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If you’re relying exclusively on the mirror for your feedback, the benefits of exercise can take weeks — if not longer — to become apparent. When it comes to your DNA, though, new research suggests that observable positive changes can take place in just 20 minutes.

According to a study published in the March 2012 issue of Cell Metabolism, healthy but sedentary men and women who pedaled just 20 minutes on an exercise bike experienced positive structural and metabolic changes within their muscle cells.

More specifically, according to researcher Juleen Zierath, PhD, of the Karolinska Institute, a leading medical university in Sweden, the short burst of exercise caused certain chemical markers in muscle cells, known as methyl groups, to disappear. With those chemicals gone, the body is better able to respond to the positive stress caused by exercise. Even very brief activity, in other words, primes people for more movement and all the good things that come with it.

“Your cells get hammered [the first time you exercise],” says Zierath. “In response, they prepare themselves to better handle the work next time.” Zierath likens it to the way a callus develops over time to help handle a repeated stress on the skin.

Though the researchers weren’t surprised by the nature of the changes they saw take place, they were surprised to learn how quickly they would happen, says Zierath. For her, the takeaway is clear: You don’t have to wait for dramatic physical differences to know your efforts are paying off. “Every step counts,” she says.

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