Pete McCall by Pete McCall

The end of the year is a great time to review and reflect on areas of growth or achievement. For those of us interested in fitness, whether as professionals helping others achieve their goals or as die-hard enthusiasts who enjoy working out, this is a chance to see if we’ve actually achieved the objectives we’ve been working toward all year long.

Centuries ago, Greek philosopher Heraclitus stated that “the only thing that is constant is change.” This is especially true of our understanding of the human body and how it is affected by exercise. As 2014 draws to a close, it is worth taking a few minutes to review the research to see what we have learned about how exercise and physical activity can help us stay healthy and achieve our fitness goals.

Following are nine pieces of information that were either realized or validated during 2014. While some of these items are simply research-based evidence of what is common gym folklore, others are important findings that may cause us to fundamentally change how we use physical activity in our daily lives.

1. The time between individual heart beats is an indicator of higher fitness levels.

Known as heart rate variability (HRV), researchers have identified that measuring the period of time between individual heart beats is an important determinant of good health. In general, lower levels of stress allow for greater variability between heart beats. Therefore, individuals with high fitness levels and good health show a greater variability in time between heart beats when compared to de-conditioned individuals. A number of new biometric measurement devices can monitor both HRV and heart rate to identify signs of potential overtraining or health conditions that could derail the ability to achieve fitness goals.

2. Wearable technology to collect biometric data is playing a greater role in our lives.

From heart-rate monitors used by exercise enthusiasts to measure training intensity to the yet-to-be release Apple iWatch, wearable technology that allows us to monitor our health and fitness with real-time biometric data is rapidly evolving. As the technology becomes more effective at collecting data, it can help us identify the most effective types of physical activity to meet our needs, whether we want to train for an Ironman or simply improve our health.    

3. We have a greater understanding of how exercise can promote brain health and cognitive function during the aging process.

The understanding that physical activity is linked to mental acuity is a hypothesis dating back to the times of ancient Greek philosophers. Today, new research suggests that moderate- to high-intensity exercise programs not only promote good health, they also increase the levels of neurotransmitters responsible for promoting new cell growth in the brain. Both strength training and aerobic exercise can provide important stimuli for cognitive benefits, which is why older adults are increasingly encouraged to not only be more physically active, but to engage in activities that can provide an appropriately challenging workout.

4. Health and well-beingnot weight lossis being promoted as the primary goal of exercise.

For years the purpose of exercise has been focused on helping people lose weight. Over the past year, however, a couple of different studies show that simply focusing on losing weight may not provide as many health benefits as previously thought. Individuals who exercise for health promotion and fun may experience an overall higher quality of life when compared to individuals who exercise solely for the purpose of losing weight.

5. Sitting too much may be bad for your health.

The link between a sedentary lifestyle and chronic diseases such adult-onset diabetes or obesity has been known for years. Researchers are beginning to realize the negative health consequences of sitting for excessive periods of time, and have even compared it to smoking in terms of negatively affecting health. Simply getting up and standing for a few minutes every hour or taking a brief stroll around the office or workspace can provide important health benefits.

6. Micro-bacteria play an increasingly important role in promoting and maintaining good health.

What happens to your food after you swallow it can be an important factor in whether or not you are able to maintain a healthy body weight. Researchers are discovering that the microorganisms that live within our intestinal tract play an important and significant role in how nutritional substrates from the food we eat are digested and used to support biological functions.

7. Social media may be an effective tool to help you maintain a healthy lifestyle.

One of the keys to making positive lifestyle changes is surrounding yourself with health-focused people, and research suggests that social media can be an effective way to help individuals make healthier choices. If you’re a fitness junkie, your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram feeds likely feature friends who share a variety of healthy information, including workout tips or recipe ideas that can help provide the motivation to follow a healthy lifestyle. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people in your social media networks allows you to share workout info, nutrition tips, accomplishments and even failures with a supportive group of friends that can help you adhere to your fitness routine

8. Interval training may be more effective than steady-state training in providing health benefits.

Interval training is often used to maximize calorie burning during exercise or to train for specific performance objectives. Researchers are finding, however, that interval training can provide health benefits as well. It may be important to learn how to incorporate both higher- and lower-intensity intervals into your workouts to maximize the health benefits from your exercise program.

9. Low weight combined with high repetitions can increase muscle size and improve definition.

While strength and body-building enthusiasts have long eschewed this line of thought because they believed that light weights may not recruit all of the type II muscle fibers responsible for growth, new findings in this area indicate that light weights can be used for muscle growth IF the exercise is performed to fatigue. It turns out that it is a combination of metabolic and mechanical fatigue created by the volume of training that promotes muscle growth and not just the amount of intensity applied.

One thing that I have learned over my 15-plus years as a personal trainer and group fitness instructor is that once I begin to think I know a lot about fitness and exercise, I realize how much I still have to learn. One reason is because we are constantly learning and discovering new things about how the human body is affected by physical activity (or the lack of physical activity). Paying attention to the latest research can help you to stay fit and healthy not only for the coming year but for many years to follow.