Use it or lose it

Whether you’re a weekend warrior or a competitive athlete, you have no doubt had those feel-good endorphins kick in as your fitness level increases. But then life intervenes, you go on holiday, you get stuck in a routine of working late or are debilitated by illness - so what happens to your fitness?

How quickly you lose your fitness depends in part on how fit you were to begin with, how long you’ve been exercising, and how long a break you’ve taken, says Kathleen McQuaide, biokineticist and health promotions manager at the Sports Science Institute of SA.

The fact is, some loss of fitness (also called de-conditioning) is inevitable, but there are ways to help minimise this. Here’s how:

Stop the de-condition train
Experts all agree: the best way to avoid losing the health and fitness benefits you’ve worked so hard to achieve is to do something. This depends on your reason for taking time-out from exercise. If you can’t find the motivation to run, walk instead. If you are injured, try the pool. Is time an issue?

“Do short, sharp high-intensity workouts. And don’t pick up the pace without a gradual build-up otherwise you may end up on the couch with an injury anyway,” says McQuaide. The key ultimately is to keep your heart and muscles challenged.

Muscle hustle
If you are genetically blessed with good muscle strength — lucky you! “If genes are not on your side you need to train to build that strength,” says McQuaide. The longer you’ve been sweating it out, the better for you should you need to take a break.

“If you don’t exactly break a sweat daily but still train regularly, you can expect to see your muscle strength conditioning deteriorate at a slightly faster pace, but again not as fast as those who prefer a sedentary lifestyle with an occasional spurt of exercise,” adds McQuaide.

Whether you enjoy running a marathon, cycling or swinging a tennis racket, your ability to perform in any given sport declines if you stop it for any length of time, says the American Council of Exercise. “But remember, some sports are like well, riding a bicycle - you will never forget how - while others, such as tennis, need well-trained muscles,” comments McQuaide.

The heart of the matter
The American Council of Exercise also claims that the degree to which your cardiovascular fitness declines during a period of no training depends on what shape you were in the first place.

“If you are extremely fit (a trained athlete, for example) you could experience a rapid drop in your fitness levels in your first three weeks of not raining, the rate then tapers off. If you fit into the category of a higher level of fitness than the average untrained person, you can keep a significant level of fitness for about 12 weeks. If you are in the low to moderate fitness category your fitness levels will show little change within your first few weeks of no training, and then rapidly decrease,” says McQuaide.

Lost and found
A recent study at Duke University Medical Centre in the US confirms that regaining your fitness is directly proportional to the time you’ve been inactive. The surprise result of their study? Walking and jogging produce similar benefits, so if you need to take it easy but are still keen to keep moving, you can do so and similar results will follow.

In a nutshell, if you can maintain some form of exercise on a weekly basis, you can also maintain your fitness levels. Also remember that each person’s response to exercise varies, this is clear in every gym or fitness class. And as with dieting, moderation and a balance between rest and exercise plays an important role in maintaining your fitness levels.

(Ursula Beatty, Shape magazine, January 2007)

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