Coinciding with my break from social media, I also decided to rest from training. In the last 6 weeks I have trained 6 times: 3 dance classes, 2 short gym sessions and 1 session in Primrose Hill, which was 2 weeks ago. I have been asked several times: “How do you feel?” I feel great! (More on my own personal experience in the second part of this post.)
I wasn’t always as calm and confident when away from the gym or classes (as an LM instructor you must participate in all classes, therefore back in 2012-2014 I would exercise up to 4 times a day). Well before I became a PT and Nutritionist, my understanding of what happens to our bodies when we train and eat (or don’t) was close to non-existent. Since I knew very little myself, I read magazines and was misinformed about what actually allows a person to get and stay fit and what diet should one eat for the best body composition. I’m sure we can all relate? When we lack the understanding of how something works, we’re likely to opt for extreme approaches as the results are guaranteed, correct? We all know at least one person who has done a “juice detox” or a “soup diet” or gone to the gym for 3 hours every day, lost a lot of weight then stopped and put it back on again. These are desperate measures that don’t actually teach us anything and the extreme approaches in this industry (exercising all the time and eating very little) can be detrimental not only to our physical but also mental health. So I want to help bust some myths!
What are the most feared consequences of taking a break from training?
- gaining weight;
- losing muscle;
- extreme changes in body composition.
Other things we worry about:
- becoming weaker;
- being less fit.
What really happens? While keeping science and research in mind, I will try to explain it all as simply as I can in this blog post.
Starting with: We cannot lose muscle in as little as one-two weeks unless we are bedbound or hospitalised and completely unable to move parts or the whole body.
“Then how come my muscles look smaller after a couple of weeks of not training?”
When we train (especially with resistance training), our muscle glycogen stores become depleted and with the consumption of carbs, these levels can be restored. Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) is something that happens in your muscles after training when your body starts to repair and rebuild. MPS is highest up to 2-6 hours post training, during which your body requires fast acting protein and carbs for optimal muscle growth. Let’s clarify one thing: to build lean muscle, we simply need protein; to add size and boost performance (become stronger), we add carbs to the equation. With every gram of carbs (glycogen) our bodies store 3g of water, so a trained muscle will absorb plenty of water from your skin and body to look more pronounced and defined. This is why a high carbohydrate intake is encouraged after big training sessions to optimise muscle growth and minimise bodyfat gain and water retention.
When we do not train, muscle “bellies” remain full and glycogen stores won’t require replenishing as often. When muscles don’t take in glycogen, they also won’t take in as much water. The result is a smaller or “deflated” looking muscle, which leaves us to believe that we have lost muscle whereas it’s only water weight we have dropped. Meanwhile, if your carbohydrate intake is higher than required by your body, first you will experience more bloating than normal and will likely feel the water weight around your midsection (re 3g water per 1g of carbs). This in turn can lead to us believing we have gained weight. If your bloating always comes with abdominal discomfort, gas or cramping, I encourage you to reduce your carbohydrate intake. If this is something that occurs often regardless of the amount of carbs consumed, perhaps tests would be a good idea to ensure you are not sensitive or intolerant to gluten.
Now, here are some facts about fitness. Cardiovascular endurance can drop in as little as 1-2 weeks and I’m sure we have all felt that fresh out of breath feeling upon returning to our favourite cardio class after a little break. The good news is that CV endurance can be restored just as fast as it was lost. It’s all to do with the decrease and increase in lung capacity and VO2Max, so don’t be scared and head back to training. Yes, the first session might feel like a bit of a struggle, just remember to take deep breaths, drink plenty of water and take breaks when you need to.
Although you can’t lose muscle mass overnight, muscular strength and size can reduce significantly over time, on average in 3-4 months of no training you can lose about 33% of “gains”. As mentioned before, exceptions to the rule are hospitalised/immobile people who have lost function of their limbs. Even having one leg or arm in a cast can quickly result in muscle catabolism. Athletes are encouraged to reintroduce varied training as soon as possible after injury/surgery. They never really stop and neither should we. This is why rehab/corrective exercise is so popular – even when a certain muscle has been pulled or a joint injured, there is always another area to be trained or an alternative exercise to be performed. Jorn Trommelen proved that with as little as 1 training session per week, one can maintain their muscle mass acquired at least over a 16 week period. (If you would like to read his work, please leave a comment or send me a message on here or Instagram as at the time of writing this post I was unable to find the URL for this study.)
What else happens in our bodies? When we’re not training, our carbohydrate requirements won’t be as high but it doesn’t mean we cannot or shouldn’t eat carbs at all. Carbohydrates are still required by your brain so at least keeping your liver glycogen levels up is a smart idea. Failure to do so may result in brain fog, feeling lethargic and demotivated.
It is important to know that your body utilises carbs in 3 ways: 1) stored in muscles (helps shape muscle and provides energy when training to feel stronger); 2) released into the blood stream to be used as immediately available energy; 3) stored as bodyfat for later use. As long as you remember to reduce your carbohydrate intake accordingly and replace it with healthy fats and protein (and don’t forget the veg!), your body will have a healthy ratio of macronutrients that help you maintain optimal body composition even in the absence of exercise.
Last but not least, let’s talk about the general fear of gaining weight. First of all, we don’t just get fat when we don’t train. But, indeed, weight can be gained slowly over time if the energy balance is off. This is why establishing a healthy relationship with eating is so important. If you train solely to justify a high food intake then the absence of exercise is going to make you feel anxious. However, if your food intake is optimised to boost performance and varies depending on the intensity of your training (or whether you’re training or not), you won’t be caught off guard even if you have to skip a session due to sudden change of plans in your day.
Athletes whose eating habits are ingrained after years of training can struggle with this. A rugby player who may have consumed around 6000 calories daily, could find himself in a pickle once he quits the sport or retires. If his eating has been more mindless than intuitive, he might struggle matching his food intake to the new, lower, energy requirements. I have heard stories of retired sportsmen who have gained weight rapidly after stopping their training. This can affect the person’s mental health and lead to anxiety and depression plus further issues with eating since a healthy routine hasn’t been established. So what can be done? Dropping to 2300kcal overnight from 6000kcal is going to feel highly restrictive like a dreadful diet. The change has to be gradual, allowing for small adjustments to be made weekly to encourage new eating habits to match their new lifestyle. It’s not impossible but can be challenging and the person in question has to want to make these changes.
This is why I always discuss intuitive eating with my clients. To regain control over your eating habits, it is important to establish some sort of order as soon as possible to start to guide your body in the direction you need it to go. First, replace the high calories by consuming high amounts of healthy, highly nutritious food, which will fill you up quicker than highly palatable foods. Then, your body will start to adapt to the lower caloric intake (they say it takes 3 weeks to break a habit), your appetite starts to change, you’ll eat less and your stomach lining starts to shrink – all this makes for a lovely virtuous cycle. You will fill up on less food with no unhealthy restrictions. The more you restrict the more you crave; the less you restrict the less you crave. Remember: everything in moderation!
I’ll leave you with this cornucopia of information for the weekend and will share Pt. 2 with you in the new week.
2 thoughts on “No gym? No problem! Pt. 1: How taking a break from training affects your muscle mass, weight and eating habits.”
Jolly good! You are such an expert, and write very well.
Thank you Marion! I am excited to share all this knowledge with everybody. Apologies for only seeing this comment now, I’m getting used to the new interface! ☺️