You’ve worked hard to get fit. You love the way your body looks and feels. You’re confident, energized and feeling accomplished.
Then you stop or slow down your routine. Soon you find that you’ve lost that definition. You’re gaining fat and losing muscle. You feel weaker. Your body is changing rapidly, and you’re starting to panic.
Following are answers to a few questions about your body’s ability to bounce back.
• What can you do? First, relax. While you may feel negatively toward your “new” body, it’s important not to view the change as failure or a permanent situation.
• What happens when I take a break? There are a few reasons you might cut back or even halt your exercise and fitness routine. An injury or illness may mean days, weeks or even months of no working out, or limited activity.
Other reasons could come into play, perhaps a busy schedule, the birth of a child, caring for a family member or an extended period of travel that has you totally off your routine.
Whatever the reason, you’re noticing a difference in your body. It’s frustrating, really. It can take months to get your body at its optimum level of fitness. You put in time and energy and have sacrificed to get there, and here you are two weeks into your hiatus and already losing ground.
It’s true. When you stop working out or drastically reduce your routine, you’ll quickly “lose” muscle. You’ll begin to feel softer and will likely experience a loss in strength.
• Is my muscle disappearing? No, muscle doesn’t just disappear. It’s still there, but it shrinks. This is because it costs your body energy to maintain muscle, so if it’s not being used, the body will stop expending the energy needed to maintain it. It’s just one more example of your body functioning as an efficient machine.
But it’s important to realize that your muscle doesn’t go away or disappear. It simply shrinks.
• How long before muscle shrinks? How long it takes for your muscle to shrink after stopping your workouts depends on a variety of factors. Genetics plays a role, as does your diet. How fit you were, what type of physical activities you were doing before and what you can keep doing now will all affect the rate and severity of your muscle shrinkage. If you have an injury that demands you stay off your feet for months, you’re going to see significant loss of strength and muscle mass.
While this may be discouraging, it’s important to realize that it’s a temporary situation. You won’t benefit from pushing yourself or neglecting your healing process. It’s important to follow your physician’s instructions.
• What about aging and
muscle loss? While losing muscle mass as you age is a fact of life, you have a great deal of control. Yes, genetics plays a part – and so does time. As you age, you’ll lose muscle, beginning after 60 and accelerating after 80.
What slows muscle loss due to age? Exercise, of course, but also nutrition and healthy habits. Getting lots of rest, staying active and maintaining a nutritious diet will make a big difference.
• How do I preserve muscle after an injury? If you have experienced an injury, it’s important to allow your body the opportunity to heal. Pushing through the injury against medical advice will result in a worse injury that will delay your recovery even longer.
It’s OK to allow your body time to heal. Work with a physical therapist or trainer who specializes in injury rehab who also understands how important physical fitness is to you. He or she can offer you exercise alternatives to help you stay strong and healthy through your recovery.
If you are experiencing a situation that makes exercise difficult or impossible, and if your changing body is causing you a great deal of stress or resulting in the symptoms of depression, it’s important to seek support. A counselor specializing in sports or performance psychology or support from someone who has been there can be enormously helpful.
It’s also important to realize that your body will rebound. Once your circumstances change, you’ll be able to rebuild muscle and regain your physical strength. Don’t be alarmed by your changing body. Instead, see it as a time to truly appreciate the healing power of your body and to love your body no matter where you are in your fitness journey.
Kim Gladfelter is owner, physical therapist and Pilates instructor at PhysioFit Physical Therapy & Wellness in Los Altos. For more information, visit physiofitpt.com.