You’ve probably been there: a new job, a new baby, an injury, life happens, and you find yourself taking a long break from exercise. (Personally, my divorce threw me off of my fit track.) When you finally begin working out again, your body just doesn’t feel right - your lungs burn, your muscles are sluggish, and you feel like you’re going to hurt something.
So when you’re trying to get back into shape after a substantial break from fitness-related activities, should you ease into it or should you dive in headfirst and shock your system? Whether you’ve been inspired by a New Year’s resolution, an uncooperative wardrobe, or an unfriendly bathroom mirror, this article will teach you how to get back into shape quickly and safely after a break from exercise.
What Happens When You Get Out Of Shape
When you quit working out for 2-3 months, you lose at least half your aerobic fitness as your lungs lose elasticity, your blood vessels shrink, your blood volume decreases, you use oxygen less efficiently, and your heart pumps less blood per beat.
And if that seems very inconvenient, you’re going to be even more annoyed by the fact that your muscles begin to significantly lose strength and disappear after just 72 hours of no exercise!
Why Getting Back Into Shape Is Hard
Just like a car that has been parked in a garage for several years, your body needs a significant amount of warming up before you can take it straight to high speeds on the highway. If you try to jump right back into the same type of workout routines you were doing before you quit exercising, then your body rebels against you in several ways:
Since your lungs have lost elasticity, you have to suck wind much harder to get oxygen into your body, and this increased strain on your inspiratory and expiratory muscles can cause the notorious side ache.
Since your blood volume has decreased, your blood vessels are smaller, your cells aren’t as efficient at grabbing oxygen from the blood, and your heart has to work much harder to pump oxygen to your working muscles. So for any given effort, you feel as though your heart is pumping out of your chest.
But that’s not all! With significantly less muscle to support your exercising joints, and smaller blood vessels delivering the ingredients for lubricating fluid to those joints, your knees, elbows, shoulders, wrists, ankles, and hips can feel incredibly stressed when you try to suddenly push them back into a workout routine.
How To Get Back Into Shape
But there’s good news: Your body is incredibly adaptive, and within just 2-4 weeks of exercise, your brain learns to recruit more muscles and move your body more efficiently. This is called a “neuromuscular adaptation.” Within 4-6 weeks of exercise, your body has completed significant anatomical changes that include increased muscle, wider blood vessels, higher blood volume, and more efficient oxygen delivery.
The first 2-4 weeks of your workout program can include the same exercises you were doing when you stopped exercising, but you should use a substantially lighter weight and do fewer sets. For example, if you used to do a machine-based exercise circuit consisting of 4 sets of 12 repetitions on 8 different machines, you would instead do just 2-3 sets for the first month, and select a lighter resistance on the weight stack.
Since you also know that there is less blood flow for your joints, you should extend your warm-up a bit longer than you normally would, and also include a longer cool-down for your rapidly beating heart by including light aerobic exercise and stretching until you’re breathing easily.
Once you’ve made it through those first 2-4 weeks, you can then begin adding weight and adding sets, and by the 6-week mark, you can often be back to the same weights, intensity, and time that you were doing before your hiatus.
What about if you’re doing a specialized form of cardiovascular exercise, such as running? The best strategy is to use hard-easy intervals, such as run-walk intervals to get yourself back into cardiovascular shape.
For example, 4 years ago, I injured my knee in a skiing accident and was unable to run for 3 months. Once I could run again, I started by going out for 30-45 minute brisk walks, during which I would run for a minute every 4-5 minutes. Each week, I would run for a longer period of time (and walk less) until I got to the point where I could run continuously for 45 minutes. This strategy allowed me to get back into shape without experiencing the tortuous effort of trying to run for 45 minutes continuously after not running for 3 months.
Ultimately, the take-away message is this: use the first 2-4 weeks to ease your body back into shape, then begin increasing intensity, and by the 6-week mark, you will be feeling fit – instead of nursing sore and injured joints!
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