Engaging in regular exercise improves your overall health, mobility and stamina. It leads to much better consumption of vitamins, minerals, other nutrient substances as well as oxygen in your body. However, in spite of your best efforts, you will eventually miss a workout. And from that point it gets easier and easier to not exercise. Soon you’re not working out at all. If consistent exercise is so beneficial for your health, what happens when you skip a few sessions, take a protracted workout cessation, or when you just stop exercising?
Shortly after you begin detraining (discontinuing your normal exercise sequence), noticeable changes begin to occur in your body based upon your level of fitness. The lack of exercise influences how you look, feel and represent yourself. It hastens the aging process. Your cardiovascular health, muscular structure, brain function, emotions and concentration can be impacted. You develop an elevated risk for chronic illness.
Dr. Harry Pino, Personal Trainer and Rehabilitation Specialist, Exercise Physiologist, Consultant and experienced marathoner, is quoted heavily by many on the subject of detraining. Most of the references come from an August 2015 post by George Dvorsky, io9 blog. In this article, Dr. Pino states that “It’s shocking to see what happens to the body. We start to see lots of changes to muscle, strength, and fat levels—it really deteriorates your structural well-being[…] The fitter you are, the harder you fall.” The better conditioned you are, the faster you lose your well-earned fitness position.
Fitness levels for athletic people decline at varying rates based upon whether strength or cardiovascular losses are at risk. According to Andreas Bergdahl, Assistant Professor, Cardiovascular Physiology at Montreal’s Concordia University, “…what applies to an elite athlete after one week, might take a sedentary individual one or two months to experience.” The precise extent you will lose your fitness depends upon how long you are in the detraining phase and where you are on the fitness bar.
The good part is that no matter the cause for your falling off of the workout wagon – laziness, exhaustion, illness, conflict in schedules, injury, etc. – these conditions can most likely be reversed if you resume your exercise routines and healthy living. And as a reminder of your need to choose daily activity, here follows a detailed summary of what research finds will happen to your body when you stop exercising.
Loss of Cardio Conditioning
Cardio conditioning, or Cardio for short, is a type of exercise for heightened cardiovascular health. When you stop exercising for a few weeks you fail to strengthen your heart and lungs which casts you into a serious sedentary lifestyle. This time of ease causes your cardio to weaken and your body to store additional fat. Have you noticed challenges when you run up the steps, chase the cat or walk a short block? Cardio conditioning falls quicker than your muscle strength; however, it’s a lot easier to regain.
A four week study of nine well-trained endurance athletes on the Effects of detraining on endurance capacity and metabolic changes during prolonged exhaustive exercise concluded that four weeks of inactivity resulted in a 21% decrease of their VO2 max – their maximum capacity to take in, transport, and use oxygen during exercise. It, also, determined that endurance capacity fluctuates substantially during detraining without changes in the VO2 max. Muscle values increased significantly at exhaustion in the detrained state. The elevated muscle at exhaustion could contribute to fatigue in prolonged exercise.
In a study of Time course of loss of adaptations after stopping prolonged intense endurance training, the VO2 max declined 7% during the first 21 days of inactivity and stabilized after 56 days at a level 16% below the initial trained value. After 84 days of detraining the experimental subjects still had a higher VO2 max than did eight sedentary control subjects who had never trained. Enzymes in the blood associated with endurance performance decreased by 50 percent. Curtly terminating your regular exercise routine harms your blood flow and your heart.
In cardio conditioning, your heart muscle is made stronger. You have a lower resting heart rate, and a healthier lung function. These benefits enable you to work harder for longer periods of time, with increased vigor and durability. Also, you may notice less stress and better temperaments. You forfeit these advantages when you stop exercising.
Higher Blood Pressure
For the majority of persons that workout, consistent exercise assists with the lowering of their blood pressure. Therefore, it’s a no brainer that when we stop exercising it raises our blood pressure. Despite the general consensus of this claim, there exists significant inconsistency relative to the matter. This is seen in a study on The Relationship between the Blood Pressure Responses to Exercise following Training and Detraining Periods.
It examined the relationship between blood pressure responses after 6 months of training, followed by 2 weeks of detraining. Test specimen consisted of sedentary, middle-aged obese men (38) and women (37) with prehypertension, mild to moderate dyslipidemia (an abnormal amount of lipids, or fats, in the blood), and normal fasting glucose. Test results revealed “considerable variability” in the blood pressure responses; negative correlations were discovered.
Some of the individuals responded and others did not respond to exercise as a means of controlling high blood pressure. Although results indicated that exercise training lowers blood pressure, while blood pressure increases and returns to pre-training values with detraining; several of the study subjects experienced contrary results. They registered increased blood pressure with exercise training; they registered decreased blood pressure after detraining. Obviously this phenomenon requires further study.
Your Blood Glucose Skyrockets
Sedentary living causes your glucose levels to rise. This increases your risk of contracting heart disease and diabetes. When you fail to exercise, your muscles and other tissues cannot absorb sugar from your blood glucose for energy. Consequently, your blood glucose climbs sharply. This can happen even after 5 days of inactivity per an article posted by Prevention.com. All of this results in a larger abdomen from a loss of fat-burning potential and a slower metabolism. Carrying extra weight around the middle is very dangerous.
After one week of exercise, blood sugar levels should start to decrease. This reversal can occur even for Type 2 diabetes per Dr. James Thyfault, University of Missouri. He warns, “If you stay sedentary, continuously creeping glucose readings can raise your risk of heart disease and diabetes.” Strokes, heart conditions and diabetes may be avoided with as little as 30 minutes of consistent exercise a day.
Initially as you transform from a fit person to a sedentary person, you are still considered healthy by the exercise physiologists; but, you are labeled a deconditioned individual. So, no matter the reason, when you cease to exercise, there is a negative impact. Muscle atrophy sets in, you start having problems with your joints and ligaments. Your body starts to lose muscle tone and develop muscle atrophy, especially if you’re accustomed to regular resistance training. How quickly you lose muscle mass depends on your age. The older you are, the faster you will lose muscle.
Your quads and biceps commence to shrink rather swiftly. However, even if you are not a highly trained athlete, “within 10-28 days you will notice diminished muscle strength and a loss in power, including speed and agility, mobility, moving from side-to-side, the ability to stop on a dime, and a loss of coordination” says Dr. Harry Pino.
Regular exercise can only slow, and not completely halt, muscle degeneration. Within about a week, your muscles lose some of their fat-burning potential and your metabolism slows down. As a result, your muscles won’t convert to fat after you stop exercising – that’s a myth; but, they will begin to decline. Fat will begin to build up and cover them.
When you stop exercising, your strength outlasts your physical endurance. Strength loss occurs in the majority of people after about two and a half to three weeks of inactivity according to Molly Galbraith, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist; co-founder of Girls Gone Strong. This does not apply to endurance and power athletes with specialized skills. The muscular strength that they have worked so hard to amass tends to decrease at a faster rate.
A study was conducted by the Faculty of Sport Sciences, University of Murcia, Murcia, Spain, entitled the Physiological Effects of Tapering and Detraining in World-Class Kayakers. Their results supported “previous research showing that short-term [Training Cessation] results in larger decreases in muscle strength and power in resistance- and endurance-trained top-level athletes compared with [a Reduced Training] approach.
Moreover, muscle power appears particularly susceptible to detraining in highly conditioned athletes, being lost at a faster rate than maximal strength. These results may suggest the need of a minimal maintenance program of [Reduced Training] to avoid excessive declines in neuromuscular function and fat-free mass in cases where a prolonged break (longer than 2–3 weeks) from training is required.”
Increased Body Weight and Fat
If you take an extended leave from exercising…and if you continue to indulge in the foods you enjoy – keeping your body well stocked with high calorie delights – your fat cells will have a feast, causing your body weight to soar. Less exercise means a lower metabolism and less fat burning. As a result, you gain weight and get fat.
In February 2014, a study was done with fifty-five professional male soccer players who stopped exercising for six weeks. This research on the Discrepancy between Exercise Performance, Body Composition, and Sex Steroid Response after a Six-Week Detraining Period in Professional Soccer Players’ concluded with definite increases in body fat percentage and increases in body weight by these athletes.
Findings from the study further showed substantial regressions in aerobic, strength, and sprint performance variations. Therefore, off-season training programs are definitely needed by highly skilled athletes for sufficient mental and physical recovery, and to sustain their most practical body composition levels.
Mood and Brain Changes
Without exercise, you have ineffective oxygen conveyance to the brain. Your body is unable to suppress chemicals that cause depression. It cannot release the chemicals that minimize depression. Occurring within a short span of time, these changes make you tired, unable to concentrate, irritable, and gloomy. They entice low self-esteem.
In the article, Depression can damage the brain, published by ScienceNordic, Professor Poul Videbech, a specialist in Psychiatry at the Centre for Psychiatric Research at Aarhus University Hospital (Denmark), stated that “depression leaves its mark on the brain as it results in a ten percent reduction of the hippocampus. In some cases, this reduction continues when the depression itself is over.” Mood changes leading to depression can damage the brain permanently leaving an individual with difficulties remembering and concentrating.
A Finnish research team performed a study using 10 sets of identical male twins between the ages of 32 and 36. Even though they had maintained the same level of physical activity and had maintained similar diets for most of their lives, there exercise habits differed over the past 3 years. The study was small and not a formal Randomized Controlled Trial; but nevertheless, the results were astounding. Two issues brought about major changes in the test results: 1) consistent exercising and 2) the lack of consistent exercising or in one case, none at all.
The twins who exercised regularly were found to have lower body fat percentages. Their endurance levels were higher, and they had more gray brain matter (for information processing), principally in areas controlling balance and motor function. However, the twins who exercised less frequently, living more sedentary lifestyles for the previous three years, carried on the average seven more pounds of body fat, had less endurance, were nearing insulin resistance – a sign of an early metabolic condition and likely type 2 diabetes. This study is a great warning of what will happen to your body when you stop exercising, and how detrimental that proves to be after only a brief time.
Many people around the world are hooked on gambling, alcohol, drugs, and sex. And yet, others are hooked on strenuous physical exercise. When these activities cease, all of the participants undergo withdrawal symptoms. Per the Counseling & Psychological Services Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, people who exercise heavily every day, and who work out to deal with their stress, may experience withdrawals when they stop. They are likely to suffer changes in their sleep patterns, performance, energy levels, and ability to concentrate, or to feel achy and sore.
Ph.D. student Mia Beck Lichtenstein from the University of Southern Denmark conducted their first fitness addiction study. She says, “If someone who’s addicted to physical exercise is prevented from training, that person will experience withdrawal symptoms like restlessness, frustration and guilt. It’s comparable to alcoholism, where withdrawal symptoms play an incredibly large part in the addict’s social life, family life and working life.”
So, once you stop exercising, your VO2 Max – oxygen uptake measurement, is typically first in line to be negatively influenced. You automatically trigger a decline in your coordination, endurance, power and strength; your stamina, flexibility and energy all within a few weeks. These are very important elements of physical fitness; so the loss is severe. Along with muscle atrophy this jeopardizes your cardiovascular system.
So what’s a body to do? You get off that couch and get back on a consistent exercise routine. Just thirty minutes of daily aerobic activity strengthens your heart, improves your whole body and core mobility. If you are injured, sick or bed ridden, talk with your doctor and therapist to find out what kind of exercises you can safely perform. Failure to exercise is a life threatening choice, especially when just stop abruptly.
If exercise is to profit your health and well-being, there must be a conscious decision to begin and continue a structured exercise routine. In addition, it is essential to create and maintain balance between the amounts of exercise and the amount of time allowed for recovery from exercise sessions. Quality must always precede quantity.