Have you ever been to a gym right after the New Year? What about in the first week of February? If you have, you’ll be asking yourself where everybody went, but you know the answer: They’re back home on the couch, swearing that they’ll make it happen next year. And who can blame them? The “getting in shape this year” resolution is easy to make, but breathtakingly difficult to keep.
Last year, we got advice from people on how to actually start doing this, but this year, we’re figuring out how to make it stick. What does it really feel like? What can you expect to happen to your brain and body? We talked to acclaimed exercise-science expert Alex Hutchinson and running coach/running culture aficionado Knox Robinson for their takes on what your first year of getting in shape will really look (and more importantly, feel) like.
What It Does to You After a Week
Let’s get the bad news out the way: If they don’t already, most people should expect that first week to be hard and demoralizing as hell. You’re not gonna be ready for a marathon, you won’t have lost any weight and you won’t be part of the swole patrol. On the contrary — it’s gonna hurt and, in all likeliness, you’ll feel like a weak, uncoordinated buffoon on your first couple runs or during your first few workouts.
“I feel like getting back into running or starting for the first time feels like drowning on dry land,” Robinson says. “You don’t know what your arms are supposed to be doing or if your form is correct, your breathing’s going out-of-control, and you’ve only made it a block and a half!”
You’ll also be feeling pretty sore after 48 hours — and, says Hutchinson, you’ll likely feel worse at that point than before you started exercising. That’s the trigger to your muscles to adapt and repair for the longer term.
But wait! There are already some benefits, according to Hutchinson. “If you go and do one workout, you’re not going to be able to see the change in the mirror, but you’re already having positive effects on your health,” he says. “For the 48 hours after a workout, your muscles are going to be consuming blood sugar at an elevated rate. That’s going to be making your blood-sugar control better and making you healthier.”
As far as what your overall life will be like, Robinson says, “That first week is all about just riding out those waves of panic — not even discomfort, but just shock to the system. The energy expenditure is going to leave you exhausted and you’ll probably crash out, but also feel a buzz at the joy of being done and not dying. In that first week, you just have to be prepared for whatever extremes the body and mind throw at you.”
What It Does to You After a Month
Overall, making it to a month might be the toughest hurdle. Most people simply can’t keep conjuring the adrenaline that this new habit has given them — especially since it’s still new, and it’s still impossible to see results, according to the science — and by now, people tend to get impatient about that. Even worse, you’re probably still feeling tired and beat up after a workout and you still look and feel like you’re made of pre-baked cookie dough. Additionally, Hutchinson says, habits don’t usually change within a month, so waking up early, for example, is still a chore. This is why people tend to fall off the wagon in droves at this point.
Still, things are happening inside your body, and this is the time when stuff starts to click. “Within three to four workouts — so a couple weeks — you’ll be getting a little stronger, and almost all of that will be thanks to neuromuscular gains,” Hutchinson says, referring to your brain’s ability to work your muscles. This is why, even though you can’t see the difference in the mirror yet — studies show you may get bigger by about a millimeter at this point, so it’s practically microscopic — you’re nonetheless stronger.
“After a month, it’s important to know that your body’s not an abacus, to say nothing of being a computer,” says Robinson. “So rather than the sheer amount of time, the body’s going to respond to how many times you’ve run. By the tenth run you’re gonna start feel things clicking.” In other words, you’re not sucking air like you were at first, and your arms, legs and body are starting to move more fluidly. “It’s gonna start feeling less like an exercise in futility or a fool’s errand,” Robinson says. “It might not be pretty, it might not be 100 percent fun, but it’s gonna hang together.”
What It Does to You After Six Months
This is the point at which Hutchinson claims, realistically, you see results, i.e., an increase in muscle size. Sure, over the past several months you might have spotted some muscle definition, but that’s probably due to you dropping weight (if you have). By now you’ve also formed some habits (according to Hutchinson, this also takes about six months) so you’re at least on the way to requiring less conscious effort to get up and do this thing.
“An under-appreciated thing that changes is your ability to tolerate and get used to discomfort,” Hutchinson says. “Everyone knows between January and June, if you stick to your program, you’re going to get fit, your muscles are going to get more efficient, your heart is going to get stronger, your blood pressure improves, yadda yadda yadda. But people maybe don’t appreciate the extent to which they’re going to learn to tolerate the discomfort of hard exercise. It’s not that you don’t feel pain or discomfort anymore — you just get better at distracting yourself so you’re not thinking about the pain. It’s almost like mindfulness that happens automatically from exercise.”
Weirdly, this translates to all kinds of pain tolerance, claims Hutchinson: Heat, pressure, even electric shocks!
Around now, you’re also going to see what it’s like for all those changes to settle in, says Robinson, meaning you’re probably going to be eating healthier more consistently and keeping a more regular sleep schedule. With a bit of luck, you may also have experienced one of those rare, transcendent mind-body moments — known in running, at least, as “runner’s high,” where you feel like you can go forever, you’ve got a smile on your face, and for that one day at least, all is right in this Godforsaken world.
“Those don’t come around all the time, and it’s an amazing experience to know the potential of running,” says Robinson. “What those runner’s highs reveal to us more than some sort of drug rush or reference is that it’s a glimmer of the unlocking of our human potential. They’re transformative. Did it transform you into an Olympian? I’m not sure about that, but did it transform the way you felt about yourself and yourself in the world and the world itself? Perhaps. And that’s wildly transformative.”
One thing to be aware of: Although by now you’re wildly passionate about your new hobby, generally speaking, try to keep that to yourself. “Working with the mind and the body initially can be an exhilarating experience — but I’ve observed that it can spark a wild streak of narcissism,” Robinson says. “You think that you’re lighting the world on fire with your immaculate running exploits, and you’re superior to your coworkers in the corporate kitchen because you did a long run the day before.”
Nobody wants to hear that, and it’s probably having the opposite effect of what you intended.
What It Does to You After a Year
By now, fitness is a lifestyle. You’ve probably found your own tribe, either in person or on social media, and made some new friends. That cliché of fitness opening other doors in life for you isn’t necessarily guaranteed, but it does happen. Hutchinson says that humans have this concept of self-efficacy, where accomplishing one thing enables you to accomplish other things, and that’s doubly true for getting in shape: For better or worse in our culture, getting in shape makes people feel better about themselves, and more confident. Confidence can do all sorts of things for a person — find a new partner, seek a new job, start another hobby… the world is your oyster, man!
Inside, your body has also been transformed. Of course your heart, muscles and joints are stronger, but you’ve now got more blood vessels feeding your brain, and more neuromuscular connections, which is something that normally drops off the older you get. These connections mean more mobility, better coordination, improved fine motor skills and all those things we think of when we think of a healthy, youthful person. If you stick with it, Hutchinson says you can literally pick 20 body systems that will stay frozen in time rather than decay as you get older.
Let’s not kid ourselves, though: This is hard work with delayed gratification. It’s why most people flake on it pretty quickly. But just know that, eventually, it’ll click. “There will come a point — it may be six months for some people, it may be three years for others — where you realize you’re no longer asking, ‘Am I going to exercise today?’ You exercise,’” Hutchinson says. “It no longer requires that mental effort. And once you reach that point — well, it doesn’t get effortless, but it gets a lot easier.”