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Posted: March 4, 2012  : Add to Mixx! Subscribe to stories like this Share

Leah Larocque's Column
Leah Larocque is a graduate of Queen's University (2011) in Kingston, Ontario where she ran track and cross-country. She was Ottawa's "Road Racer Of The Year" for 2010 and 2011. She has a personal best time of 17:32.9 which she set while winning the Ottawa Race Weekend 5K in 2011.
In 2010 she was the first local finisher in Emilie's Run leading the OAC Racing Team to a first place in the team competition.

Leah is currently a Publications and Communications Assistant with the Ottawa Senators. She is continuing to run and will be writing a regular column for the Runner's Web. She is continuing to run and will be writing a regular column for the Runner's Web.(Column Index)

Health and Fitness: Use It Or Lose It





I shamefully write this column after a couple of weeks of being on hiatus. My apologies. I certainly wish that I could use an excuse like I had no access to the internet! Or, I was away on vacation. But sadly, I cannot. The reason why I have not been faithful to this column lately is the simple fact that I was busy and didn't have time. Or, in simpler terms (and probably more the truth) I did not make time. Work was excruciatingly busy, and by the time I got home, tried to squeeze a run in, eat some dinner, shower, my body was fried, and the creative juices weren't flowing. This is often the same excuse that people use when they don't make time to work out, or take care of their bodies. Now I get why moms and dads don't have the energy or really the time to make it to an exercise class. I also get why some of my colleagues at school who worked part time didn't have time to make it to that 5:30 yoga class.

It got me thinking of routines and falling out of habits; whether it is exercise or things such as taking time at the end of the day to read a book, or call your grandmother. Once something becomes routine, it become engrained in our daily timetable, and there are no questions necessary. But sometimes, you fall out of a routine and your discipline slips. You don't call grandmas as often. You don't cut the grass every Saturday, and in my case, your weekly column, doesn't come out as "weekly "as it should. So what happens to our bodies when we stop out exercise routine? Well, this is what I looked into this week.

Unfortunately, it's a sad but true fact that to maintain your hard-earned workout results, you have to continually exercise regularly. It's not like earning interest on money in the bank where gains are made by doing nothing. We are like a can of pop; let us sit and we lose our fizz. Sorry for the bad metaphors.

I read that in "fitness parlance," this is called the reversibility principle. Basically -- use it or lose it. It can also be called detraining. Detraining or the technical term for cessation of exercise is also a problem for athletes who get injured.

There are many fallacies about what happens to the body when an athlete stops exercising. The most common is that the muscles turn into fat. Apparently, this is impossible because muscle cells are completely different from fat cells. What really happens is that muscle cells become smaller, or atrophy and fat cells become bigger. Too much chocolate cake versus the seven minute mile!

A main effect when you stop exercising is going to be a change in stamina. Cardiovascular benefits will be lost due to detraining. But the good news is that people with a high level of aerobic endurance can retain many of the benefits for a longer period.

Dr. Robert Moffat of the Florida State University and Dr. Randall Wilbur of the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs preformed some studies to test endurance rates amongst athletes. The highly trained athletes showed a rapid drop in aerobic endurance in the first three weeks of detraining but the decline was less rapid in the following weeks. The scientists were surprised by both the rapid initial drop but also by the fact that a significant amount of endurance was retained even after 12 weeks of detraining. Whether this was due to a cumulative effect of high fitness levels, or a genetic factor, is uncertain.

Dr. Edward Coyle from the University of Texas, a leading researcher in the area of detraining, found that muscular strength will return to pre-exercise levels after only four to 12 weeks of detraining. Muscle size is also reduced. This is why many people notice a particular "sag" to their bodies after a few weeks of not exercising.

After about two to three months of doing nothing you will lose at least half your aerobic fitness because your lungs lose elasticity, your blood vessels shrink, your blood volume drops, you use oxygen less efficiently, and your heart pumps less blood per beat. Wow. Is that all? Please note my sarcastic tone.

But I was the most disheartened to find out the fact that your muscles significantly lose strength and fade after just 72 hours of no exercise! What?

This is by no means an excuse to continually go at exercise every day for hours and hours with no break for fear of atrophy. In every athlete's training periodization there are moments for rest and days off. But I am just relating this to when we should be training and we don't.

But there is definitely hope. I am not going to beat around the bush. Getting back in shape is hard. Why wouldn't it be? I mean, our lungs are smaller, we have less oxygen, and our muscles have experienced atrophy. Research has shown that it doesn't have to be quite as extreme as "use it or lose it''. It seems to be more like "use it or lose some of it, or maybe all of it'' depending on how physically fit you were before detraining. For example, compare an athlete who stops running versus your weekend warrior.

Like anything, if you use to train pretty hard and then all of a sudden stopped, if you go right back to what you were doing before you stopped the body will react against you in several ways. First of all since your lungs have lost elasticity, you will try to intake air much harder than before to allow for the oxygen to get into the body. This is going to increased tension on the inspiratory and expiratory muscles. Secondly, because the blood volume has decreased; blood vessels are smaller therefore your cells aren't as efficient, and the heart has to work much harder to pump oxygen to your working muscles. This is probably going to give that feeling of your heart being in your throat. And in case you were wondering -that's not all! With considerably less muscle to support your exercising joints, and smaller blood vessels bringing the ingredients for lubricating fluid to the joints, your knees, elbows, shoulders, wrists, ankles, and hips can feel unbelievably stressed when you jump back into seven minute mile paces.

Is that enough disheartening news? Okay, time for something encouraging.

The body is amazingly adaptive, and within just 2-4 weeks of exercise, your brain will become familiarized with the movement and trigger more muscles to move your body more proficiently. This is called a "neuromuscular adaptation." Then, after about a month to six weeks of getting back into the grind, your body has completed the important anatomical changes including increased muscle, wider blood vessels, higher blood volume, and more efficient oxygen delivery.

Armed with the facts, a plan for getting back into shape can be created; but at the end of the day, the take-away message to use the first 2-4 weeks to ease your body back into shape, and then begin increasing intensity. You may be taking a few more Epsom salt baths and ic some sore muscles, but you will get fit again!

So does this mean that it is going to take me a month to get back into the habit of writing my column again? I certainly hope not.

Hopefully, detraining is only a temporary period in your lifestyle. If you have stopped for a long time, the sooner you start exercising again, the better for you. Trust me, like my column, the hardest part is starting again. But once you do, you'll wonder why you ever stopped and what took you so long from starting again.

And if you have the attitude that routines are boring or you lack the motivation to start back up a lost routine; chew on this. If everyone thought this way, no one would brush his or her teeth or take a bath.

See you next week!!


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