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When it comes to tracking your fitness progress we often rely on the mirror, progress photos or even bathroom scales to measure how far we've come. But sometimes it can be hard to spot any physical changes, and it's easy to feel like progress has stalled. But this doesn't mean you're not moving forward, and for anyone having an I-want-to-quit-day there are some other really important signals to look for, that show you're winning and becoming fitter and healthier.

In this post, Kieran Alger, reveals the alternative signs you're smashing it – and none of them involve the mirror or the sad step. 

1. You fall asleep quicker

If you've noticed you toss and turn less before dropping off and you're getting a much better night's sleep, you're on the right track.

Studies have shown that a regular exercise routine can help you sleep for longer without waking. And you'll get better quality shut-eye too, with more time spent in deep sleep – the restorative phase where your muscles and body tissues repair and energy levels recharge – meaning you wake up feeling refreshed and ready to smash your next workout.

Getting more sleep improves your ability to exercise for longer the next day and helps you make better food choices too – those who haven't had a good night's rest are more likely to reach for high-calorie foods to give them an energy boost. So it's win win. If you haven't noticed an improvement in your sleep yet, keep going, it can take up to 16 weeks to see the full effect.

2. Your friends comment on how good you look

Forget expensive face creams, now that you're eating lots of good food, antioxidant-rich fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains and oily fish, your skin is probably looking better than ever. In fact, one of the common things that clients on the Body Coach 90 Day Plan report is improvements in their skin. Antioxidants are nutrients such as vitamins C and E, that may help protect your skin from the effects of pollution and other ageing factors – and they taste great too.

All that exercise is probably having a skin boosting effect as well. Regular exercise improves your circulation, increasing blood flow and delivering nutrients and oxygen to the skin, giving you that elusive glow.

In fact, one study from McMaster University in Canada found that exercise could even reverse signs of skin ageing in people who took up exercise after the age of 65. Don't expect too much of a Benjamin Button effect though, they've said more research is needed.

3. You're less stressed

Noticed you're snapping less, not so daunted by big projects at work? You've got your healthy diet and exercise to thank for that. Eating less sugary, processed foods means you're not subjecting your body to the highs and lows of sugar crashes, which can leave you feeling tired and irritable.

Research also shows that adults who take part in regular physical activity have greater sense of wellbeing and less anxiety and depressive symptoms than those who don't.

One of the reasons for this is that working out releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins – often referred to as nature's natural stress busters. When you exercise you also focus on the activity at hand, meaning you're more likely to forget about your worries, leaving you clear headed and better placed to tackle issues in your wider life.

“A prescription of exercise can help you have a healthy mind," says GP Dr Paul Stillman, from Media Medics. “Exercise stimulates positive endorphins, clears your head and lifts your mood. I think we'll see more and more people prescribed exercise as a mood-booster."

4. You stop craving the sugary stuff (as much)

While you still have the odd square of chocolate – you're only human after all – it's getting much easier to say no to the sweet stuff. Not only is this because your healthy diet is making you feel fuller for longer so you're less likely to reach for a quick hit from the biscuit tin, your increased activity is also damping those sugar cravings.

In a trial where overweight volunteers were asked to abstain from sugary snacks for three days and then either walk briskly for 15 minutes or remain sitting, the exercisers had a significant reduction in sugar cravings and temptation compared to the sitters. So if you do find yourself hankering after a doughnut, go for a walk round the block instead, it might just work.

5. You have more energy 

Many studies have found that exercise, rather than reducing the energy you have for the day, actually provides a boost that will last you through the day and make you more productive. When you're struggling to see changes to your progress, have a think about how you're feeling in terms of your energy, focus and productivity. 

Joe (The Body Coach) makes no secret of the benefits of his exercise routine. "Exercise is so important to my energy levels," he says. "Without my regular workouts I'd really struggle to be productive and get things done. Even when I'm feeling tired or stressed, a quick HIIT session always makes me feel better and refocusses me."

So what is it that means you can get energy by expending it? “It's the physical activity paradox. How can you expend energy, and end up with more, but that's what it [exercise] does," says Professor Jim McKenna, Professor of Physical Activity and Health at Leeds Beckett University. “If you're a bit frustrated or just feeling a little bit tired, it helps you to generate positive energy.'

Related article: Stay off the sad step: why it's time to stop weighing yourself on the scales

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Joe Wicks

About Joe Wicks

Joe Wicks is the online nutrition coach inspiring people all over the world to cook with his #Leanin15 video meals on Instagram. He is also transforming the lives of thousands of people with his tailored online nutrition plan, The 90 Day Shift, Shape & Sustain plan.

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