You have been good with your exercise regime. You’re seeing the effects: weight loss and toned muscles. You pat yourself on the back and feel that you deserve a break. Or maybe you have suffered a bad injury and need time to recover. A day turns to a week, other priorities have taken over, you think “maybe I’ll restart tomorrow”, and before you know it, you miss your workouts for a whole month. You’re horrified. You no longer have any motivation. Is all lost?
What is Detraining/Deconditioning?
Detraining (or deconditioning) involves losing the benefits gained from training and the overall reduction in physical fitness that occur when you stop working out for more than a week. The rate and extent of detraining are dependent on your age, fitness level, type of exercise and how long you have been exercising. In general, though, most people can expect similar changes.
Possible Changes in Your Body
1. Within Four Days: Decreased Efficiency of the Heart
The first thing you might notice within as little as four days is that you become short of breath sooner. This indicates that your heart is less efficient than before. Exercise is known to be good for helping your heart to work more efficiently, therefore increasing the supply of oxygen to all parts of your body. When you stop working out, your heart is unable to cope with the extra blood flow and thus, your ability to effectively use oxygen plummets.
2. Within Ten Days: Changes in Your Brain
As aforementioned, exercise enables more oxygen to travel throughout your body, including your brain, so it should not come as a surprise that there could be changes to your brain. Studies have shown that the lack of exercise after ten days reduces blood supplied to the different areas of the brain, including the hippocampus, which is the area involved in memory and learning. Find yourself increasingly forgetful? Check out our article on tips to improve your memory.
3. Within 12 Days: Changes in Endurance, Blood Pressure and Sugar Levels
After 12 days, you might notice that climbing a flight of stairs feels a lot harder. The amount of mitochondria, which plays a vital role in the energy production of muscle cells, declines when you stop exercising, consequently reducing your endurance.
Of greater significance, your blood pressure and glucose levels could spike, especially if you have pre-existing conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes. Research has found that 12 days of inactivity could negate the beneficial effects of two weeks of high-intensity interval training. Your blood vessels begin to harden and blood pressure rises.
Similarly, with blood sugar levels, a 2015 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology discovered that 14 days without exercise offset the improvements in blood glucose levels that had results from an eight-month period of resistance and aerobic exercise.
Bear in mind though, you can diminish these changes simply by making an effort to become more active in your daily tasks. For example, walk your dog and make it a brisk one.
4. Within Two Weeks: Reduced Strength & Muscle Mass
If you were cycling or spinning regularly before your two-week break, you will notice your leg muscles shrinking and losing strength. Bodybuilders will certainly see their muscles deflating. By and large, muscle cells retain their strength for seven to 14 days, after which you will see a slight loss in strength. Typically, you might notice that your clothes don’t fit as well due to the loss in muscle mass. The reason for this is that our muscle fibres store less energy (in the form of glycogen) during the period of inactivity (as it does unused), resulting in the shrinking of these fibres. On the plus side, studies have found that our strength diminishes at a slower rate than our endurance. This means that restarting strength training after a month of no-exercise might not be as hard as building endurance.
5. Within Four to Five Weeks: Possible Weight Gain
Numerous studies have shown that athletes (such as swimmers and martial artists) who take a five to eight-week break from their rigorous training experience an increase in their levels of body fat and a gain in body weight, along with a decrease in muscle mass. This change occurs even when these athletes continue to be lightly active.
However, it is not the case that ceasing your routine inevitably leads to weight gain. You simply have to monitor what you eat carefully. Now that your metabolic activity has lessened, your body’s energy demands have also decreased, therefore you will need to consume fewer calories. Failing to make such necessary modifications to our diet results in an increase in weight.
6. Other Changes
Exercise facilitates better sleep, especially after a particularly intense workout during the day. Your body manufactures hormones that help with muscle repair when we are in deep sleep, thereby assisting our body to recover post-exercise. Without the exercise, our body will continue to function at a high energy level (without the corresponding ability to expand during our usual workout). This decreases our need for deeper sleep, which could lead to inadequate sleep.
Aside from our physical health and fitness, our mood can also take a substantial hit. In fact, with the changes in the blood flow of our brain, mood alterations can be noticeable merely a few days after we stop our training routine. Working out stimulates the production of neurotransmitters (like endorphins, serotonin and dopamine), which play a role in mood control. Endorphins foster positive feelings, which is why you often feel better after exercising. A study in Australia indicated that stopping exercise may elevate symptoms of depression just after three days.
Resting between Sessions
As much as you want to keep fit, you must be aware of the dangers of overtraining. Training daily without a break is not wise either as your body requires time to rest and recover through muscle repair and strengthening itself between exercising. A recovery component is as critical as the workout programme itself and this could vary between one to three days, depending on the intensity of your training.
There may also be times when our body is just unable to push itself despite us wanting to. A break might be necessary when you have sustained a bad injury, you are unwell (especially if you have fever or chest problems), you are drained or severely lacking sleep, or your muscles are too sore and stiff from a previous workout.
The Good News
Getting back in shape after inactivity is not impossible. You can’t forecast how long it might take to revert to your previous level of fitness, but it’s not likely that it will take as much effort as it did to become fit, to begin with, so long as you don’t give up completely.
In this regard, muscle memory, or the ability of special cells in your muscles to “remember” previous workout movements you had engaged in, works to your advantage by enabling you to regain lost muscle faster.
Some tips and tricks to help you along:
- Sick or injured? Don’t break your routine completely. Try to maintain mild to moderate physical activity in unaffected areas. Train across modalities i.e. cross-training. If a knee injury prevents you from running, swim instead. Switch to yoga or Pilates for a lower intensity if a high-impact routine is too taxing.
- After you are recovered, revert to your exercise regime gradually to prevent injury. Continue with a lower intensity workout for about a month before raising the intensity.
- Lacking motivation? Consider enrolling in a fitness class or some form of group exercise. Joining one with your friends so that you can push each other to achieve your fitness goals.
The bottom line: consistency and perseverance. We all drop the ball on fitness sometimes, detraining happens to the best of us. Just keep at it, the changes will happen again.
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