Use it or lose it. This principle applies to brain, fitness and body.
If you stray from your usual fitness routine for a week or more, getting back into it often poses a bit of a challenge at the initial stages.
This deconditioning period might be due to you going on a holiday, deciding to binge on delicious, sinful food, or simply taking a break from exercising to just relax and do nothing stressful.
Be careful not to overindulge though.
It’s good to take a break from exercise for two or three days as your body needs rest and recovery days to repair muscle fibres and strengthen itself between workouts.
However, don’t allow the three days to become four, five, a week, two months, etc.
Before long, you’ll be joining the eat-and-be-happy-living-on-sunshine group. And believe me, it’s really easy to fall into this pattern.
After experiencing an injury or with any chronic disease, it is common to experience deconditioning, a physical and/or psychological decline in function.
Prolonged bed rest and inactivity can affect nearly all systems of the body, with wide-ranging structural and metabolic changes: the heart rate may rise excessively during physical activity, bones and muscles atrophy, physical endurance wanes, and blood volume declines.
Restarting an exercise regime after a short hiatus is tough for people who have worked hard on their bodies all year round, what more for people who hardly work out!
Whether you are an avid runner, a regular gym bunny or weekend hiker, you will probably lose half your fitness if you don’t train at all for a week.
Exercise is not something you do once and wait for the rewards to drop on your lap – you may have heard the saying “You’re only as good as your last training session”.
But how rapidly does your fitness level decline when you stop exercising?
Naturally, the younger crowd, regular exercisers or those with a higher level of fitness usually hold on to their total fitness longer than older or intermittent exercisers.
The good news is that deconditioning can be reversed once you start training again.
For some people, they actually become stronger and make quicker progress once they resume training after this deconditioning period.
Essentially, fitness comprises five main components:
• Cardiovascular endurance – your body’s ability to keep up with exercise like running, jogging, swimming, cycling, and anything that forces your cardiovascular system (lungs, heart and blood vessels) to work for extended periods of time.
Together, the heart and lungs fuel your body with the oxygen needed by your muscles for the work they are doing.
• Muscular strength – the maximum force that can be generated by a muscle against resistance in a single effort, i.e. how much weight you can lift in one attempt.
• Muscular endurance – the ability of your muscles to continuously contract, i.e. how many repetitions you can do without stopping, before your muscles tire.
• Flexibility – the ability of the joints to move through a full range of motion without restrictions.
• Body fat composition – the percentage of fat in your body.
The performance decline in each of these components will take place at different rates, and usually, the cardiovascular endurance component is the first to go.
After missing a few workouts, you might have noticed that you’re panting up when going up the stairs or hill.
That is to be expected because your heart has to work harder to get enough blood and oxygen to your deconditioned muscles, which require extra fuel because they have had a long “holiday”.
The more you work this cardiorespiratory system, the more efficient it will be at doing its job.
Flexibility is usually maintained the longest. As you age, it is important that you remain mobile and flexible by keeping your joints limber.
Age is not a determining factor in obtaining flexibility and there are many septuagenarians who exemplify this.
Obviously, the younger you are, the more flexible you will be.
With age, your flexibility decreases (especially if you don’t stretch), but your ability to become flexible remains the same throughout your life.
According to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, a mere 14-day break from exercise significantly reduces cardiovascular endurance, lean muscle mass and insulin sensitivity.
And if you take a two months' break?
One 2017 study published in the Lipids in Health and Disease journal, concluded that a long hiatus from detraining in elite athletes resulted in unfavourable changes in body composition, impaired metabolic function and development of cardiovascular risk factors.
So, even the most religious gym-goers will experience some loss of fitness after an extended hiatus.
Recently, the American Council on Exercise enlisted the help of Dr Lance Dalleck and his team of researchers in the High Altitude Exercise Physiology programme at Western State Colorado University in the United States.
The purpose of the study was to examine the physiological implications when one hits the “pause button” on a regular exercise training programme.
The researchers recruited 35 men and women between the ages of 22 and 77, all of whom were non-smokers and physically inactive.
Physical inactivity was defined as not having participated in at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on at least three days of the week for at least three months.
All participants continued their previous dietary habits and did not perform additional exercise beyond that required for this study.
The participants were put through an individualised 13-week exercise programme. Upon completion, they were randomly placed into two groups: train and detrain.
The “train” group continued the individualised exercise programme for an additional four weeks, while the “detrain” group discontinued regular exercise and did not perform any structured exercise for four weeks.
The results: Cessation of regular exercise rapidly abolished all training adaptions within one month.
The gains that the participants worked so hard to achieve during the 13 weeks were lost.
For example, improvements in systolic blood pressure, high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good”) cholesterol and triglycerides were lost within one week of the cessation of training.
“It’s important to remind clients that something is better than nothing when it comes to physical activity,” says Dr Dalleck.
Health coaches and exercise professionals should provide their clients with strategies to remain physically active during the inevitable breaks that life will impose, whether we like it or not.
“Interrupting sedentary behaviour is key,” says Dr Dalleck.
If you lay off for six months, you would have also gained body fat due to a lower daily calorie burn and a loss of muscle mass.
So while you may not have gained weight on the scales, your body would have become “fatter” and “softer”. Surely you don’t want that.
Genetics also play a big role in exactly how long it takes to get your fitness back after crawling out of bliss or the abyss.
As most of us aren’t athletes, we struggle to get the minimum recommended amount of exercise each week, which is 150 minutes.
Fitness is a life-long process, just like brushing your teeth. It’s important to keep moving in some way, preferably every day.