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6 Things That Will Happen When You Stop Working Out

April 16, 2015 4 min read

A good training program can build you up for a healthy future but falling off the workout wagon can have the opposite effect, almost immediately. It is called "detraining" and can mess you up in more ways than you might imagine. Here's what happens when you give up your workouts for the sofa and how long it takes to get things going right again.

1. Your Blood Pressure Soars

This effect is almost instant. Your blood pressure is higher on the days you workout than on the days you don't. After two weeks, your blood vessels adapt to the slower flow of a sedentary life style. According to a recent study in the journal PLoS, this will up your readings by a couple of notches. Within a month, your arteries and veins will stiffen sending your blood pressure back to where it would be if you had never started working out in the first place. Reverse it: This whole scenario works backwards if you start working out again. You blood pressure drops same day and over the next week, your blood vessels will start functioning more efficiently. After a month or two, the stress from your heart rate elevating workouts will make your vasculature more flexible, causing lasting pressure-lowering effects.


2. Your Blood Sugar Spikes

Usually your blood sugar rises after you eat but goes back down as your muscles and other tissues use up the sugar they need for energy. But after 5 days of kicking back on the sofa, your post meal sugar levels remain elevated. If you stay sedentary, your sugar levels will continue their upward creep and put you at greater risk of heart disease and diabetes. Reverse it: 1 week of exercise dramatically drops post meal blood sugar levels, even in people who already have type-2 diabetes.

3. You Get Winded Fast

With 2 weeks of avoiding the gym, your VO2 max—a measure of fitness that assesses how much oxygen your working muscles can use—decreases by as much as 20% according to exercise physiologist Stacy Sims, PhD. One reason why this might happen is that you lose mitochondria which are found in your muscle cells and convert oxygen into energy. A British study found that 2 weeks of immobilization decreased muscle mitochondrial content as much as 6 weeks of endurance training increased it. Reverse it: You can rebuild the mitochondria but it will take you longer than it did to lose them. This is likely because even when you workout, you only do it for a portion of the day. Being sedentary is a 24 hour gig. The good news is that it is never too late to restart your exercise habit. A study from the University of Copenhagen found that older men gained fitness almost as easily as men 45 years their junior.


4. Your Muscles Wither

Strength last longer than endurance but depending on how inactive you have been, your quads and biceps may start to shrink nearly right away. The study, mentioned above, also found that after 2 weeks of complete rest, muscle mass declines significantly. To add to this,  some muscle fibers actually convert from fastest-twitch type IIa to more explosive but faster-fatiguing type IIx, hampering your ability to sustain high intensity movements. Reverse it: Again, the rebuild will take longer than the tear down. In regards to the fast twitch fibers, around 10 weeks of 3 weekly strength-training sessions increased the total volume of fast-twitch fibers by 22%, as well as the ratio of type IIa to type IIx, as reported by a recent paper in the journal Human Movement Science.

5. You Plump Up

Within just a week's time, your muscles will lose some of their fat burning potential and your metabolism slows. Paul Arciero, an exercise science professor at Skidmore College, found that a 5-week exercise break boosted collegiate swimmers' fat mass by 12%. Reverse it: Double the length of your break is the time it may take you to return to your previous level of lean. If you managed to keep at least one day of exercise during your break, you'll have maintained some level of fitness and find you'll regain your old body a little faster.


6. Your Brain Suffers

A study in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity found that after just 2 weeks of inactivity, regular exercisers became tired and grumpy. Although evidence for humans is limited, findings presented at a recent Society for Neuroscience conference found that rats who stopped moving for a week grew fewer brains cells and did worse on maze tests than those who had a wheel spinning workout. Reverse it: Exercise provides an instant mood lift, even in people suffering with depression. Regular, moderate movement helped older adults grow a larger hippocampus—a key brain area for memory—within a year, says Kirk Erickson, PhD, a University of Pittsburgh researcher. There is also evidence that suggests that the fitter you were before you took a break, the faster you will regain your brain. There you have it, 6 reasons not to skip your workouts!

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