Skipping Fitness Activities What Happens when you Don't Exercise?

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Did I miss anything?

I taught public school for 32 years, and for 14 of those years I worked with students from Grades 8 through 12. When a student missed a class it wasn't uncommon for them to return and ask the question, "Did I miss anything?" instead of asking "What did I miss?" Tom Hayward wrote a poem about this which I suspect every teacher can relate to — even today.

Students did indeed miss something. Hayward sums it up this way in his poem:

"Contained in this classroom
is a microcosm of human experience
assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
This is not the only place such an opportunity has been gathered
but it was one place
And you weren’t here."

It is the same with fitness class. My fitness participants don't usually ask if they missed anything because many of them do indeed understand that their body did miss something. Many will even tell me that it's "very hard" to get back into fitness, after missing for a week or two, but a full understanding of the physical changes that have occurred may not always be clear to them.

Everyone understands on some level that if you miss fitness class, your body has missed something — this especially happens if you do no exercise at all and even more so if you do not do the same types of exercise as are done in a fitness class.

Every day you are away means more days to recover once you return. If you do not keep up, there will be physical and psychological ramifications. Returning and starting again is harder with each day you miss.

We all need certain basics in life — air, water, food, shelter, clothing. Fitness should be a part of that list. It should be as important to our daily schedule as eating breakfast, putting on clothes for the day, and drinking water.

What changes occur in the body if you don't exercise?

Being physically fit means you can:

Fitness is about endurance and strength. When it comes to levels of fitness, we’re all different. We vary in age and we all have unique strengths and weaknesses. The effects of inactivity, therefore, will be different for each person. Some changes can happen very quickly — even within a day. Others will take a little longer.

The more fit you are to begin with, the longer and more slowly may be the decline when you are not being active.

Here are some changes that will occur over time:

Oxygen intake capacity declines: As your ability to take in oxygen declines — which will happen after just a few days of not doing fitness — your endurance will also decline. It will happen more quickly in older adults than in younger. It is difficult to measure on your own, but it may be most obvious when you find it harder to climb a small hill or a short flight of stairs or you discover that you can't walk as far as you did just a few days ago.

A measurable decline in muscle strength and endurance: From structure, power, and strength to stamina, tone, and coordination, muscles will change. You can’t see the process happening, but when you forgo the gym for your couch, the muscle fibers which are necessary for strenuous and/or efficient activities become fatigued and work less efficiently.

A rise in sugar levels: If you are diabetic or even pre-diabetic, this can be dangerous. It's important to keep blood sugar levels even, avoiding spikes and falls, so that the body does not over-use insulin.

A rise in blood lipids: Cholesterol levels and triglycerides may rise, changing the risk ratio between "good" and "bad" cholesterol (HDL and LDL). Elevated or abnormal levels of lipids and/or lipoproteins in the blood is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Those who are prone to hypercholesterolemia are more likely to have elevated blood lipids within a day or two of non-activity.

A rise in blood pressure: High blood pressure occurs when the blood pressure in your arteries is elevated and causes your heart to work harder than normal to pump blood through the blood vessels. It is the number one risk factor for stroke and a major risk factor for heart disease. It is important to have your blood pressure controlled by medication, if necessary, and cardiovascular exercise is important as well.

Potentially gain weight: Your metabolism increases when you’re regularly exercising, and since you’re burning more calories, you end up eating more in order to maintain energy. If you eat the same meals when you’re not attending fitness class, your body won’t be burning the extra calories and you could gain weight.

Loss of cognitive function: We know that cardiovascular exercise increases blood to the brain and that improves cognitive function. As with muscles, the brain can atrophy without exercise. This won't happen with one day missed, but over time, it can be a significant factor. A recent study — link here — seems to prove this. 2

Mood Changes: Exercise releases endorphins and serotonin which improve your mood. If you miss fitness, you do not get your regular release of endorphins. Exercising also helps to release tension in the muscles and this will be lost if you are not exercising.

Insomnia: When you exercise, your sleep may improve. Without exercising, insomnia may be a problem.

If you choose to skip fitness activities for any length of time, you will find it harder when you return. Changes can occur within a day, and noticeable changes can occur within two weeks. If you go too long without doing these things, you may find it difficult to return at all.

Is there ever a good reason for missing fitness activities?

Sometimes absences are unavoidable. Each person must judge what is right for them in any given circumstance.

Some of the most common reasons for skipping fitness are:

If you cannot attend fitness class, then you need to ask yourself: What can I do instead of fitness? Substituting fitness class with walking is certainly valuable (it's better than doing nothing!), but walking does not replace all fitness class activities.

What are the basic components I need to always address?

How much your fitness level decreases while not attending fitness class depends entirely on what type of activity you choose to do instead — or whether you do any other activities at all. The only way to know if you are getting the same benefits from fitness class is to compare your activities outside with what we do in fitness class.

There are four basic components of exercise for an older adult. They are listed below with an indented paragraph following that gives you suggestions for what activities you can do:

➡️ If you can't attend fitness class, try to monitor your heart rate and see if your walk, run, cycle, swim or other activity gets your heart rate up to what is referred to as your maximum heart rate. Your resting heart rate should be between 50-100 beats per minute. Your Maximum Heart Rate (MHR) is 220 minus your age. You don’t want to exercise at your MHR so your working heart rate should be 50-85% of the MHR. (See sidebar for an example.) You can test your heart rate by taking your pulse at the carotid artery in the neck or at the wrist. Count the number of beats for 10 seconds and multiply by 6. Remember, as well, that it's important to warm-up for at least 10 minutes before you begin cardiovascular exercise, so this activity should be at least 20 minutes long.

➡️ You can buy weights that wrap around your wrists or ankles to give you some extra resistance while taking a walk or doing your housework. You can also buy small free weights and use them at home. If you don't wish to use weights, canned food works reasonably well as a substitute. If you have no weights, don't forget that there are exercises that use the body as resistance: squats, plies, planks, push-ups, etc. Isometric exercises (muscle against muscle) can also be easily done at home. If you are on a cruise, find the fitness centre or the swimming pool and take advantage of both.

➡️ If you miss fitness class, you can still work your joints through range-of-motion movements. This can be done sitting in a chair, standing, and/or lying down. Just as a car needs oil and grease, your joints need movement. At the end of the day, take a moment to sit in a chair or lie on the floor and go through a series of relaxing stretches and range-of-motion movements. Maybe put on some music, and close your eyes and listen quietly for a few minutes. Take deep breaths and allow yourself to go somewhere else in your mind.

➡️ Balance training is easy to do on your own. Most of the skills we practice in class can be duplicated at home. In fact, there really isn't enough time in class to do it all, so doing balance training at home every day is not a bad idea at all.

Motivate yourself: Two Real-Life Examples

There are many things that may motivate us to exercise and/or to maintain whatever we have gained. Here are two examples:

Example #1: Coming Back from a Severe Injury

At the age of 23, my husband was wounded in Vietnam in March of 1966. The bullet went through his right thigh. He was in traction for 111 days, in a cast for three months, and a leg brace for four months. During that time, no one helped him to exercise and keep fit (somewhat understandable since in those days this was not even considered). When he finally decided to remove the brace and walk on his own, his leg muscles were weak and wobbly. He began to exercise his legs in earnest and within about a month of daily training, he felt that his muscles had returned to their normal strength. He was young which is one reason he was able to recover more quickly.

Example #2: Preparing for Surgery — Before and After

A participant in one of my fitness classes arrived one day to tell me that she was soon to have hip replacement surgery. She had been a faithful and determined participant for more than a year, rarely missing a day — and she exercised in my class on the day before her surgery. I didn't see her for three months, as was expected after the surgery, but she returned without fail after she was allowed to. She went right back to her usual routine and felt the strength returning quite quickly. She still attends my class. Her doctor told her that "those fitness classes" had been what made the whole thing "easy" for her.

Motivation to be active is important. It isn't always easy — and many things can get in the way. Remember: This is about your health, your long-term ability to remain independent. If you don't want to have to do the research to know what activities you do, then you should attend fitness class (led by a professional fitness instructor) whenever possible. If you can't make it to your fitness class, and especially if you miss for several days, stay fit by including in your daily routine some cardiovascular activity, strength and balance training, and range-of-motion movements.

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I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.

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  1. These three dots behave exactly like a footnote. Click on them and you will get more information about the topic. 

  2. From the article: "'We know that if you are less physically active, you are more likely to have cognitive problems and dementia as you age,' says Dr. Smith. '..the take home message is simple -- if you do stop exercising for 10 days, just as you will quickly lose your cardiovascular fitness, you will also experience a decrease in blood brain flow.'"