Reporter, Fitness & Food
There are some unexpected side effects that can come along with starting a new workout routine—and I don’t just mean stronger muscles and improved endurance. Maybe your arms are so tired one day you can hardly lift a blow dryer, you’re suddenly sleeping like a baby, and you mysteriously never have clean socks.
I’ve been there—more than once. For years, I was a “yo-yo” exerciser. I’d stay committed for anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple months, only to let life get in the way. Months later, I’d come back to my workouts. My breaks were long enough that my body (and my mind) seemed to go through the reacclimation process every time.
After years of going back and forth, I started to notice a pattern with some of the incredible side effects of working out, though. Moving apartments felt way breezier when I could confidently haul my boxes up three stories of stairs after a summer of light strength training (as opposed to the previous year, when I hadn’t worked out in a while and was totally exhausted by a quick move). And I’ll never forget how good it felt the first time I walked out of a kickboxing class thinking, that was hard, but I still nailed it.
That said, there’s a lot to get used to when you start working out—the amazing, the annoying, and the surprising. And you’ll probably wonder, is all this normal? Fret not. It can take some time to adjust to the effects of working out. Some will fade away as your body gets used to exercise, and some awesome benefits will stick around, too. (They’re what keep me coming back, after all.)
Here are eight totally normally things you might notice when you start working out. Knowing what to expect can help you stay on track when they pop up—no need to worry that something’s wrong, or it’s “not working” for you. Give it time, and let the positive effects motivate you to keep going.
1. You’ll probably feel sore.
When you work your muscles, you actually create little tears in your muscle fibers, and it’s the rebuilding process that makes them stronger. However, this recovery can leave you feeling achy and sore. “This often occurs not one, but two days after a strength training session,” explains exercise physiologist Tom Holland, M.S. C.S.C.S, Bowflex fitness advisor and author of Beat the Gym. The achiness that comes on two or three days after a hard workout is known as delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS.
While soreness can happen to anyone who does a workout their muscles aren’t used to (even seasoned gym-goers), it can feel particularly jarring when your body is totally new to exercise.
When you’re new, “your nervous system hasn’t become efficient in recruiting various muscles,” explains exercise physiologist Joel Seedman, Ph.D., owner of Advanced Human Performance in Atlanta. “Your body doesn’t quite know how to fire everything properly, and you [don’t have as much] motor control.” Your body inherently learns how to move more efficiently as you keep training, he says, but in the beginning, over-stressing, and under-stressing certain muscles can lead to more soreness. Fortunately, your nervous system adapts very quickly, so this type of soreness should subside within a couple of weeks.
Plus, there’s something called the “repeated bout effect” at play, explains Seedman. The first time your body is exposed to a certain workout (particularly ones that include a lot of eccentric movements, which is the “lowering” part of an exercise), you often end up sore as your body recovers and adapts your muscles to protect them for the next time around. Research shows that after even just one bout, you’ll probably be less sore the second or third time you do a particular workout. There are several hypotheses for why the repeated bout effect happens, including neural changes, muscle cell adaptation, and the body’s response to inflammation, but the process still isn’t fully understood.
To minimize the discomfort, it’s important to ease into a routine, explains Cori Lefkowith, C.P.T., Orange County-based personal trainer and founder of Redefining Strength. “When most people start a new workout routine, they jump in 100 percent, and they end up so sore they can’t work out the rest of the week,” she says. This makes it tough to establish a consistent routine (and overdoing it also leaves you more prone to injury—if your pain is sharp or lasts more than a few days, check in with a medical professional). There’s no hard and fast rule for how much you should work out when you get started, says Lefkowith, but if you’re working out so often that you’re too sore to continue, that’s a sign you should back off, she says. Maybe that’s only quick 15-minute workouts three days a week, she says—you can always add on.
Even if you do start slow, though, you’ll still probably experience some soreness as your body gets used to the (good) stress from exercise. “The good news is that you’ll feel less sore the more you exercise, so hang in there and trust that your body will eventually adapt,” says Jennifer Leah Gottlieb, C.P.T., founder of JLG Fitness. In the meantime, you can try gentle stretching, light activity (like walking), and using heat or ice to soothe sore muscles. Research isn’t conclusive on whether heat or ice is better for sore muscles, and truthfully, neither of them make much of a difference in the actual muscle recovery—but they can help you feel better while you wait. Try both and see what feels good to you, or switch back and forth between them. (Here are 9 ways to deal when you’re more sore than usual.)
2. You might notice your energy levels increase over time.
When you first start working out, it might seem like your new sweat sessions are zapping your energy, says Gottlieb. That’s normal since your body isn’t used to spending so much energy every day. After a while, though, working out has been shown to have the opposite effect. “Your body may take some time to adjust to the new activity level, but once it does you should start to actually feel more energized after your workouts,” says Gottlieb.
To throw it back to middle school science class, “as you start exercising, you start building more mitochondria and more capillary density in your muscles,” explains Seedman. “Mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, and they’re responsible for helping us produce more energy (or ATP). Those capillaries are important for oxygen distribution and delivery to our bodies,” he says. This can all add up to a little more pep in your step once your body starts building these up.
Research backs this up. One study, published in PLOS One, involved nearly 100 college students who reported feeling fatigued and burned out. Half of the participants were instructed to run three times a week for six weeks; the other group was told not to change their workout habits. At the end of the study, the running group reported less overall fatigue than the control group.
A review of 16 studies involving more than 670 people also concluded that, on average, one exercise session significantly improves energy levels following the workout. It’s worth noting that most of the studies included in the analysis looked at moderate-intensity cardio sessions ranging from 20 to 40 minutes in length. (Longer or more intense exercise might not have the same energy-boosting effects, the authors caution, although more research is needed.)
3. The best sleep of your life can become a regular thing.
For most people, consistently scoring a better night’s sleep is a very welcome side effect of working out. A large study of 3,081 adults from the National Sleep Foundation found that participants ages 18 to 85 who did moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise for at least 150 minutes a week had a 65 percent less chance of feeling overly sleepy during the day (which is a measurement of sleep quality), based on self-reported objective information from participants.
This is good news for your fitness progress, too. “Making sure you’re getting enough rest is key so that you recover properly,” says Lefkowith. As it turns out, your body can actually repair damaged muscle fibers pretty well whether you’re asleep or awake, but sleep’s major impact on recovery comes down to hormones, explains Seedman. Not getting enough sleep can really mess with your endocrine system, including hormones like testosterone and growth hormone, which are involved in muscle repair. Growth hormone, in particular, is released at its highest levels while you’re sleeping, so it’s important not to skimp on sleep (most people need seven to nine hours of zzz’s).
And there’s one catch: Many experts recommend trying not to work out within a few hours of your bedtime, which can actually disrupt your sleep. It’s worth noting that this isn’t true for everyone, but if you’re wired after a night workout, it may be a sign that you’re sensitive to it. In that case, stick to workouts earlier in the evening or during the day.
4. You might feel hungrier than usual.
If you’re suddenly ravenous after starting a new workout routine, it’s not all in your head—since you’re burning more calories than your body’s used to, it might be looking to refuel. “Increased hunger seems to be highly individualized: Some people experience it while others do not,” says Holland.
If you do find yourself hungrier than usual, no need to ignore it—just make sure you’re mostly filling up on healthy options. A post-workout snack with a balance of protein and healthy carbs can also help keep hunger levels in check throughout the day (here’s a guide on what to eat after a cardio workout).
5. Stress might be easier to handle, and your overall mood might improve too.
The mood-boosting benefits of working out can feel just as rewarding as the physical benefits. There’s nothing like that immediate post-workout high (thank you, endorphins), and exercise has also been shown to help manage daily stress for many people, according to the American Psychological Association. You’ll probably realize after a few good workouts that sweating out your frustrations and stressors can feel pretty therapeutic. Working out can be a way to process your thoughts (or distract yourself from them, if that’s what you need). Plus, exercising outdoors is a great way to get some mood-boosting fresh air, too. At the end of the day, it’s “you” time, which is a major element of self-care.
Regular exercise can also have a profound impact on mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. While you should absolutely seek out professional help if you’re struggling, studies have shown that regular exercise can also be an important component of managing depression and some other mental health conditions. Personally, I’ve learned that regular exercise is a non-negotiable element of my long-term treatment plan for my own anxiety disorder—when I’m being consistent, the anxious voice in my head is easier to reason with, my mood is significantly better, and I feel like myself. So on days when I don’t feel like getting active, this is hands-down the biggest benefit that I remind myself about when I need extra motivation.
6. Your skin might break out.
Unfortunately, sweating more can leave you more prone to acne and breakouts. “Sweat from exercise doesn’t cause acne, [but] perspiration during or after exercise creates the ideal moist environment for bacteria to proliferate,” says David Lortscher, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and CEO and founder of Curology. Bacteria can be spread to your face by touching it or wiping it with a towel that’s been hanging on the arm of a dirty treadmill, so it’s pretty unavoidable–and since a sweaty face is the perfect place for it to multiply, this can lead to breakouts, Dr. Lortscher tells SELF.
If you notice a few more pimples or blemishes after starting an exercise program, there are a few ways to troubleshoot. Take off your sweaty workout gear and rinse off after hitting the gym to prevent body acne, says Dr. Lortscher, and make sure you wash your face after a workout. Use a gentle cleanser that doesn’t foam too much to avoid over-drying your skin.
Also, avoid wearing makeup to the gym (particularly foundation)—although your skin doesn’t breathe in any setting, per se, foundation can mix with sweat and increase its pore-clogging potential.
7. There will be setbacks and times you want to quit.
Honestly, it’s not always easy to stick with a new workout program, and you’ll probably want to throw in the sweaty towel once or twice. “No matter how hard you work, there will be setbacks and plateaus, and these will test your dedication,” says Lefkowith.
And sometimes, your dedication won’t win. “There is no perfect. Don’t beat yourself up for missing a workout or two,” says Holland. But don’t let that throw your whole new routine–just get back on track when you can. Consistency is the name of the game. After years of letting a week of missed workouts turn into months, I’ve discovered that there’s no bad time to get back on track.
To keep going when the going gets tough, it’s important to build up your support network. “Share your goals. Find a trainer. Join group classes. Find people to support you and help you mentally overcome that hurdle of getting started,” says Lefkowith. You can also set small daily and weekly goals to keep you motivated. “And remember, we’ve all been there,” she adds. “We’ve all struggled to get started with something. You aren’t alone!”
8. Your confidence can reach new heights.
Working out can be an incredible way to boost your confidence. “Exercise will challenge your mental strength and willpower, but after you prove to yourself that you can push past those limiting beliefs in the gym, you will realize that you have the strength to tackle any challenge life throws at you,” says Gottlieb.
Lefkowith agrees, “I often have clients feel more confident in themselves because they feel in charge of their health, and they’ve seen themselves overcome challenges in the gym they never thought possible.”
So celebrate the victories, big and small, and use them as momentum to power you toward your goals—in the gym and out.