Engaging in regular exercise improves your overall health, mobility and stamina. It leads to much better consumption of vitamins, minerals, other nutrient substances as well as oxygen in your body. However, in spite of your best efforts, you will eventually miss a workout. And from that point it gets easier and easier to not exercise. Soon you’re not working out at all. If consistent exercise is so beneficial for your health, what happens when you skip a few sessions, take a protracted workout cessation, or when you just stop exercising?
We know if we stop exercising for a long period of time, our aerobic fitness level declines and we lose stamina. This has a negative impact on health, as studies show that low aerobic capacity is a major risk factor for premature death. In fact, it ranks up there with smoking! We also lose muscle strength and size if we no longer challenge our muscles. Thankfully, we can recoup those muscle gains once we get back into the swing of things and get consistent with working out again. In fact, regaining muscle strength is easier the second time around due to muscle memory.
The good part is that no matter the cause for your falling off of the workout wagon – laziness, exhaustion, illness, conflict in schedules, injury, etc. – these conditions can most likely be reversed if you resume your exercise routines and healthy living. And as a reminder of your need to choose daily activity, here follows a detailed summary of what research finds will happen to your body when you stop exercising.
Shortly after you begin detraining (discontinuing your normal exercise sequence), noticeable changes begin to occur in your body based upon your level of fitness. The lack of exercise influences how you look, feel and represent yourself. It hastens the aging process. Your cardiovascular health, muscular structure, brain function, emotions and concentration can be impacted. You develop an elevated risk for chronic illness.
What happens when you stop exercising? Changes happen over weeks to months. Here’s a breakdown.
Things That Happen When You Stop Exercising
Week 1: You’re already less fit. You’ve lost about 5% of your “VO2 max” which means less oxygen is available to generate energy for muscles. If you could run a 5K in 20 minutes, your time is now about 10 seconds longer.
Weeks 2-3: You now have lost 12% of your VO2 max. There’s a decrease in muscle strength and tissue. Your muscle cells have become smaller. Your fat cells are getting bigger. Your 5K time is now about 60 seconds longer.
Weeks 4-7: 12-15% loss in VO2 max. Your muscle cells are even smaller. You might feel bloated from growing fat cells. Your 5K time is now 3 minutes longer.
After 2 months: 26% loss in VO2 max. Just stop timing your 5K because it’s depressing.
If you keep it up, you’ll also be at greater risk of
high blood pressure
, high levels of fat in the blood, certain cardiovascular diseases, obesity, depression, and low self-esteem.
It’s important to rest after an especially hard workout or race. But instead of lounging on the couch, make your recovery an active one. If you just lay around, you’ll lose that fitness faster than you think.
You are at higher risk for depression
Quitting exercise has numerous negative effects on your health—and mood changes may be the first to rear their ugly head, according to Jim White, an ACSM exercise physiologist. “The brain will begin to change, and the person may have brain fog or not feel as cheerful,” he says. “This is because the brain does not receive as much blood going to the hippocampus as it would if the person was exercising.” One study from the University of Adelaide found that stopping exercise can increase depressive symptoms after just three days.
Stopping Exercise Affects The Cardiovascular System And The Brain, But What About The Body’s Vitals?
It is widely written how exercise decreases blood pressure and the benefits of lower blood pressure on the population experiencing elevated blood pressure. High blood pressure can be a sign of heart disease and can cause many serious health issues.
In a study comparing blood pressure responses after 6 months of exercise training to two weeks of detraining found exercise training lowers blood pressure, while blood pressure increases and goes back to pre-training levels. Another study conducted found the effects of stopping exercise for two weeks reduced blood pressure benefits gained from a high intensity interval training of two weeks.
Michigan State University Extension’s Health and Nutrition Institute has many programs to help individuals continue exercise programs. Experts from MSU Extension make it possible to bring communities together and to educate citizens on a healthy lifestyle for a positive behavior change.
Increase Your Risk For Heart Diseases
In a study, researchers found out that after two weeks of not exercising, our blood vessels will begin to stiffen and this can cause our blood pressure to rise.
As our blood pressure becomes higher, the cells of our arteries’ inner lining are being damaged. When the artery walls become less elastic, blood is unable to flow freely to our heart and this can cause us to experience chest pains, irregular heart rhythms or even a heart attack.
On top of that, high blood pressure can also cause the muscles in our heart to weaken and work less efficiently which can eventually lead to a heart failure
Your Body Responds
As muscle cells get smaller, fat cells tend to get bigger. After all, the muscles aren’t working hard enough to burn away calories. This can lead to weight gain as soon as 14 days (or earlier) once you stop exercising, according to Men’s Journal.
Over time, those extra pounds can cause many problems throughout your body. The increase forces your bones to carry extra weight and puts more pressure on your lungs and heart to supply blood and oxygen throughout your body.
Without exercise, you may also miss out on the mood-boosting benefit of endorphins! You might feel like you’re in a fog or just otherwise tired, unmotivated, stressed or down.
Loss Of Muscle Mass
It might not become visible immediately but you will start to notice changes in your muscles (smaller and weaker muscles) after quitting high-intensity exercise or weight training. A study published in the Clinical Physiology and Functional Imaging revealed that a detraining period of 12 weeks can result in reduced muscle mass and lower muscular strength. However, it further stated that the person can regain all of it quickly after retraining as the muscles have memory. After quitting exercising, the person first loses power and endurance and then strength. You can notice this while picking up the heavy groceries; while you will be able to carry the weight, you may get tired more quickly than before.
Blood Pressure Rises
In the short term, your blood pressure will change within a day depending on whether you work out or not. “With blood pressure, things happen very quickly, and they also cease very quickly,” says Linda Pescatello, a blood-pressure researcher at the University of Connecticut. Exercise causes increased blood flow, meaning your arteries temporarily widen to facilitate greater circulation. They tend to stay slightly larger for about 24 hours, but if you don’t get your heart rate up within a day, your blood pressure returns to baseline.
Quick response time aside, these acute effects don’t change the structure of the arteries themselves. It’s actually training adaptations (in addition to diet and genetics) that allow you to lower your blood pressure substantially after three months of consistent exercise or, alternatively, begin to narrow your arteries when you don’t work out for a long time.
Although daily movement is important to health, it takes around three months for your arteries to feel the impact of your dropped gym habit. It’s not until that point that they’ll begin to stiffen and narrow, so a few days’ rest won’t hurt you. But be warned: if you nix exercise for such an extended period, it will take another three months of steady exercise to get your arteries back to their best shape once you do return.
A little goes a long way. “The more you do, the better off your blood pressure is,” says Pescatello. “If you only got in exercise for half of a week, you’re still going to see some benefit…something is always better than nothing when it comes to blood pressure.”
Loss of Cardio Conditioning
Cardio conditioning, or Cardio for short, is a type of exercise for heightened cardiovascular health. When you stop exercising for a few weeks you fail to strengthen your heart and lungs which casts you into a serious sedentary lifestyle. This time of ease causes your cardio to weaken and your body to store additional fat. Have you noticed challenges when you run up the steps, chase the cat or walk a short block? Cardio conditioning falls quicker than your muscle strength; however, it’s a lot easier to regain.
A four week study of nine well-trained endurance athletes on the Effects of detraining on endurance capacity and metabolic changes during prolonged exhaustive exercise concluded that four weeks of inactivity resulted in a 21% decrease of their VO2 max – their maximum capacity to take in, transport, and use oxygen during exercise. It, also, determined that endurance capacity fluctuates substantially during detraining without changes in the VO2 max. Muscle values increased significantly at exhaustion in the detrained state. The elevated muscle at exhaustion could contribute to fatigue in prolonged exercise.
In a study of Time course of loss of adaptations after stopping prolonged intense endurance training, the VO2 max declined 7% during the first 21 days of inactivity and stabilized after 56 days at a level 16% below the initial trained value. After 84 days of detraining the experimental subjects still had a higher VO2 max than did eight sedentary control subjects who had never trained. Enzymes in the blood associated with endurance performance decreased by 50 percent. Curtly terminating your regular exercise routine harms your blood flow and your heart.
In cardio conditioning, your heart muscle is made stronger. You have a lower resting heart rate, and a healthier lung function. These benefits enable you to work harder for longer periods of time, with increased vigor and durability. Also, you may notice less stress and better temperaments. You forfeit these advantages when you stop exercising.
Your Metabolism Slows Down
Within about a week, your muscles lose some of their fat-burning potentials, and your metabolism slows down from inactivity. If you do not burn off the food you consume, it will gradually start to store as fat within your body.
Findings in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research showed a 5-week exercise break boosted collegiate swimmers’ fat mass by 12 percent!
Exercise, Depression, and Mood
According to a new study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, stopping exercise increases symptoms of depression in as little as a few days. The researchers involved in the study analyzed several studies, in total involving 152 adults. All of the adults engaged in at least 30 minutes of exercise daily a minimum of 3 days per week. When the subjects stopped exercising, they experienced an increase in depressive symptoms within a week or two, but some noticed worsening of their mood in as little as 3 days. Based on this study, kicking the exercise habit can lead to a drop in mood and a worsening of depressive symptoms – and it can happen surprisingly fast.
Why is this important? Depression is the leading cause of disability in young and middle-aged adults. In fact, almost 7% of the population suffers from major depression. Many end up taking prescription antidepressants with a long list of side effects to help them function. Yet, studies show exercise helps curb depressive symptoms, in some cases, as well as medications.
How does exercise lift the mood of people who suffer from depression? No one knows for sure, but exercise has an impact on the workings of the brain. In fact, research suggests aerobic exercise boosts the release of growth factors in the brain that spurs the development of new nerve cell connections, especially in an area of the brain called the hippocampus. The ability to form new nerve cell connections helps you better adapt and respond to stressful situations.
Another way exercise may help with depression is by reducing inflammation. Studies suggest that moderate exercise has an anti-inflammatory effect. How does this relate to mood and depression? A number of studies show a link between inflammation and depression.
One study published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry looked at data on more than 14,000 individuals, some of whom suffered from depression. The data showed that people who were depressed had higher levels of c-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation. In fact, the depressed subjects, on average, had 45% higher levels of c-reactive protein. This only shows correlation, but studies also show people who have higher levels of inflammatory markers, like c-reactive protein, rank higher on scales that measure depression. What’s more imaging of the brain in people with depression shows more ongoing brain inflammation.
The good news is moderate, aerobic exercise (without overtraining) has anti-inflammatory effects longer term. Studies show that regular, aerobic exercise is linked with lower levels of inflammatory markers, like c-reactive protein and another inflammatory marker called IL-6. However, when you’re in the midst of a workout, you may have a transient bump up in inflammation due to the stress of exercise. But, your body adapts, and inflammation levels actually decrease. Exercise-related reductions in inflammation may explain many of the health benefits of exercises as inflammation is a driver of most health problems that plaque humans in modern society.
You’ll Lose Endurance
Although you won’t wither away “into a skeleton,” Clancy notes, your endurance will decrease once you stop working out consistently. “Your heart will be more sensitive to resistance, putting you at greater risk for health issues, and your lung capacity will be less efficient with the flow of oxygen,” he says. Find out the best workout for every age group.
Your Energy Level Drops
Feeling tired all day? What you need probably isn’t long hours of sleep but some exercises to reboot your body.
In a review of studies, 1500 people found that exercise may reduce fatigue.
Simple exercises such as standing, taking a flight of stairs and walking are useful in providing your body with the much needed adrenaline to keep you fresh and alert while working from home.
So instead of sitting down all day long in front of your laptop, stand up and walk around your house to improve blood circulation throughout your body and come back to your desk with a clearer mind.
Increase Our Risk Of Osteoporosis
It is stated that people who spend most of their time sitting down, have a higher risk of osteoporosis than those with a more active lifestyle.
Most of us have probably heard about osteoporosis, a medical condition which causes our bones to become weak and brittle. When one suffers from osteoporosis, a fall or even mild stresses can cause a fracture which commonly occur in the hip, wrist or spine.
When you stop working out, the body fat increases as your calorie requirement decreases. Your metabolism slows down and the muscles lose their ability to burn as much fat. Also, since you’re not burning the same amount of calories as you used to while working out, the extra calories will be stored as fat in the body.
Skeletal Muscle Starts Resisting Insulin
When we exercise, our muscles process insulin and absorb the resulting glucose as energy. Reduce that energy expenditure and your muscles will adapt physiologically to become a little less insulin sensitive, says John Thyfault, a researcher at the University of Kansas.
Losing insulin sensitivity means your body converts sugar into fat rather than using it as energy to power your movements. And while that adaptation helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors survive a feast-or-famine lifestyle, it’s bad news for the modern desk jockey, because improper regulation of insulin can prompt your cells to store some of what’s not used in muscle movement as fat. This change puts you at greater risk for the foundation of other conditions, such as Type 2 diabetes and inflammation.
Thankfully, your body can adapt pretty quickly to increased insulin sensitivity with just a little bit of exercise and healthier eating. High-volume and high-intensity exercise can be equally effective at making your body more sensitive. Just a 30-minute walk or a ten-minute HIIT regimen a few times a week will suffice for keeping your body eagerly processing insulin.
Your Blood Glucose Skyrockets
Sedentary living causes your glucose levels to rise. This increases your risk of contracting heart disease and diabetes. When you fail to exercise, your muscles and other tissues cannot absorb sugar from your blood glucose for energy. Consequently, your blood glucose climbs sharply. This can happen even after 5 days of inactivity per an article posted by Prevention.com. All of this results in a larger abdomen from a loss of fat-burning potential and a slower metabolism. Carrying extra weight around the middle is very dangerous.
After one week of exercise, blood sugar levels should start to decrease. This reversal can occur even for Type 2 diabetes per Dr. James Thyfault, University of Missouri. He warns, “If you stay sedentary, continuously creeping glucose readings can raise your risk of heart disease and diabetes.” Strokes, heart conditions and diabetes may be avoided with as little as 30 minutes of consistent exercise a day.
The Endorphin Effect
When you do vigorous exercise that gets your heart rate up, particularly running, your body releases chemicals that boost well-being, the so-called endorphins. Endorphins help reduce pain, which is one reason people with chronic pain feel better when they move their body. In fact, endorphins bind to the same receptors that morphine does. But, that’s not all. Endorphins have a mood-boosting effect as well. You’ve probably heard runners say that after they’ve run for a while, they feel a sense of peace and well-being, despite how hard they’re working. That’s partially the action of endorphins on the nervous system, creating the “runner’s high.”
Of course, exercise also alters other hormones that impact mood such as dopamine and serotonin. Plus, studies show that exercise helps with sleep and boosts self-esteem, both of which make you feel better about life. In addition, some people use exercise as a way to deal with stress. If you stop exercising, you lose your best coping strategy and may experience changes in sleep patterns as well.
When you stop exercising, your strength outlasts your physical endurance. Strength loss occurs in the majority of people after about two and a half to three weeks of inactivity according to Molly Galbraith, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist; co-founder of Girls Gone Strong. This does not apply to endurance and power athletes with specialized skills. The muscular strength that they have worked so hard to amass tends to decrease at a faster rate.
A study was conducted by the Faculty of Sport Sciences, University of Murcia, Murcia, Spain, entitled the Physiological Effects of Tapering and Detraining in World-Class Kayakers. Their results supported “previous research showing that short-term [Training Cessation] results in larger decreases in muscle strength and power in resistance- and endurance-trained top-level athletes compared with [a Reduced Training] approach.
Moreover, muscle power appears particularly susceptible to detraining in highly conditioned athletes, being lost at a faster rate than maximal strength. These results may suggest the need of a minimal maintenance program of [Reduced Training] to avoid excessive declines in neuromuscular function and fat-free mass in cases where a prolonged break (longer than 2–3 weeks) from training is required.”
Mood and Brain Changes
Without exercise, you have ineffective oxygen conveyance to the brain. Your body is unable to suppress chemicals that cause depression. It cannot release the chemicals that minimize depression. Occurring within a short span of time, these changes make you tired, unable to concentrate, irritable, and gloomy. They entice low self-esteem.
In the article, Depression can damage the brain, published by ScienceNordic, Professor Poul Videbech, a specialist in Psychiatry at the Centre for Psychiatric Research at Aarhus University Hospital (Denmark), stated that “depression leaves its mark on the brain as it results in a ten percent reduction of the hippocampus. In some cases, this reduction continues when the depression itself is over.” Mood changes leading to depression can damage the brain permanently leaving an individual with difficulties remembering and concentrating.
A Finnish research team performed a study using 10 sets of identical male twins between the ages of 32 and 36. Even though they had maintained the same level of physical activity and had maintained similar diets for most of their lives, there exercise habits differed over the past 3 years. The study was small and not a formal Randomized Controlled Trial; but nevertheless, the results were astounding. Two issues brought about major changes in the test results: 1) consistent exercising and 2) the lack of consistent exercising or in one case, none at all.
The twins who exercised regularly were found to have lower body fat percentages. Their endurance levels were higher, and they had more gray brain matter (for information processing), principally in areas controlling balance and motor function. However, the twins who exercised less frequently, living more sedentary lifestyles for the previous three years, carried on the average seven more pounds of body fat, had less endurance, were nearing insulin resistance – a sign of an early metabolic condition and likely type 2 diabetes. This study is a great warning of what will happen to your body when you stop exercising, and how detrimental that proves to be after only a brief time.