How long does it REALLY take to lose your fitness? As Australians return to the gym, exercise physiologist reveals what to expect with your performance
- Carly Ryan is a physiologist at Exercise and Sports Science Australia
- She analyses how movement affects the body both physically and mentally
- Ms Ryan says the less active you are, the quicker you lose your fitness
- Cardio is the first area to decline, with significant losses after just two weeks off
- Muscle strength takes longer to lose, with most gains erased after three months
- You can stay fit with two resistance sessions and 150 minutes of activity a week
- Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19
Avoiding exercise for just two weeks significantly reduces your fitness, a sports scientist has warned.
Carly Ryan is a physiologist at Exercise and Sports Science Australia in Hamilton, Queensland, where she analyses how the human body benefits from movement.
She answered questions in a blog post for Medibank, advising Australians of how prolonged inactivity affects fitness to prepare them for the reopening of gyms across New South Wales on June 13 and Victoria on June 22.
Gyms are already back in business in Queensland, Tasmania, South and Western Australia, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, almost three months since the COVID-19 outbreak forced nationwide closures on March 23.
Ms Ryan says people with higher fitness levels who have been regularly exercising throughout their lives hold onto their fitness for longer than newly minted gym-goers.
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Avoiding exercise for just two weeks significantly reduces your fitness, according to sports scientist Carly Ryan (stock image)
In other words, the less active you are, the quicker you lose the strength or fitness you’ve built.
Physiologist Carly Ryan from Queensland’s Exercise and Sport Science Australia
‘A person with a higher level of fitness will experience deconditioning [a reversal of accumulated agility and strength] at a slower rate than someone who is relatively new to exercise,’ she said.
How quickly this ‘deconditioning’ occurs also depends on the age, gender and general health of the individual, which means the impact of inactivity varies from person to person.
Sydney sports scientist Tony Boutagy previously told the ABC that a person is ‘only as good as’ their last workout, with health benefits lasting for just 48 hours after each training session.
Ms Ryan says cardio is the first area to decline, with significant losses in speed and stamina after just two weeks off.
Cardio or cardiovascular fitness refers to the body’s ability to transport oxygen to muscles, where it’s used to produce energy.
The more you challenge your cardiovascular system with activities like walking, running, cycling, swimming or aerobics, the more efficient it becomes.
Decreased cardio fitness forces the heart to work harder to pump oxygenated blood around the body, which causes you to feel fatigued and breathless faster.
Some will feel a drop in stamina within the first week of missing workouts, Ms Ryan warns.
How long does it take to build your fitness back up?
‘The further you are from your fitness potential, the more profound your results will be in the first 12 weeks,’ Australian sports scientist Tony Boutagy told the ABC.
‘Studies are unanimous that beginners can pretty much double their strength within this time.
‘In terms of cardio, most studies show that within three to four weeks you can improve your VO2 [your maximum rate of oxygen consumption] somewhere between 20 and 30 per cent using interval training.’
Important tip: Make sure your rest days are not outnumbering your training days.
STRENGTH AND MUSCLE
Muscle mass and strength take longer to lose – anywhere between three weeks and three months – and are easier to maintain with light exercise and limited movement, Ms Ryan says.
Athletes start to lose noticeable muscle strength after three weeks of skipping workouts, a 2013 study of professional American footballers found.
Ms Ryan says this happens when there is no stimulation, which causes muscles to shrink and weaken.
‘Some suggest you can lose up to 10 percent of strength in one week, and over three months you will lose most of your gains,’ she said.
Muscle strength take between three weeks and three months to lose, and is easier to maintain with light exercise than cardio fitness (stock image)
In good news for gym-deprived Australians, Ms Ryan says maintaining fitness is much easier than building it, so there’s no need to panic about taking a few months off.
In fact, rest periods are crucial in between workouts to give muscles time to recover, provided they don’t outnumber your training days.
To stay fit, Ms Ryan recommends two sessions of resistance training and 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week.
Resistance-based movements like squats, bicep curls and push-ups increase strength by forcing muscles to work against a force like free weights, weight machines, resistance bands or your own body weight.
Ms Ryan says it’s good to start slowly, maximising your movement by taking the stairs instead of the lift, cleaning the house, gardening or getting off public transport one stop before you normally would to increase your step count.
Tips for getting back on track
1. Go outside
Studies have shown that exercising in nature improves self-esteem and vitality, and reduces stress, anxiety and fatigue.
Outdoor workouts are especially useful for ‘time-poor’ people who struggle to fit a trip to the gym into their busy schedule.
Whether it’s a hike, swim or a quick Pilates session in the garden or on the balcony, an outdoor workout is usually just a few steps away.
2. Walk a dog
Daily walks improve cardio fitness, lower blood pressure, strengthen bones and muscles and decrease stress – and taking your dog, or someone else’s, is great motivation for getting out and about.
3. Create a fitness calendar
Putting time in the diary for exercise is a clever way to hold yourself accountable and reduce the likelihood of life ‘getting in the way’ of working out.
Enroll in a weekly class now that studios are back in business, or set the same time slot aside for a quick home workout every morning to start the day right.
4. Get a workout partner
Enlisting a friend to work out with you is another great motivator that means you’re more likely to stick to your commitment.
Ms Ryan suggests pairing up with a housemate or family member or pre-booking sessions with a trainer who will keep you accountable.
5. Invest in self-care
Taking time out to rest and be mindful is essential for overall well-being. Ms Ryan suggests signing up for weekly yoga class, meditating for a few minutes every night or keeping a journal to ground yourself mentally and physically as ‘normal’ life resumes.
Source: Carly Ryan via Medibank