How long does it take to lose your fitness?

We talk to an exercise physiologist to see how inactivity can affect fitness over time, and what you can do to hold onto those hard-earned gains.

Written by Medibank

There are always times in life when you won’t be able to train or exercise as often as you’d like, or perhaps you feel like your fitness goals have gone out the window this winter. We asked Carly Ryan from Exercise and Sports Science Australia how quickly we lose the fitness we’ve worked so hard to achieve, and share our top tips to get your training back on track this spring.

But first, a few things to consider

Often referred to as deconditioning or detraining, how quickly you lose fitness depends on several factors, such as how fit you are to begin with, how frequently you generally work out and how long you’ve been out of action. A person with a higher level of fitness will experience deconditioning at a slower rate than someone who is relatively new to exercise.

And according to Carly, “we know that the less active you are, the quicker the loss. For example, people who are bed bound can see significant loss of muscle mass and cardiovascular fitness in just one week. If you are still active in your daily activities the loss will be slower. “

Age, gender, and the reason you’ve stopped exercising are also factors to consider. Meaning the effects of deconditioning due to inactivity will vary from person to person.

Read more: Setting recovery goals after injury

1 to 2 weeks for cardio loss

Your body’s ability to transport and utilise oxygen is one of the first things you’ll notice after a prolonged period of inactivity.

“It’s the first thing that starts to decline - you will likely feel a small difference after 1 week without exercise. After 2 weeks, there is significant loss”, says Carly.

2 to 3 weeks for strength loss

When it comes to maintaining your muscle strength, Carly says, “Muscle mass (the size of the muscle) decreases when there is no stimulus, and your muscles become less efficient. Some suggest you can lose up to 10% of strength in one week, and over three months you will lose most of your gains.”

However, with some limited movement and light exercise, you can take more time off without significant strength loss.

What’s the minimum requirement to maintain fitness?

According to Carly the good news is that, maintaining fitness requires less work than building it. So if you've had a bit of a break from exercise, don’t fret. In fact, it’s important to integrate rest periods in-between workouts in order to give your muscles enough time to recover and rebuild.

Carly’s advice? “Aim for 2 sessions of resistance training to maintain strength, and accumulate 150 minutes plus of moderate physical activity each week. Try to set aside some time for some exercise sessions - even one session is better than nothing.”

"Try and maximise the amount of active movement in your day - take the stairs (even run them if possible!), do some active gardening or cleaning, park further away from the shops, play in the park - you are only limited by your imagination to be active.”

Any activity is better than none, so whatever your reason for pressing pause on your routine, try to make up for it in other ways.

Young man jogging with his dog

5 tips to get your fitness back on track

Getting clear on your goals, and dedicating time each day to exercise can help cement your new-and-improved fitness plan. Here are a handful of ideas to get the inspiration flowing.

1. Take it outside

Studies on ‘green fitness’, or getting active in nature have reported that some participants experienced higher levels of vitality, pleasure and self-esteem, and lower levels of tension, depression and fatigue after exercising outdoors.1 Whether it’s a hike, swim or outdoor yoga class, enjoy the benefits of physical activity with the added goodness of fresh air, natural light and nature. Time-poor? The beauty of an outdoor workout is it’s usually only a few steps away!

2. Walk your dog (or someone else’s!)

Pets can be excellent furry exercise buddies, and the health benefits are two-fold for you and your canine companion. A daily walk with your dog can improve your cardiovascular fitness, lower blood pressure, strengthen muscles and bones (built up by regular exercise) and decrease stress. Plus, a happy, tired dog = no more half-chewed running shoes! Check out your local council website for off-lead parks, beaches, and walking trails near you.

3. Create a fitness calendar

Blocking out time in your diary for physical activity is the easiest way to ensure life doesn’t get in the way of your exercise plans. Draw up a weekly schedule that sets out each training session or class you’re committing to, so they’re front-of-mind when you’re planning your day. Tracking your progress can be a great motivator too. Write down your goals, tick them off, and notice how your motivation and confidence grows.

4. Grab a buddy

If you’ve arranged to meet a friend for a walk, workout or exercise class, I’m sure you’d agree that you’re more likely to keep that commitment. Not wanting to ‘let the team down’ can be a great motivator, so use it to your advantage! Pair up with a family member, friend or pre-book a handful of sessions with a personal trainer to keep you accountable.

5. Self-care isn’t selfish

Making time for self-care isn’t selfish, in fact, it’s essential to better health. Getting away for a few days (or minutes!) can help you reconnect with yourself and refocus on your health goals. A weekly yoga class, practising mindfulness each night before bed, keeping a journal, or embarking on a wellness retreat may be just the ticket to spark that physical and mental reboot you’ve been craving this winter.

1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3710158/

Written by Medibank

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