By Dr. Mercola
Whether the glitch is a change in your work schedule, a family crisis, or an injury that keeps you out of the gym for a while, there are things you can do to minimize loss of your hard-earned physical conditioning.
Even with the best of intentions, we all have times when life gets in the way of sticking with our fitness routines. Sometimes, it's just a temporary dip in motivation that gets in the way, in which case there are strategies for addressing this as well.
Some deconditioning is unavoidable when you take an "exercise hiatus," but how much ground you lose depends on a number of factors, such as the length of your hiatus, your level of fitness when you stopped, and whether you cease exercising altogether or just cut back.
If you are new to exercising and just setting out your fitness journey, studies suggest you are more susceptible to fairly rapid deconditioning if you stop. On the other hand, if you've been exercising for a long time and you're more fit, you will likely maintain your conditioning longer, as well as getting it back faster when you start up again.
Just be careful to avoid the converse mistake and work out every day with no recovery breaks. Your body needs time off to recover. Not enough recovery can be nearly as bad as not enough exercise. But generally only a few days are required, and rarely more than a week.
What Happens to Your Body When You Exercise?
Having a consistent exercise routine is vital to your health in just about every way, so it's important to keep your hiatus as short as possible, to minimize your losses. You don't want your exercise habit to be replaced by the "habit" of not exercising.
One of the key health benefits of exercise is that it helps normalize your glucose, insulin, and leptin levels by optimizing insulin/leptin receptor sensitivity. This is perhaps the most important factor in preventing chronic disease. A little exercise each day appears to go farther than a lot of activity once or twice a week.
It's also important to try to keep yourself in motion as much as possible during each day, as sitting too much is an independent risk factor for chronic disease and reduced life expectancy, even if you're very fit and exercise regularly. Walking 7,000-10,000 steps a day with the help of a fitness tracker can be very helpful.
In addition to its positive metabolic effects, exercise has many other benefits for your mind and body. The increased blood benefits your brain and cardiovascular system, boosting oxygenation, cognitive function, and neurotransmitter production, which helps lift your mood.
Exercise also has proven benefits for sleep and sexual function and has been shown to "turn off" your fat genes. Exercise is indeed good medicine, but consistency is required... the minute you begin slacking off, those health benefits will begin fading away.
Getting Out of Shape Happens Faster Than You Might Think
How fast does your body decondition when you stop exercising? In three words—much too quickly! Anyone who has ever returned to the gym after a moderate absence will likely agree with me on that one. A number of studies have examined the "deconditioning" process, and there seem to be differences between new and seasoned exercisers.
In a recent article,1 sports medicine expert Elizabeth Quinn mentions a study that looked at well-conditioned athletes who'd been training regularly for a year before they stopped exercising. After three months, the athletes lost about half of their aerobic conditioning.
According to exercise scientist Wayne Westcott, a triathlete on a one or two month break may lose only five to 10 percent.2 But science suggests it's a different story for new exercisers.
Researchers3 followed beginners who had exercised for two months and whose strength had increased by 46 percent. These beginners then stopped training for two months, which resulted in a strength loss of 23 percent—they lost half of their previous gains.
Another study4 involved sedentary individuals as they started a bicycle fitness program for two months, during which time they experienced dramatic cardiovascular improvements. After eight weeks, these new exercisers quit exercising for two months. At the end of this period, they'd lost ALL of their aerobic gains and returned to their original fitness levels. If you're extremely fit and have been fit for a long of time, you may have accumulated some extra protection—but don't make the mistake of believing that your lingering fitness has no expiration date!
Training Hard in Your Youth Does Not Confer Lifelong Benefits
Most studies confirm that you should get out and exercise, regardless of your age or how fit you were in your younger years. Studies generally support the old adage, "use it or lose it." A study5 published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that physical inactivity is indeed a risk factor for metabolic syndrome in retired elite male athletes. Other research shows that longtime endurance runners lose muscle mass at the same rate as everyone else, including those who are sedentary—five pounds per decade, according to Dr. Westcott.
This is not surprising when you consider that endurance cardio does not build or maintain muscle mass. For that, you need to do strength training. Strength training is extremely beneficial, regardless of your age. A 2011 study6 found that if you do regular strength training in your youth and continue into your later years, your muscle strength will be easier to maintain as you age. The study also suggests that visiting the gym just once a week may be enough for younger and older adults to hold onto past strength gains—so the earlier you start getting in shape, the better.
A study7 involving world-class kayakers highlights the importance of sticking with a regular fitness schedule. Kayakers who completely quit training at the end of their competitive season showed rapid loss of strength and endurance—losing nine percent of their muscular strength and 11 percent of their aerobic capacity after only five weeks. Oftentimes, you don't have to quit exercising altogether. You might be able to modify your schedule—maybe decreasing how many days you go to the gym or how long you spend there—and studies show this can significantly mitigate deconditioning.
Cutting Back on Exercise Is Less Detrimental Than Quitting
Relatively small amounts of physical activity appear to be effective in maintaining at least some of your fitness progress. The kayakers in the above study who merely cut back to one weight training session and two endurance workouts per week lost less than half as much as those who quit exercising altogether.8 In another study,9 previously sedentary men did three months of strength training, three times a week, and then cut back to one session per week. These men maintained nearly all of their strength gains.
If you need to cut back, incorporating some form of high-intensity exercise on a weekly basis seems to improve your chances of maintaining your conditioning, even if you can't resume your full fitness routine for several months. In order to do this successfully, you need to exercise at about 70 percent of your VO2 max at least once per week, according to Quinn. VO2 max (also known as maximal oxygen intake) is defined as the maximum volume of oxygen you can utilize in one minute of maximal or exhaustive exercise.10
Your Brain May Get Flabby, Too
Flat abs and improved metabolic markers are not the only benefits you risk losing by taking an exercise hiatus. Two studies11 presented at the 2012 annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience revealed that exercise's brain benefits may fade relatively quickly if you stop exercising. In the first study, active rats that had just one week of inactivity were pitted against completely inactive rats while performing memory tests. The previously active rats completed the tests much faster and had at least twice as many new neurons in the hippocampus region of their brains (memory center). It's important to reiterate, this change occurred after just one week of inactivity.
After three weeks of inactivity, their new neurons began to decrease, as did their performance on memory tests. After six weeks of inactivity, the neurons and memory test scores declined even further, leading the researchers to conclude, "exercise-induced benefits may be transient." In a second study, rats that were active for 10 weeks, followed by three weeks of inactivity, had brains that were nearly identical to those of rats that had been completely inactive. This is likely related to a reduction in brain derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) that exercise stimulates.
In prior studies, it was shown that exercise had a favorable effect on the animals' moods, making them less anxious and more resilient to stress, but the newer research suggests these benefits "wear off quickly." There is no way to predict exactly how fast you will lose your fitness gains if you stop exercising, as there are simply too many variables. However, the longer you go without exercising, the greater your losses will be—you can count on that.
Excess Sitting Is Dangerous, No Matter How Many Hours You Spend at the Gym
Intermittent daily physical activity is probably even MORE important than going to the gym. The dangers of excess sitting are well documented—sitting for extended periods of time is an independent risk factor for poor health and premature death, even for athletes. No amount of exercise has been found to counter these effects. Research shows that excessive sitting is bad for your mental health as well, increasing your risk for depression, anxiety, and poor self-esteem.
The key is to stand up often—at least once every hour. I recommend doing a few exercises while standing up. Ideally, you'll want to avoid sitting altogether, as much as possible. Limiting your sitting to three hours or less per day can go a long way toward warding off a number of risk factors. Also consider getting a fitness tracker, and make a point of walking 7,000-10,000 steps per day. This is not in lieu of exercise, but in addition to it...
Super-Slow Weight Training Is a Way to Gain Fitness Benefits in Just 12 Minutes a Week
Total Video Length: 27:03
The majority of adults need more muscle strengthening, especially seniors. Strength training (aka resistance training or weight training) has many benefits, such as helping prevent bone weakening (osteoporosis), age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia), and other problems. Light walking is not enough to preserve muscle tone, bone health, balance, and posture. If you're not incorporating strength training, chances are you'll become increasingly less functional with age.
If you're limited to exercising only once or twice a week, one of the best things you can do is super-slow strength training. Super-slow strength training turns a regular strength training session into a high-intensity session, which is a way to make the most of your exercise time. High-intensity exercises work your muscles harder and keep your fat-burning engine revved up—so if you're pushed for time, high-intensity is the way to go. Even doing four-minute sessions of high-intensity exercise, three times a week, has been shown to produce significant improvements—that's just 12 minutes per week!
If You're Pushed for Time, Try High-Intensity Interval Training
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is another way to gain great benefit in a short amount of time. Research has shown that just three minutes of HIIT per week for four weeks can improve your insulin sensitivity by 24 percent. You can also experiment with some plyometrics, super sets, interval cardio, and other workout shortcuts. Perhaps working out at home will prevent you from quitting. Fitness challenges from icy roads, bitter temperatures, and limited gym schedules make winter the perfect time to implement a living room workout.
Bodyweight exercises have the advantage of being very flexible and convenient, requiring no equipment or special place or schedule, and the price is right—they're free! Mountain climbers, burpees, and countless variations of push-ups, pull-ups, and squats are some of the hardest bodyweight exercises you'll find. If you are just getting back into exercising after an absence, go easy. For strength training, start with about 75 percent of the resistance you'd been using—and increase as you feel you can. You'll be back to where you were in probably half the length of time you were away.
How to Stay Fired Up About Fitness
Staying motivated to exercise may sometimes present you with as much of a challenge as the exercise itself. If you occasionally fall prey to the exercise blues, Huffington Post12 suggests the following six strategies for staying fired up about fitness, based on the latest research about motivation:
- Remember a good exercise experience. A brand new study13 shows how powerful memory is with respect to staying motivated. Study participants who described a positive exercise memory were not only more motivated to exercise, they actually exercised more over the next week than those who weren't prompted to remember.
- Don't aim to "exercise;" instead, play a sport. A 2005 study14 found motives for participation in sports are more desirable than those for exercise. Playing sports is often associated with intrinsic motivators, like enjoyment and challenge—and with intrinsic motivation, you are more likely to act. On the other hand, exercising is more often associated with extrinsic factors, such as physical appearance, weight, and stress management, which tend to be less effective motivators.
- Avoid working out next to the fittest person at the gym. In view of our human tendency to compare ourselves with others, a 2007 study15 found scientific evidence that your perceptions of the person working out next to you can affect your exercise habits—at least if you’re a woman. Women exercising next to a woman they perceive as more fit and attractive than they are will cut their workouts shortand report lower body satisfaction, than those exercising next to more “average-looking” women. Even if you don’t actually move yourself to another area of the gym to escape the gorgeous bombshell, it’s worth at least being aware of this psychological phenomenon and monitoring your thoughts and feelings as you work out.
- Don't motivate yourself by thinking about your appearance. Body image is complex. Goals such as "getting rid of my flabby abs" or "carving off my muffin top" will likely backfire. A new study16 suggests that being overly focused on your appearance weakens exercise motivation. The authors concluded that messages promoting exercise need to de-emphasize weight loss and appearance. Instead, the focus should be on other aspects of body image, such as "body appreciation" and "functional body satisfaction" (what your body can do). Other research suggests that while many people start an exercise program to lose weight and improve their appearance, they continue to exercise because of the benefits to their well-being.
- Customize your workout in little ways. Feeling as though you have a choice is empowering, which increases motivation. Building options into your exercise routine not only keeps it new and exciting but also supports your feelings of empowerment and autonomy. Having a variety of activities from which you can choose on any given day will increase your stick-to-itiveness with your fitness plan.
- Avoid calling yourself lazy. The human psyche goes to great lengths, sometimes unconsciously, to be consistent with one's identity. Thinking of yourself as someone who exercises, or someone who is healthy (or whatever exercise-friendly identity you'd like to apply) will help you step into that persona. Defining yourself as a harried, stressed-out person may sabotage your efforts, but reframing it to "super busy healthy person" might just give you a nice motivational boost.
Manage Your Stress and Boost Your Motivation with EFT
Stress can derail your fitness efforts in a surprising number of ways, including impaired motor coordination, slower recovery, and higher risk of injury. But stress can also really squelch your motivation. The psychological factors discussed in the previous section may seem simple to overcome, but doing so may be more challenging than you think. Perhaps constantly comparing yourself to others is interfering with your going to the gym, or you can't seem to get a handle on your negative self-talk. There's a tool that can really help with this sort of thing!
EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), also known as "tapping," is an energy psychology practice you can learn to do for yourself that helps clear out this unconscious emotional baggage. EFT allows you to "reprogram" your reactions to stress and helps silence the negative self-talk that can sabotage your success. EFT can resolve motivational issues, food cravings, self-confidence, and a wide variety of other issues. It's easy to learn—even children can do it effectively and enjoy tremendous benefits.