goals. Here are some tips on where to start:
- Incorporate resistance training into your routine at least one hour per week. Use resistance bands, dumbbells, or your own bodyweight to increase muscle mass.
- Try some yoga or stretching poses daily to increase your flexibility and prevent joint stiffness.
- Continue movements that you love into old age. Finding joy in your fitness routine is key to keeping you motivated and moving consistently as you get older.
- Any exercise is better than no exercise at all. Switch it up and try new types of workouts to challenge yourself.
3. Preventing chronic diseases and metabolic health problems
Consistent exercise is a key pillar in addressing our global metabolic health crisis:
- According to the World Health Organization, physical activity can help you prevent and manage cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, and other chronic diseases . It can also reduce depression and anxiety.
- Research has shown that even less than one hour of resistance training per week can reduce the risk of developing metabolic syndrome .
Another study found that 2-3 resistance training sessions for at least 8 weeks improved insulin sensitivity by up to 48% .
Despite these life-changing results, 1 in 4 adults do not meet the global recommended levels of physical activity . Additionally, those who are insufficiently active have a 20% to 30% increased risk of mortality compared to those who are sufficiently active.
So what’s the disconnect here? And how do we change course?
A key way to take control of your metabolic health is to monitor your blood sugar levels. Managing glucose levels can help reverse insulin resistance, support weight loss, and help prevent future chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiometabolic conditions.
Exercise is important but most people don’t get enough of it. Here are 4 ways to incorporate exercise into your routine that’s sustainable, especially for busy people:
- Take a post-meal walk: Research shows that taking as little as a 5-10 minute walk after meals can help curb your glucose spike and assist in blood sugar regulation.
- Increase your steps: Walking doesn’t get enough credit. Taking the stairs, parking farther away from the store, or riding your bike to work are all simple ways to get more steps and movement into your day.
- Try out MetCon: Metabolic conditioning (MetCon) is a kind of circuit workout that combines aspects of different exercises to improve the way your body uses energy. It’s been shown to improve body composition and increase insulin sensitivity.
- Find joy in your movement: At the end of the day, the best exercise for you is the one that you will stick to consistently. As you age, your likes and dislikes may change, and this includes types of exercise as well. Don’t be afraid to switch it up and try new workouts.
4. Increasing healthspan and lifespan
Healthspan is the years of your life spent in good health and free from chronic disease. It’s different from lifespan, which is simply the total number of years you live.
With modern medicine and healthcare, the human lifespan has increased substantially in recent years. But with worldwide obesity nearly tripling since 1975, and the number of adults living with diabetes predicted to rise to 643 million by 2030, healthspan has shown no signs of improving [10, 14]. In other words, we are living longer but spending a significant portion of these years in poor health.
One of the key ways to improve your healthspan is through regular exercise. A sedentary lifestyle is strongly associated with insulin resistance, depression, and chronic disease . Research has shown repeatedly that engaging in at least 2.5 hours per week of moderate-intensity exercise (including resistance training and aerobic exercises) can improve your insulin resistance and overall health . A few hours per week of exercise has a compound effect over the years. So, consistently investing in fitness for a small amount of time can help improve your healthspan, allowing you to do the things you love for longer.
Putting it together: how to achieve your long-term fitness goals
Exercise and daily movement are crucial parts of a long healthspan and achieving long-term fitness goals. There are many different ways to get movement into your daily routine including walking, resistance training, swimming, yoga, dancing, etc. However, the best type of exercise is the one that you will do consistently.
With these long-term fitness goals in mind, here’s where you can start:
- Start small: Choose small habits that you can implement into your daily routine, including parking your car further away from the store to get in more steps, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or setting a timer for every 30 minutes to stand up after long periods of sitting. When you become more mindful of your lifestyle, you will become more aware of opportunities to find movement throughout the day.
- Grab a buddy: Talk to a spouse, co-worker, or friend about your long-term fitness goals. Go for an afternoon walk or try a new workout class together. Having someone to keep you accountable as you’re just starting out a new routine can help boost your motivation.
- Challenge your strength: You’re probably stronger than you think. Add resistance bands, low-weight dumbbells, or bodyweight exercises to your routine to increase muscle mass and build strength.
- Believe in yourself: Starting out a new habit or routine can be daunting. There are plenty of at-home workout videos that you can start with before going to a workout class or joining a gym. Start with a 5-minute video and work your way up to a longer duration.
- Follow the Veri program: This program offers guidance, goal setting, and educational content to complement your fitness and health goals with your unique biomarkers.
If you need some inspiration, check out this article for 3 weekly exercise plans for metabolic health.
Although many are focused on the short-term outcomes of exercise such as weight loss or muscle gain, focusing on long-term fitness goals is an important part of a comprehensive approach to health. From improving cardiometabolic health to increasing strength and flexibility to reducing the risk of chronic diseases, prioritizing your fitness now will help you achieve independence later in life.
- Body composition is a full-picture view of your health rather than a single measurement like weight or BMI. Engaging in resistance training will help to increase your muscle mass to fat mass ratio while also improving your metabolic health status.
- Aging is accompanied by many age-related conditions such as sarcopenia, slowed brain function, and the onset of chronic diseases. Finding time for exercise and movement in your routine today will allow you to be independent and stay mobile in your future life.
- Studies have shown that engaging in both aerobic and resistance training exercises prevent the development of chronic diseases and metabolic health problems. As little as 1 hour a week can have a great impact on your health outcomes.
- Although we are living longer, we are spending more of those years in poorer health. Incorporating more movement into the day and spending less time sedentary can increase both your healthspan and lifespan.
- Everyone is different and will find enjoyment in different types of exercises. Switching up your routine or starting a new one can help challenge your body and mind while also strengthening different body parts.