May 11, 2020

Why it's so hard to stay in shape while sheltering at home

Daily Briefing

    With the new coronavirus epidemic forcing many Americans to stay at home, it can be difficult to stay in shape—but while regaining your fitness may be difficult, it's not impossible, Amanda Loudin reports for the Washington Post.

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    Why people aren't exercising as much

    As a result of the new coronavirus epidemic, not only are Americans staying home, they're also more anxious and isolated than ever before, Loudin reports.

    Darrell Gough, a personal trainer certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine, said isolation can cause many people to feel unmotivated to exercise.

    For example, Jenny Solpietro, a 39-year-old software engineer who formerly ran and consistently practiced martial arts, said the epidemic has caused her a lot of anxiety. "I have anxiety and it brings out self-destructive behaviors, like self-medicating with food and making excuses not to exercise," she said. "Social media doesn't help, either—I see pictures and videos of people doing at-home workouts or talking about how much they miss the gym, and I feel even more inadequate."

    Ryan McGrath, a 38-year-old competitive runner and triathlete, said he's also been suffering from a lack of motivation.

    "I stayed in shape for most of winter, but was starting to gear up for spring and summer races," he said. "When they all started canceling, I just lost my desire to train."

    How long does it take to 'lose it'?

    Research has shown that even for the most in-shape athletes, it doesn't take long for deconditioning to result in muscle loss, and those effects extend to both the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems, Loudin reports.

    For instance, one study of male participants on bed rest found they experienced lean tissue loss and a lower VO2 max—maximum amount of usable oxygen during intense exercise—after just 10 days of muscle disuse.

    Another study found reductions in heart muscle size just eight weeks after marathon runners scaled down their training. Those runners also saw a decline in treadmill performance.

    According to Tony Boutagy, an exercise physiologist and owner of the Boutagy Fitness Institute, research on steps reduction indicates there's a two-week time frame in which health deteriorates, coming with both a drop in VO2 max "and half a kilogram of muscle mass loss."

    Robert Mazzeo, associate chair of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said cardiovascular health and muscle mitochondria, which turn nutrients into energy, are linked. "[M]itochondria turn over quickly, so you will lose this area of fitness before you lose muscular strength, which turns over more slowly," he said. "But much of the loss and return to fitness is relative, and tied to your level of fitness prior to detraining."

    Returning to fitness is hard, but not impossible

    According to Boutagy, returning to fitness takes longer than losing fitness, especially among older people. "One week of bed rest in the elderly can take six months of training to return to their pre-rest levels," he said. "Previous exercisers, however, will have a faster return to fitness levels after inactivity."

    A study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in 2000 found that people ages 20 to 30 saw an 8% decline in strength during a six-month detraining period, while people ages 65 to 75 saw a 14% decline.

    However, while getting back to fitness may be hard, Mazzeo said it's not impossible. "It may take an older person longer to return to fitness, but they can get back to their former level if they are as dedicated to training as before," he said.

    But while gyms remain closed and races remain canceled, Gough recommends "getting out for a brisk walk a couple a time a week [now]" to "help offset some of the loss" of fitness. "Find an accountability buddy and check in with each other to help stay connected and motivated," he said.

    Mazzeo agreed. "You don't have to be working out at an intense level to maintain basic health," he said. "Moderate activity is great right now" (Loudin, Washington Post, 5/2).

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