When it comes to cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength, the saying is true: use it or lose it. While regular exercise can improve heart health and increase strength and mobility, taking weeks or months off can reverse many of these benefits.
That’s not to say that rest days aren’t important. In general, short breaks can help you recharge physically and mentally, but whenever possible you should avoid taking breaks too long so that getting back into a routine doesn’t feel too scary or painful.
“Your body adapts to the stimulus you provide,” says Kevin Stone, orthopedic surgeon and author of “Play Forever: How to Recover From Injury and Thrive.” .
“Your muscles get used to the stress and testosterone and adrenaline and endorphins — all the wonderful things that circulate with exercise. When you take them off, the body starts a muscle-loss program.”
What does it mean to lose shape?
To understand the phenomenon of deconditioning, it is worth thinking about how activity, and therefore inactivity, affects the cardiovascular system and muscle strength. Because regular exercise helps your body deliver oxygen and nutrients to tissues more efficiently, one of the first things that declines when you become inactive is cardiovascular endurance, points out Edward Coyle, professor of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas. in Austin.
After a few days of inactivity, the volume of blood plasma circulating in your body decreases, says Coyle, which causes a number of other cardiovascular changes. Studies show that after 12 days the total amount of blood the heart pumps per minute decreases, along with the amount of oxygenated blood available to muscles and other cells – measured as VO2 max.
If you return to the gym at that point, you’ll only notice slight differences in performance, says Coyle. Your heart rate might be a little faster and your breathing might be heavier as your body works harder to pump blood and oxygen to where they’re needed.
Scientists have found that it is around three weeks that people experience the greatest changes in their ability to engage in a workout, when the energy produced by mitochondria for muscle cells drops significantly. “That means the exercise will be more strenuous,” Coyle points out.
Strength declines less quickly than cardiovascular health. After eight weeks, inactivity finally starts to affect the size and strength of your muscles. For weight training or strength training, the maximum amount you can lift goes down, as does the number of reps you can do, says Coyle. You’re also more likely to experience sore muscles a day or two after your workout.
The extent to which different people experience a decline in fitness depends on age, genetics, lifestyle, diet, and previous level of fitness.
Studies show that older adults lose fitness at almost twice the rate of 20- to 30-year-olds. And while people who exercise consistently for months or years can experience a loss of fitness at the same rate as recreational and weekend exercisers, athletes who start at a higher fitness level “have more to lose in absolute terms. ” says Coyle.
What can you do to prevent deconditioning?
While the cardiovascular and muscular changes that occur after taking a long break may seem drastic, the good news is that most people don’t stop all activities the way study participants are often instructed to do.
If you have to travel or stay indoors because of bad weather, doing something is still better than nothing, says Coyle. Swap dumbbells for bodyweight exercises. Try small exercises like “snacks” throughout the day, climb the stairs as much as you can, or better yet, make it a goal to do some short, high-intensity interval training.
“If you spend just a few minutes a day doing interval training, that’s enough to keep your blood volume high and your mitochondria relatively high,” says Coyle.
If you’re a competitive athlete, lowering the intensity or frequency of training right before or after a big race or game can even be beneficial, as long as you’re intentional. For example, many athletes plan a two- or three-week taper to give their bodies time to restore glycogen stores and allow their muscles to heal.
Those who need to take longer breaks can try cross training or a different sport like skating or swimming. Or maybe focus on improving your balance with aerobics or dance classes, to keep the same muscles active in different ways.
“Overall fitness is a combination of many factors,” says Stone. “It’s not just muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness.”
How long does it take to get back in shape?
If you haven’t been physically active for a while, don’t despair. Just as the off-season is a regular part of any sport, working to get back in shape is possible – and also easier – for regulars.
Research shows that while extended breaks significantly reduce fitness, most exercisers’ levels remain above those who have been sedentary their entire lives.
For example, although muscle fibers can shrink over long intervals, they don’t disappear completely, and they retain a molecular “muscle memory” that can help them recover months after you stop exercising. In other words, you’re already primed to regain strength and stamina much faster than when you first started.
“You can regain approximately half of your fitness in 10 to 14 days with moderately intense exercise,” Coyle points out.
After this initial retraining period, the amount of time it takes for the rest of your fitness to return to pre-break levels can vary depending on how much you need to recover.
One study found that older adults needed less than eight weeks of retraining after taking a 12-week break. Other evidence suggests that competitive athletes may need to train two to three times as long as they were stationary.
When rebuilding your fitness, start by setting a goal to exercise for a certain amount of time each day, without worrying about strength or intensity, says Coyle. After you’ve been walking or jogging comfortably for 30 minutes a day for two or three weeks, you can start picking up the pace for a run. If you want to go back to lifting weights at the gym, start with a lighter weight and gradually increase it.
Many personal trainers recommend increasing no more than 10% each week. But instead of sticking to an arbitrary number, adjust your routine based on how your body feels.
If you can’t do several weeks of retraining or want to get back in shape faster, exercise more intensely or incorporate interval training to speed up the process. “The higher the intensity, the faster the recovery,” says Coyle.
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves
I have over 8 years of experience in the news industry. I have worked for various news websites and have also written for a few news agencies. I mostly cover healthcare news, but I am also interested in other topics such as politics, business, and entertainment. In my free time, I enjoy writing fiction and spending time with my family and friends.