We all know at least one gym rat friend. They’re in the gym every day, going twice a day weekends… Maybe you’re trying to be that gym rat but can’t find the motivation. Maybe you’ve already made progress. You might be satisfied with your gains, whether it’s a faster mile time, a greater distance, or a new max on bench press. No doubt, these are things to be proud of, but to keep these gains, you’ll have to train to maintain. If you’ve hit a hump for whatever reason, read about what will happen once you’ve racked the weights for good.
The short version is, if you don’t keep up with your workouts, you’ll experience guaranteed losses in endurance and muscle power, and you’re also likely to experience increases in blood pressure and body fat. Essentially, everything you’ve worked for will deteriorate, or as the old adage goes ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it!’
Whenever we perform aerobic exercise, we add a little to our endurance. However, once we stop exercising on a regular basis, the need for a VO2 max diminishes, and therefore the body readjusts itself accordingly. The VO2 max can start decreasing in as little as two weeks and continues to decline until it reaches a level that corresponds to your physical activity. Essentially, this translates to a decrease in overall stamina, because there is no longer a need for increased endurance.
Likewise, regular exercise can improve the efficiency of the circulatory system. A more efficient circulatory system can provide better blood flow to the body, which means more nutrients make it to the cells who need them. It also puts less stress on the heart, which reduces blood pressure, and other stress on the heart that can lead to heart attacks, strokes, or other serious complications. A lack of exercise will eat away at these benefits, which leads to increased blood pressure and blood sugar.
Fortunately, there are things you can do. If you’re interested in preserving your endurance, regular physical activity can stave off the reduction of your VO2 max, which is the maximum level of oxygen the body can utilize; the harder and more regularly you work, the higher your VO2 will stay. Keep in mind that even if you can’t match your regular regimen, a little bit of exercise here and there can still reduce the rate of VO2 degradation, and help keep your heart healthy.
One way regular exercise benefits the brain is increased blood flow to the hippocampus; this is the part of the brain associated with memory and emotion. It’s thought that a long-term decrease in the flow of blood to the hippocampus can be partially responsible for the development of memory and cognitive issues, especially later in life. The bad news is, exercise aside, blood flow naturally tends to get weaker as we age. For that reason, it’s important for the elderly to stay active. However, the good news is, it’s never too early to start and maintain a regular exercise regimen.
If strength is your goal, you can expect to notice a difference in your maximum power anywhere between two and four weeks. Like with the VO2 max, the body reconfigures itself to meet the needs of its environment. Muscle is built when the body is regularly exposed to rigorous training, but once that demanding activity stops, the body begins to break down the muscles to supply nutrients to other parts. The good news is, it takes longer for strength to break down than for endurance; however, in either case, it’s important to maintain regular workouts to hold onto your gains.
Along with the decrease in muscle mass, you’re likely to notice an increase in body fat within six weeks or so. Regular exercise burns calories, which prevents them from turning into fat. Once you’ve fallen off the wagon, you can expect your weight and waist size to increase accordingly. An increase in fat can lead to both higher blood pressure and higher blood sugar, which can lead to heart disease and diabetes respectively. Semi-frequent activity can help to mitigate this process, but regular physical activity is the best bet for remaining healthy.
At the end of the day, as good as exercise is for you, the effects are only temporary. This is due largely to the way the body allocates resources, ie, storing fat for energy later, or building muscle and stamina for frequent and demanding loads. Whatever ‘in shape’ means to you, make sure you at least ‘train to maintain’ if not pushing the limits. Keep in mind, however, that there is a difference in taking a break and dropping your workout altogether; regular breaks give your body time to repair itself and are a good part of any workout plan.