Pete McCall by Pete McCall

It’s happening again—nights are getting longer, temperatures are dropping and pumpkin spiced foods are invading your favorite dining establishment. Of course, all this means that 2018 will soon slide into history as we slip into the promise of a new year. Before we become bogged down with the craziness of the holiday season, let’s take the time to pause and reflect on six things we learned in 2018 about how exercise affects the human body and what strategies are effective for promoting healthier behaviors.

1. It’s already well established that by increasing the production of certain neurotransmitters, exercise can influence brain chemistry. Over the past year, more evidence has been collected demonstrating that regular exercise can provide a positive effect on mental health. For example, a study published in the analyzed data from more than one million people who self-reported physical activity and feelings about mental health. Those who reported experiencing fewer days of poor mental health exercised for 45 minutes, three to five times per week. Although researchers didn’t identify which type of exercise was best, they found that those who played team sports, cycled or participated in gym activities reported better mental health.

2. For years, researchers have studied high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to determine its effectiveness for improving athletic performance. In recent years, however, researchers have turned their attention to studying the benefits of HIIT for the general population. From weight loss to improving cardiac output, HIIT can deliver many benefits and will thus remain a mainstay of the fitness world. One common denominator of most of the research on HIIT is that it is the intensity rather than the duration of the exercise that is a key determinant of how it changes the body. Findings in 2018 suggest that the average fitness consumer can tolerate the discomfort of HIIT as long as they perceive they are receiving greater health benefits when compared to traditional steady state exercise.

3. One strange, surreal facet of modern life is that there are now professional video game leagues; yes, people are getting paid real money (apparently lots of it) to play video games. Electronic sports, or e-sports, features competitors battling each other in various virtual environments. As video games and the gamer lifestyle has increased in popularity, there have been more resources focused on understanding how video games affect our lives, specifically our physical and mental health. Surprisingly, playing video games may provide some health and cognitive benefits as various studies have demonstrated. For example, researchers are investigating whether playing virtual reality games may help increase physical activity and provide important health benefits. One study, for example, found that video games that help older adults increase their activity levels may also help them reduce chronic back pain as well.

4. Playing sports such as basketball, football or baseball at the local playground, building forts and running around the neighborhood making up various games were all essential components of life as a child for many people. In fact, for many adults over a certain age, the only barrier for being physically active as a kid was the edict to come home when it got dark. Unfortunately, in the 21st century there are a number of obstacles that can stand in the way of children participating in enough physical activity to properly manage weight and promote good health. As a result of the modern era of technology scientists have been studying how we can help kids be more active so they can grow up to become active and healthy adults. Over the course of 2018, several studies were published to help identify how to increase the role of physical activity in childhood health. For example, one study determined that short bursts of activity throughout the school day can provide health benefits by increasing overall physical activity in school children. Another study determined that children who struggle with overweight or obesity can benefit from lifting weights, particularly if they feel intimidated by or don’t enjoy participating in sports. And this ACE-sponsored research study found that video-based fitness lessons delivered during school hours helped kids increase their daily levels of physical activity.

5. From smart watches that monitor your health data to virtual reality (VR) video games that put you right in the middle of a 3-dimensional digital game, advances in technology means we are constantly adjusting to how we use it in our daily lives. As technology becomes more pervasive and we begin to rely on it for everything from entertainment to information gathering, researchers have been investigating whether tech can indeed help us live healthier lives. Research published over the past year suggests that video games, fitness trackers and social media networks can all have a positive influence by helping to increase physical activity. 

6. When it comes to weight loss, instead of making smart nutrition choices and doing more regular physical activity to burn calories, many people continuously search for a short cut. While it has long been established that managing caloric intake through healthy nutrition choices and increasing energy expenditure through physical activity are essential for healthy weight management, breakthrough research is pointing toward mechanisms in your own body as being an optimal resource for facilitating weight loss. For example, new research suggests that fat cells themselves may elevate metabolism. Clearly, developing a deeper understanding of human biology may be the key to long-term, sustainable weight loss.

As long as there are people who want to enhance athletic performance or change their appearance via exercise, there will be scientists who study how and why those changes occur. Research often confirms what is already known, but in some cases the study of exercise science can yield important new findings that change the way we move. HIIT is the best example because it’s been accepted for years as a technique for enhancing athletic performance, but researchers are still discovering how and why it affects the health of the average person. Undoubtedly, the coming year will bring more exciting research findings that will help all of us make 2019 our healthiest year yet.