What Happens to your Body when you Stop Exercising?
There comes a point in almost every fitness lover’s life when they consider throwing in the towel after a workout—both figuratively and literally. Blame it on your looming work deadlines, or the stubborn number on the scale, or even just boredom with your gym routine.
That’s normal. But here’s why you shouldn’t follow through on the temptation to quit: There are plenty of benefits to exercise, but they’re not permanent. In fact, many of those hard-earned gains will start to disappear in as little as two weeks, says Farah Hameed, MD, a sports medicine physician with ColumbiaDoctors.
Within 10 days: Your brain might start to change
For years, researchers have suspected that exercise is good for your brain, too—according to one 2013 review, it might be able to help delay the onset of age-related memory loss. Recent studies in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience found that even a short vacation from your workout regimen might cause deterioration of the brain.
In one of the studies, when a group of long-term endurance runners took a 10-day exercise hiatus, their subsequent MRIs showed a reduction in blood flow to the hippocampus, the part of the brain that’s associated with memory and emotion. There wasn’t proof the runners experienced any cognitive changes over the period, but they could very likely show signs of memory loss in the long term if they continue their hiatus.
Within two weeks: Your endurance will plummet and your vitals may spike
After just 14 days, you might have a harder time climbing a flight of stairs or keeping up with your 3 year old kiddo. The reason you’re so winded is due to the drop in your VO2 Max, or the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use. It can dip by about 10% after two weeks. It only gets worse from there: After four weeks, your VO2 max can drop by about 15%, and after three months, it can fall about 20%, and those are conservative estimates.”
Even if you don’t notice a change in your speed or strength, you might experience a sharp rise in your blood pressure and blood sugar levels–something that could be more serious for people with diabetes or high blood pressure.
It has been found that a two-week exercise break was enough to offset the blood pressure benefits of two weeks of high-intensity interval training; another 2015 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that people who did an eight-month bout of resistance and aerobic exercise saw an improvement in the blood sugar levels, but lost almost half of these benefits after 14 days of inactivity. So use that as motivation to keep the exercise a priority; it takes far longer to gain it all back than it did to lose it! Before we talk about what happens to the hard-earned muscle as a result of inactivity, let’s first discuss how muscles grow.
How Muscles Work
When you exercise, your body does not actually create new muscles. Instead, your existing muscle cells grow larger and stronger, and the number of capillaries (the networked blood vessels between arterioles and venules) increases. With regular exercise, muscles also develop more mitochondria (this is where biochemical processes of respiration and energy production occur in the cell). The result is larger, more defined muscle mass–not newly created muscle tissue.
While stopping exercise may decrease the size of your muscles, extremely poor nutrition, and disease can cause muscle atrophy, where muscles can completely waste away. Without the calories, vitamins and nutrients of healthy food, your body gets into a state of malnutrition. Permanent damage to organs is almost inevitable, but it can also lead to death.
Typically, only total lean body mass (LBM) is measured, that is, everything in your body that isn’t fat. If your LBM goes down, then it’s generally assumed that you’ve lost muscle.Muscle isn’t the only thing that contributes to your lean body mass, though.
Glycogen, a kind of carbohydrate, is largely stored in muscle and contributes to its overall size. Every gram of glycogen is stored with an additional three to four grams of water, and together, the added glycogen and water can increase muscle volume by about 16%. When you stop training, one of the first things that happens is there’s a drop in muscle glycogen levels. After only one week of detraining, your muscle glycogen levels can drop by 20%, and after four weeks your glycogen levels are close to half of what they normally are.
Here is what that looks like:
This drop in water and glycogen can cause muscle volume to shrink about 10 percent over the course of a month. This loss of lean mass returns quickly when people start lifting weights and eating more carbs.
Still Thinking of Quitting?
Well, I don’t know what else to say. You have put in hard work, sweat, and probably some tears to get to where you are, and it would be tragic to lose the gains! As noted above, maintenance is a lot easier than building, so even if you can only fit in 30 minute workouts right now, hit it hard and make them count! Saying you “don’t have time” really is an excuse. Sometimes compromises have to be made, but the mental and physical benefits make it worth it.