What happens when you stop exercising?

Ever wondered what happens to your body when you stop to exercise?  I’m not referring to taking a break from your routine, or taking time-out in-between exercises.  What if you start off doing really well; then start to slack down and come to a stop?  Let us have a look – you might just be surprised!

After just 2 weeks without any exercise, a number of physiological changes occur:  your muscle strength goes back to where it was before you started exercising a week, month, or year ago.  How quickly this happens depend on your age, how fit you were before you stopped and for how long did you exercise.

There are varied opinions regarding the loss of muscle mass.  For one, there is a difference in lifting weights and doing an aerobics / Pilates-exercise routine.  If you only take a day / 2-break in-between, there will not be any noticeable changes.  If, for example, you train regularly and stop for a few weeks, you won’t lose your strength and muscle mass.  However, you might find that, once you start again, then you get out of breath easier and/or sweat more than usual.  This is because your cardio-vascular system must get used to the exercising again and, in many cases, your brain and body need to be in agreement too!

Resting anything from 1 – 3 days in-between is healthy and vital, according to the American Council on Exercise.  Even if you take a week off from your routine, it is all good.  The most important thing is to start again after the break – something that is not always easy to do; especially those people who are not used to exercising and/or has just started with an exercise programme.

Let’s look a bit deeper into what happens when you stop exercising.  As mentioned above, you become short of breath (and not just when you start exercising again after a very long break).  As we all know, the heart is the pump that pumps blood and oxygen through the body.  After only 2 weeks of not exercising, your heart starts to lose its ability to transport extra blood and your body’s ability to use oxygen optimally, starts to diminish.  The hard work you put in for the last 2 – 3 months, are lost within 2 – 4 weeks (according to American research). 

According to a research study, published in the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise-journal, highly trained athletes’ fat percentage picks up after 5 weeks!  Stopping any form of exercise will cause weight gain.  Why?  One reason is that you lose muscle mass and therefore your metabolism slows down (due to the loss of muscle mass less fat is burned).  Another reason is that, if you move around less but still eat as if you are exercising, you will not only be back to square 1, but will also pick up more weight because the more kilojoules you consume, the more body fat your body is going to store.

Oxygen is vital for our body as well as optimum brain functioning.  When you exercise, oxygen gets transported to the brain far better and you often find you feel more awake and energized.  However, when you don’t exercise, you often feel a bit under the weather, tired, edgy and can even have episodes of “brain fog.”  BDNF (a neurological function that stimulates the growth of new brain cells and helps the cells to connect) increases when you exercise.  Dopamine-levels decrease as well, making you more irritable and feeling tired.  A low level of BDNF and dopamine are linked to depression.  When you exercise your body also excretes serotonin (commonly known as the “happy” hormones) and a lack or low level thereof, can also add fuel to the fire (so to speak) when it comes to feeling depressed, tired, irritable, and so forth.

Did you know that a lack of exercise can cause you to sleep poorly?  Exercising places metabolic- and mechanical stress on your muscles.  Your body makes hormones (like the growth hormone and testosterone) when you are in a deep REM-sleep, as well as heals muscle tissue that might have been injured during exercising.  A lack of exercise creates high levels of energy when you are in the REM-state, thus you wake up feeling tired and lack energy.

A last point I want to mention is quite interesting.  Research has found that, the fitter you are, the more you see sudden changes when you stop exercising.  This is due to the body being used to exercise on a regular base.  Luckily, once you start again, you will be back where you were far quicker than somebody who never exercised, then started, but stopped again, only to start again after weeks / months / years.

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So…what do you do if this happens?  First of all; don’t beat yourself up about it.  Acknowledge and admit that you fell of the wagon (so to speak) and take responsibility for it.  Then stand up and start again.  Diarise a date and time to start exercising again; just as you would diarise an important meeting or social event and stick to it!  Starting slowly is better than not starting at all.  Instead of going to the gym 5x per week, go 2x per week.  If you don’t like the gym, then dust of your tekkies and go for a morning walk over the weekend.  If you don’t feel comfortable to walk outside on your own, then go to a mall and walk inside and up-and-down the ramps.  There are many ways to start getting back into your exercise routine and/or starting an exercise routine. 

For example, use the stairs wherever possible instead of the lift, park your car further away when you go shopping, get up from your chair / sofa by using your legs instead of your arms, play outside, or go for a swim (if the weather allows).

Baby-steps is better than no steps at all!  Rather start exercising slowly, then build it up.  Even just going for a brisk walk every Saturday, early morning or after work, even for 10 minutes at first, is a good start.  If you have any health problems start walking, swimming or doing low intensity-exercises like Pilates and Water Aerobics.  It is important to take care of your health and listen to your body.  Once you exercise more often and for longer than 30 minutes per session / per day, for example, then you can start with more cardio- and higher intensity-exercises. 

It is always better to start slowly – you might not see results immediately, but I can assure you, give yourself 6 months and you will be amazed!  Remember – your body is made to move, it wants to move, so no more excuses…get up and start moving.  After all, movement is life!     

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