Different people lose fitness at different rates after stopping exercise. You will find rules of thumb which show you how the graph will look for you.
The dip from peak fitness to average health – and down from there – is different for cardio, HIIT and strength training. Add an injury to the mix, or simply moving from intense to light exercise, and the picture becomes even more complex.
Speed at which you lose those peak fitness levels is determined by these key factors:
If you’ve not been exercising for long or are a beginner, stopping your exercise may not have a discernible effect on your body. At this point, your body will not have undergone any significant changes. Reverting to not exercising would not be noticeable at all.
However, it’s a different case if you were training regularly.
But here’s the good news. The benefits of your previous exercise can take many months or even years to be completely eradicated.
Let’s look at two different types of exercise, first focusing on the body changes exercise brings, followed by what happens when the exercise stops.
There are multiple beneficial processes going on in your body when you go on a course of cardiovascular exercise such as running or cycling.
Your body will create more red blood cells and your heart will also become stronger. In addition, you will have a higher mitochondrial content in your muscle fibres. The higher the mitochondrial content, the greater use of oxygen, which in turn creates more energy. You VO2 max, which seems to the be one of the most popular fitness gauges for app users, will also rise.
If you’ve just started running or cycling, a break will see you return to the base levels quickly.
For longer term fitness enthusiasts, the first thing that will noticeably reduce is the endurance you can maintain. This is because the body will naturally lessen the number of red blood cells. Your VO2 max level will also decrease relatively quickly.
Usually there will be very little effect for a long-term runner after a week. But between days 7 to 14, a lack of exercise can start to be noticeable. However, it can take months for all training to be negated. The better shape you were in, the longer it will benefit you when or if you do have to stop.
Just like cardiovascular exercise, it can take a short while for any instant gains when beginning to have any longer lasting effects. This means that if you work your muscles for just a week and then have a break, you’ll be back to base level in no time. However, once you have completed around sixteen sessions, there will be a lasting gain.
When you stop strength training, you will obviously stop building up muscles immediately. However, the muscle density won’t disappear right away. Studies show that athletes could lose around 6% of their muscle density in the three weeks after stopping.
It’s not all bad news however, as part of your muscle mass can be retained for months or even years. Even if you restart muscular training after a long time away, you will start from a higher point than if you never trained at all.
Sometimes there is a natural break in training due to injury that will lead to losing fitness levels. It might be the case that you could enjoy another form of exercise, different to your usual routine. It might be that you can’t do 30km on a bike, but you can instead go swimming, or try something less energetic such as yoga. Check with your trainer/doctor if there is another form of exercise you can enjoy.
If possible, it can be that much more beneficial to reduce your training levels than to stop training completely. A study in 2005 followed a group of men through three months of strength training, with workouts three times a week. At the end of it, those men who continued to train, but only once a week, maintained nearly all their strength gains.
Your age will have a large bearing on the speed at which you can lose your fitness levels. Younger people can regain their fitness relatively quickly. However, a fitness break when you are older will see the fitness levels built up disappear that much quicker. Changing your workout equipment to match your age is a great solution. See my page on the most popular fitness equipment for older people for ideas!
It’s clear and possibly already obvious that your fitness levels will decrease when you stop training.
However, there is much encouragement for those who must take a break from fitness training. A relatively short stop can see barely any negative effect on your training, while those who have trained for a long time will still be feeling those benefits weeks and months into the future.
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