Use it or lose it!
Everyone knows how hard it is to get in shape and stay in shape. It requires a committed effort to get fit. But it doesn’t take much at all to get “unfit.” In fact, it can happen in as little as a few weeks. So, why is that? That’s a great question, and I’ll get to that later. First, we need to look at how we get fit to understand how we get unfit. By now, most people understand that improving your strength or your cardiovascular fitness requires doing more than our bodies are used to. This is called “habitual load.” Putting stress on our bodies forces us to adapt and become more tolerant, which leads to greater fitness. But there’re a number of other factors involved here: age, fitness level, effort (how hard you work) and environment. This is why I prefer interval training, especially High Intensity Interval Training (HITT). Recent studies have shown you can increase your maximal oxygen uptake in as few as six HITT sessions and improve how efficiently we use the sugar stored in our cells when we exercise. Once we stop training, things begin to go downhill.
How quickly we lose fitness depends not only on our level of fitness to begin with but also on whether we’re talking about strength or cardiovascular fitness. A marathon runner who can run a sub-three-hour marathon probably runs five to six days a week, racking up close to 100 kilometers. And it’s probably taken them 12-15 years to achieve this level of fitness. So, what happens when they stop training completely? Without the stress of training the body is accustomed to, it will only take a few weeks for this top runner to lose cardiovascular fitness. In fact, it will decrease about 10% in the first four weeks once a person stops training. It will continue to decline albeit at a slower rate over longer periods. For the average person, however, cardiovascular fitness drops sharply in fewer than eight weeks.
Research has shown that the average person will see a significant drop in the amount of weight he/she can lift after 12 weeks without training, but will retain some of the strength gained before stopping training. But, despite the drop in strength, the size of the muscle fibers only decreases minimally (about 13% after two weeks). We lose strength because we’re no longer stressing our muscles. So, despite all the hours we put in at the gym and hitting the pavement, we begin to lose cardiovascular fitness and strength within 48 hours of stopping but don’t feel these effects for at least two to three weeks for cardiovascular fitness and around 6-10 weeks for strength. This holds true for men and women and older athletes. The good news is that the fitter you are, the slower you’ll lose your gains.
Being fit is going to mean different things to you at different stages of life, but it will be a life-long process. Although your level of fitness will ebb and flow throughout life for various reasons, it’s important that you keep moving in some shape or form every day if you can. This doesn’t mean you can’t take a break, of course. You will need rest days too for your body to recover. But fitness will require, consistency, hard work and self-discipline. You must be able to motivate yourself to exercise even when you don’t want to. “You’re only as good as your last training session,” says sports scientist Tony Boutagy. “In other words, you only get health benefits from a session for up to about 48 hours afterward.” No one is immune to the effects of deconditioning.
Doesn’t matter who you are
How quickly you’ll lose these benefits depends on your: fitness level, length of the break, age and reason for the break. Although each individual is unique, everyone who stops working out (deconditions) will experience changes to their muscles, cardiovascular system and weight in different ways. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a marathon runner, a gym-fanatic or an average Joe who only walks a few times a week, you’re probably going to lose half your fitness if you stop training for a week,” said Nigel Stepto, associate professor in exercise physiology at Victoria University. “Of course, the marathon runner’s fitness would still be greater than someone whose main exercise is walking — they were fitter in the first place.” So, remember to “use it or lose it.”