If only the benefits of exercise were like money earning interest in the bank. It’s a sad but true fact that to maintain your hard-earned workout results, you have to stay fit by continuing to exercise regularly.
In fitness parlance, this is called the reversibility principle. In layman’s terms – use it or lose it. Without a doubt, you will eventually lose whatever fitness benefits you gained by working out when you stop exercising.
This reality can actually discourage a lot of people from even starting to exercise. I have heard many physically inactive people defend their lifestyle by saying, ‘’What’s the use of exercising? When I stop, I’ll just get fatter.’’
Detraining or the technical term for cessation of exercise is also a problem for athletes who get injured.
However, research has shown that it’s not quite as extreme as ‘’use it or lose it’’. It seems to be more like ‘’use it or lose some of it, or maybe all of it’’ depending on how physically fit you were before detraining, what aspect of fitness (endurance, strength, flexibility) is involved, and what preventive measures you take.
There are many misconceptions about what happens to the body when an individual stops exercising. The most common is that the muscles turn into fat. Let me assure you that this is a physical impossibility since muscle cells are completely different from fat cells.
What really happens is that muscle cells become smaller or atrophy and fat cells become bigger. This leads to a change in appearance from firm and lean to soft and flabby.
Another misconception is that you will become fatter or flabbier than when you first started. Admittedly, you will eventually return to your pre-exercise shape, fat levels, and muscle tone but you won’t be worse than when you started.
Changes in stamina
The main concern of athletes or serious fitness buffs is how fast and how much of the cardiovascular benefits they worked so hard to achieve will be lost due to detraining.
The bad news is that these benefits will definitely be reversed, but the good news is that people with a high level of aerobic endurance can retain many of the benefits for a longer period.
In studies done by Dr. Robert Moffat of the Florida State University and Dr. Randall Wilbur of the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, highly trained athletes showed a rapid drop in aerobic endurance in the first three weeks of detraining but the decline was less rapid in the following weeks. In fact, three months later, their aerobic stamina still remained higher than sedentary individuals. The scientists were encouraged and surprised by their findings.
They were surprised by both the rapid initial drop in stamina and then, by the fact that a significant amount of endurance was retained even after 12 weeks of detraining. They could not determine whether this was due to a cumulative effect of high fitness levels over the years, or a genetic factor, or a combination of the two.
They discovered it was the opposite for people with low to moderate levels of aerobic fitness. These people showed little changes in stamina in the first three weeks but quickly reversed back to their original pre-exercise levels after additional weeks.
Changes in strength and muscle size
Dr. Edward Coyle from the University of Texas, a leading researcher in the area of detraining, has found that muscular strength will return to pre-exercise levels after only four to 12 weeks of detraining. Muscle size is also reduced. This is why many people notice that their bodies are “sagging” after a few weeks of not exercising.
Changes in fat levels
Exercise, especially aerobic-type activities, burns a significant amount of calories. It should come then as no surprise that stopping exercise can result in weight gain if people continue to consume the same amount of calories as when they were working out. Let’s assume a person burns 900 calories by doing three exercise sessions a week (300 calories per session) and continues to eat the same amount of calories after s/he quits exercise. Everything else being equal, s/he would gain approximately three pounds of fat (3,500 calories per pound of fat) in three months.
Preventing loss of fitness benefits
You don’t have to lose all your fitness benefits if you are forced to stop your workouts because of injury, school or office work or going on vacation. However, the suggestions mentioned below probably won’t help you if you stop exercising due to laziness since some amount of self-discipline is required to implement the recommendations.
Researchers have found that muscular strength and size can be maintained by doing one to two weight-training sessions per week. This is good news if you have to stop working out this holiday season due to a hectic and rushed schedule. By doing just one weight training session per week, you can maintain your strength until you can resume exercising regularly.
However, don’t push this recommendation to its limits. You can’t do a once-a-week routine indefinitely and expect to maintain your strength and muscle tone. A few weeks are acceptable. Six months is asking for it.
In the area of aerobic fitness, scientists recommend doing half your usual frequency and duration of workouts but at the same intensity to prevent stamina loss. For example, in a study of distance runners who reduced their training volume (frequency per week and length of workout) but not the intensity for a three-week period, researchers found that the runners experienced no change in their 5-K race performance.
To prevent weight gain after stopping exercise, calculate approximately how many calories you were burning with your exercise activities, then compensate for those calories by reducing the same amount from your diet.
Start exercising again
Hopefully, detraining is only a temporary period in your lifestyle. If you have stopped for a long time, the sooner you start exercising again, the better for you. The hardest part is starting again. But once you do, you’ll wonder why you ever stopped and what took you so long from starting again. Be sure to start gradually to avoid injuring yourself. And if you have the ‘’what’s-the-use’’ attitude towards exercise, ponder on this: If everyone thought this way, no one would brush his or her teeth or take a bath.