6 ways your health suffers when you stop working out

Discover what pushing pause on your workout can do to you


Umnia Shahid December 13, 2015
PHOTO: AFP

With winters hounding us, there’s a big possibility that you’re skimping on workouts in favour of the cosy couch and garam gulaab jaamun. Just as a good training regimen builds you up, slacking on the workout habit can have the opposite effect — sometimes almost instantly. Experts term this phenomenon as “detraining,” and its consequences can weigh even heavier than the belly you see in the mirror. Luckily, the condition is fully reversible, as long as you bust back to the gym. As compiled from Men’s Health magazine and dailyburn.com, discover what pushing pause on your workout can do to you.

Your blood pressure soars

This effect is immediate — your blood pressure is higher on the days you don’t workout than the days you do. Your blood vessels adapt to the slower flow of a sedentary lifestyle after just two weeks, taking your readings up another couple of notches, according to a recent study in the journal PLoS. Within a month, stiffening arteries and veins send your BP back to where it would be if you’d never even left the couch, says study author Linda Pescatello, PhD, of the University of Connecticut.

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Reverse it: The whole situation unfolds backward when you start sweating again. Your blood pressure drops a bit that day and your blood vessels begin to function more efficiently within a week. After a month or two, the stress from heart-pumping workouts makes your vasculature more flexible, causing lasting pressure-lowering effects, Pescatello says.

Your blood sugar spikes

Normally, your blood glucose rises after you eat, then drops as your muscles and other tissues suck up the sugar they need for energy. But after 5 days of sluggishness, your post-meal blood sugar levels remain elevated instead, according to a recent study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. If you stay sedentary, continuously creeping glucose readings can raise your risk of heart disease and diabetes, says study coauthor James Thyfault, PhD, of the University of Missouri.

Reverse it: Just one week of consistent exercise dramatically drops post-meal blood sugar, even in people who already have type 2 diabetes, Thyfault says. The only solution is to get back to the gym and watch those pounds burn off whilst your body thanks you.

You get winded fast

Gasping for breath after just a few stairs? Within two weeks of skipping the gym, the transport of oxygen to your working muscles decreases rapidly — as much as 20%, says exercise physiologist Stacy Sims. Unfortunately, if you recently started a workout plan and then just quit working out, your fitness gains could actually evaporate completely, notes Nikolaos Koundourakis of the University of Crete. One reason — you lose mitochondria, the mini-factories within your muscle cells that convert that oxygen into energy. A recent British study, two weeks of immobilisation decreased muscle mitochondrial content as much as six weeks of endurance training increased it.

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Reverse it: You can rebuild those mitochondria, but it’ll take you longer than it did to lose them. That’s probably because even active people only exercise for a portion of the day. Staying sedentary, on the other hand, is a 24-hour pursuit, says study author Martin Gram of the University of Copenhagen.

Your muscles wither

Strength hangs on longer than endurance once you stop training. But depending on just how lazy you’ve become, your quads and biceps may start to shrink soon after you leave the weight room. Gram’s study also found significant declines in muscle mass after two weeks of complete rest. What’s more, some muscle fibres actually convert from fast and supple to more explosive but faster-fatiguing. This can hamper your ability to sustain high-intensity efforts, Sims says.

Reverse it: You’ll need longer to rebuild your muscle mass than it took you to lose it, but less time than it would take someone who has never picked up a dumbbell in their lives. About 10 weeks of three weekly strength-training sessions increased the total volume of muscle fibres by 22%, found a recent paper in the journal Human Movement Science.

You plump up

Within about a week, your muscles lose some of their fat-burning potential and your metabolism slows down, says Paul Arciero, an exercise science professor at Skidmore College. In findings he published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, a 5-week exercise break boosted swimmers’ fat mass by 12%. In another study, Koundourakis found super-fit, already-ripped pro soccer players gained a percentage point of body fat after taking 6 weeks off.

Reverse it: Double the length of your break — you may need at least that long to reach the same level of lean. But if you can manage to squeeze in just one workout a week instead of completely laying off, you’ll maintain some fitness and fast-forward the process of getting your old body back, Arciero says.

Your brain suffers

Just two weeks on the sidelines turned regular exercisers tired and grumpy, found a recent study in the journal Brain, Behaviour and Immunity. Research presented at a recent Society for Neuroscience conference suggests that when you remain sedentary for just a week, you tend to grow fewer new brain cells and do worse on maze tests than those who stick to a steady walking routine.

Reverse it: Exercise can combat depression — it produces a near-instant mood lift, even for people who struggle with the disorder, found recent research in the journal Abnormal Psychology. Plus, regular, moderate movement helped older adults grow a larger hippocampus — a key brain area for memory —within a year, says Kirk Erickson, a University of Pittsburgh researcher.


Published in The Express Tribune, December 14th,  2015.

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