What Happens When You Stop Exercising?

gym injury
Photo credit: Arnold Schwarzenegger

I recently read an article written by George Dvorsky for io9.com called This is What Happens to Your Body When You Stop Exercising and thought I’d pass some of it along.

Sooner or later, even the most dedicated gym rat hits a dry period. Maybe it’s because of an injury, a vacation break that gets extended long after returning home, or just losing interest in the same old workout routine.

But what can you expect to happen if you were once active and a temporary break turns you into a permanent couch potato?

Although the article mentioned resistance training, it focused on the benefits of cardio or endurance exercise:

  1. Increased ability of the heart to eject blood.
  2. increased ability of the blood vessels to send blood to where blood is needed.
  3. Increased number of capillaries (the vessels that deliver oxygen and ‘food’ to the muscles).
  4. Increased size and the number of mitochondria (the “power plants” of the cells).

The article is quite detailed so be sure to click the link I provided above to read all of its content.

One point that anyone who regularly exercises should pay attention to is what Harry Pino, senior exercise physiologist at the Sports Performance Center at NYU Langone Medical Center had to say in the article:

“The fitter you are, the harder you fall.”

bad technique
Image credit: monitormybody.com

That’s discouraging. It means that once you start an exercise program or even a regular transition from one program to the next while maintaining a continuous level of activity, you’d better not stop longer than a week or two.

“This means that what applies to an elite athlete after one week might take a sedentary individual one or two months to experience,” says Bergdahl. The elite athlete will still be in better shape than the couch potato, but will have lost a greater percentage of her fitness. An analogy is useful here: Two pots of water —one just off the boil, the other hot but not scalding—will both lose heat as they cool and approach room temperature, but the hotter pot will lose more heat faster; after five minutes, the former pot will still be hotter than the latter, but it will have lost a greater proportion of its overall heat.

The first thing to go is your VO2 max or, more generically, your cardio endurance. You start to lose your ability to sustain cardio activity. You get slower and don’t last as long.

What goes next are your muscles and strength. Andreas Bergdahl, an assistant professor in cardiovascular physiology at Montreal’s Concordia University, compares “detraining” to the aging process as far as muscle strength and density are concerned.

“Basically, the aging effect is the same as what will happen during detraining,” says Bergdahl. “The cross sectional area of the muscle fibers—in particular what we call the slow twitch fibers—will decrease, quickly at first and then more slowly. This means that an individual undergoing detraining will reduce the amount of muscle tissue they have. The changes will start within the first two weeks. Furthermore, the oxidative capacity (i.e. the ability of the mitochondria to produce energy) will decline in the explosive muscle type we call fast twitch muscle fibers.”

Photo credit: Lou Ferrigno

The good news is that regular resistance training can, to some degree, slow the loss of muscle and strength in a person as they age. The bad news, is that you can’t really reverse it, you can just retain a “younger” body longer.

But there’s one more thing to think about:

Lastly, there are the psychological effects of physical inactivity to consider: A lack of exercise has been shown produce certain psychological effects, including depression and lower self-esteem.

“Part of that has to do with blood flow (again oxygen) to the brain,” explains Bergdahl. “More oxygen equals better brain function. Furthermore, exercise is actually a form of stress—but a good, controlled one—which is used to train your body to handle not only an increased oxygen demand but also increased levels of certain hormones such as norepinephrine. By exercising you desensitize the receptors which means that it will take higher concentrations of these hormones, as well as longer exposure for your body to feel stressed.”

Thus, a lack of exercise will produce the opposite effect.

If you’re prone to psychological problems, especially depression, exercising might be better than seeing a shrink. At least it makes a great supplement to other forms of treatment.

back pain
Photo credit: stomachview.info

So what happens if you hit a point where you have to slow down because of an injury or other valid reason?

Pino recommends that athletes, even after running a marathon, or when nursing an injury, can still find ways to remain active. He recommends such things as the stationary bicycle, elliptical, or rower. Many of his athletes cross-train during their detraining phases.

“This gives the muscles that work hard a break,” he says, “but they won’t lose that much aerobic fitness.”

While this article is lengthy and detailed, I don’t like to depend on one source, so I chose a couple of others based on a Google search.

Men’s Health broke the number of ways our health suffers when we stop working out into six points:

  1. Your blood pressure soars
  2. Your blood sugar spikes
  3. You get winded fast
  4. Your muscles wither
  5. You plump up
  6. Your brain suffers

More or less what the previous article said, they just provided less detail.

heavy lifting
Photo credit: examiner.com

Men’s Journal published a brief but interesting article based on an identical twin study from Finland. The study followed 10 pairs of identical twins. Both pairs were initially athletically active, but then one of each pair became sedentary.

The results revealed big differences between each twin. While the more active twins had lower body fat percentage (20.7 versus 24), better endurance levels, and normal insulin sensitivity, the sedentary twins had about seven more pounds of body fat, worse endurance, and insulin sensitivity that showed signs of early metabolic disease. Not only were their bodies different; their brains diverged as well. The athletic twins had more gray matter (the information processing part of the brain), particularly in areas that controlled balance and motor function.

Put all together, regular exercise has multiple benefits for just about everybody, and quitting for any length of time, will result in declines in all of the areas previously benefitted.

So now that I’m active, I’d better not stop. I can slow down, particularly if I’m working around an injury, or change routines, but I can’t just achieve a specific level of fitness and then stop and “coast” on my momentum. There’s too much evidence saying that once you start working out, you’d better keep it up.

I’m reminded of previous times in my life when I was working out and then quit. With each instance of returning to exercise, I didn’t lose body fat as easily and it took longer to recover my strength. This time, I don’t think I’m quitting. The cost is just too high.

Speaking of exercise, today was an ab and cardio day. Here’s what happened. When doing abs, I rest about 60 seconds between sets:

Weighted Decline Bench Crunch (lvl 3)

20x 25lbs/11.33kg
15x 25lbs/11.33kg
15x 25lbs/11.33kg
15x 25lbs/11.33kg

Weighted Cable Crunch

20x 160lbs/72.57kg
12x 175lbs/79.37kg
10x 190lbs/86.18kg

Photo credit: Bodybuilding.com

40 minutes elliptical

Body Weight Upon Awakening:

190.8 lbs/ ~86.54 kg/ ~13.62 stone

Height (for reference):

6′ 2 3/4″ or 74.75 inches/1.89865 meters or 189.865 cm

I lost maybe half a pound between yesterday and today, but these are just averages. Essentially, my weight is currently plateaued at 190 pounds. The last pesky 5 pounds or so just doesn’t want to jump ship. That said, even if I didn’t lose another ounce of fat or gain another ounce of muscle, according to everything I’ve just written, all this exercise is still worth it.

Oh, I forgot to mention that my son David says my biceps have become noticeably larger and more defined. Hopefully, my body’s overall muscle mass is undergoing a similar transformation. Nice to have some external confirmation.

If things seem under control, you are just not going fast enough.

Mario Andretti


6 thoughts on “What Happens When You Stop Exercising?

  1. This is great post James! This is a very good compilation of exercises and also the results we can achieve through it. Although exercise is good, I just want to add that despite doing a good round of exercises around lunch time or after work while also sitting for an average of 5-6 hours per day, it will not prevent us from the dangers of excessive sitting. When we sit, our skeletal muscle fibers are not contracting, particularly the large muscles of our lower limbs. When this occurs, they require less fuel, and the surplus glucose accumulates in our bloodstream and contributes to obesity, diabetes and other health problems. We are a social campaign with an aim to raise awareness of sedentary lifestyle among youth adults and you can check our website on http://www.wheredoyoustandcampaign.wordpress.com and our Facebook page on http://www.fb.com/wheredoyoustandcampaign. Let’s fight again sedentary lifestyle and be active together!


    1. Greetings. I went ahead and approved your comment even though it has a pretty obvious self-promotional purpose. From what I’ve read, there is indeed a problem with having a sedentary lifestyle and too much sitting can be harmful. However, I don’t think that simply standing is the answer, but movement. Rather than get one of those standing desks that are so popular just now, I tend to get up from my desk and walk around for a few minutes every half hour or so.


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