Why Do I Lose Fitness So Easily?

This morning, I had a great side conversation with an athlete who was gone for a couple weeks due to work/travel obligations. We commiserated a bit together about how quickly we seem to lose our fitness in just few short weeks. Naturally, he wanted to know why.
Recognizing that I’ve had this conversation with tons of people over the years, I figured many more people just haven’t had the chance to ask us face to face, so we might as well put it on our blog.
The reality is that you do, in fact, lose fitness if you stop exercising for a couple of weeks. Further, studies have shown that cardiovascular improvements decrease at a faster rate than strength gains.
Put another way: strength gains last longer than cardio gains when you go through periods of inactivity.
Here are the reasons why:

  1. Physiology – when people talk about “needing more cardio”, the feeling that most people want to minimize is feeling out of breath. This is known as cardiovascular/respiratory endurance – the ability of body systems to gather, process, and deliver oxygen. Because this adaptation occurs on an enzymatic basis, when you stop, so does the enzymatic activity.
  2. Inactivity – to be frank, when you’re not consistently training at the gym, chances are high that you are not filling that need with other physical labor/activity. You’re probably spending lots of time sitting in meetings, on the computer, or taking phone calls. Or perhaps you’re stuck behind the wheel of your car or in an airplane seat. In all those cases, your activity level has nearly ceased. Your joints get stiff and your muscles get short and tight.
  3. Nutrition – to go along with #2 above, your volume of food either stays the same OR goes up during periods of inactivity. This is why you can see such quick changes in the scale. Also, moving around with even an extra 5-10lb on your frame takes its toll really quick when you do come back.
  4. Loss of Rhythm – without getting into the benefits of honoring your body’s pre-wired preference for following circadian rhythm, I’ll just say this – the human body thrives off of rhythm. Wake up at the same time, day after day, and you’ll feel 100 times better than altering your wake time daily. Same thing with going to the gym. When the rhythm of life is disrupted, you will run sub-optimally.
  5. Life stressors – look, stress in your life isn’t going anywhere. Sorry to be the bearer of that news. The good news is that you can control how you deal with it. Exercise is a great way to destress. However, when you fall out of the exercise habit, life stressors will affect you even more. The mental health benefits of consistent exercise have been well documented, might as well capitalize on them!

Now, having said all of that, I have some GOOD NEWS! The loss in fitness you experienced actually returns much faster than you think. Its not as hard to get it back as it was to initially ‘get it.’ The body is a pretty adaptable machine and when you get back into the healthy rhythm of being in the gym on a consistent basis, you’ll bounce back quick.
If you’ve been gone for more than a week, don’t let another day slip by without getting back into the swing of things. I’m not promising that it’ll be easy. But I do promise that it’ll be worth it. After all, anything worth having takes hard (and consistent) work!

people working out in a group fitness class


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