These days, many people live and die by the numbers churned out on their heart rate monitors or fitness devices, analyzing how long their heart rate stayed in the cardio zone versus the fat-burning zone to define the quality of their exercise program. For others, the workout was a good one if they are out of breath and drenched in sweat by the end of their dedicated exercise time. Still others rely on their body's subtle signs the next morning—waking up with glutes so sore you cringe every time you sit down at your desk equals a job well done.
Although heart rate, sore muscles and breathing can be three indicators of workout intensity, what about those days when you feel like you worked hard, but your heart rate didn’t go through the roof? If you’re not so sore you can’t walk up a flight of stairs, did your workout even happen? Was it all a waste of time?
No way. First, remember that squeezing in even just a few minutes of exercise a day is reason enough to pat yourself on the back. Evaluating the value of your workout is more complex than just a few physical signs. Take a step back and look at the bigger picture of how you’re feeling in the days and weeks after your workouts, not just the minutes after one session has ended. You don’t have to exercise for two hours or feel like you’re going to pass out at the end in order to accomplish your goals. After your next workout, consider the range of other factors that come into play when deciding whether or not your workout program is helping you progress toward your overall health and fitness objectives.
Six Signs of Success
- Am I sleeping better? While most experts agree that a regular exercise program improves sleep patterns, the results don’t typically happen overnight. Although a good workout this afternoon won’t guarantee a good night’s rest tonight, exercise can improve the quality and quantity of sleep over time. Too much or not enough exercise can make sleep more difficult, so it’s important to be sure your workouts are making you stronger and not running you down. When you notice you’re sleeping better and feeling more rested when you wake up in the morning, that’s a positive sign you’re on the right track.
- Am I more focused? In the short-term, a good workout provides an energy boost and improves concentration. It can help relieve the symptoms of depression and anxiety by releasing "feel good" endorphins. All of these are changes begin to happen as soon as your workout is over. Longer-term, exercise can improve memory and prevent cognitive decline.
- Am I hungrier? Studies have shown that working out increases the production of ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite, which often makes you hungrier. However, that doesn’t give you an excuse to raid the refrigerator to reward yourself for a job well done. Plan ahead for a healthy, post-workout snack or meal that fits into your calorie budget for the day. Be sure to stay adequately hydrated, too, since dehydration can often be confused for signs of hunger.
- Am I seeing progress? You won’t go faster every time you get on the treadmill, and you won’t lift more weight each time you strength train. Over time, though, you should notice your fitness level improves and you can do more than you could when you started. Keep in mind that as you become more fit, improvements in performance become less frequent. That’s why it is important to change up your exercise routine regularly, so that your body continues to be challenged in new ways.
- Am I feeling good? A good workout can leave you tired, but can also leave you with a sense of accomplishment and a boost of confidence. Psychology experts say a mood boost can happen as soon as five minutes after the workout has ended. While feeling bad about your body will have a negative impact on your self-esteem, a good workout not only improves how you look on the outside, but it makes you feel stronger and more confident on the inside.
- Am I liking it? If you don’t get much enjoyment out of your workouts and you only feel good afterward because the torture is over, consider trying something different. There are lots of exercise options out there, and you’re more likely to stick with it if you like what you’re doing. Don’t like running? Try walking or biking instead. Hate the idea of going to the gym? Go for a hike in the woods and stop for a set of pushups every 10 minutes. Sometimes it takes a little creativity to find the right workout for you.
We live in a world of "quick fixes", where diets promise you’ll lose 10 pounds in a week, and exercise programs promise huge results with minimum effort. While it’s difficult to be patient when you don’t see immediate results from your hard work, the truth is that lasting change takes time. Just because your workout today doesn’t result in a huge drop on the scale tomorrow doesn’t mean that your effort was for nothing.
A universal criteria for a "good workout" doesn't exist. Each person’s body will respond to the demands of a specific workout in different ways. While target heart rate and the Talk Test are standard ways to measure exertion, there are a number of other factors involved. Take a broader look at how you’re feeling and how your body is responding over time instead of just at a specific moment. Also look for the signs that indicate why your workout might not be giving you the results you’d expect. This can help you make adjustments over the long-term, so that your workouts continue working for you.