To stay fit and functional throughout life, exercise is key. Not only can regular physical activity lower the risk of developing health problems, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, it may help you live a longer life. According to Harvard and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), regular physical activity can boost lifespan by several years. But what if you exercise for several months or even a few decades and then stop? Do you lose the longevity, fitness, and health benefits?
The Reversibility of Exercise Gains
Exercise gains refer to the physical and physiological changes that occur in the body because of regular physical activity. These changes can include increases in muscle mass, strength, endurance, and cardiovascular fitness. However, the reversibility of these gains is a common concern for many individuals who take time off from exercise or stop exercising altogether.
The degree to which exercise gains reverse depends on a variety of factors, including the type and intensity of exercise, the length of time that has passed since the last exercise session, and an individual’s overall health and fitness level. Generally, the more intense and longer duration of the exercise, the longer the gains will last.
But you need to continue to exercise to maintain health and fitness gains, if not the gains will stop and begin to reverse. Your musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems adapt to the stress you place on them. That’s why it’s so important to keep challenging your body with new workouts and activities so that it continues to adapt and you keep seeing the results you want.
Aerobic Gains Reverse Fairly Quickly
One of the benefits of exercise, particularly aerobic workouts, is improvement in aerobic capacity of aerobic fitness. Aerobic capacity is a measure of your body’s ability to use oxygen to produce energy and is a key indicator of overall health and fitness. Aerobic exercises, such as running, cycling, or swimming, improve aerobic capacity by strengthening the heart, increasing the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, and making the muscles more efficient at using oxygen.
When you engage in aerobic exercises, your body demands more oxygen to fuel your muscles, your cardiovascular system responds by increasing the amount of oxygen your heart pumps, your lungs take in more oxygen, and you deliver more oxygen and nutrients to your muscles. This increases the overall capacity of your cardiovascular system to transport oxygen and the capacity of your muscles to produce energy to fuel muscle contractions. Regular aerobic exercise also improves your body’s ability to use fat as a fuel source, which can lead to improved endurance and stamina.
Aerobic capacity can start to decline within a few days to a couple of weeks of discontinuing exercise. Studies have shown that after 2-4 weeks of detraining, a decrease in cardiovascular fitness of about 10-20% can be observed. This decline will continue to progress if you remain inactive for extended periods. Therefore, it is important to maintain regular physical activity to maintain or improve aerobic capacity.
Reversal of Strength-Training Gains
Studies show after 2-4 weeks of not exercising, strength can decline by as much as 10%. However, in highly trained people, it may take months to get significant strength and muscle loss. After seven months, powerlifters see losses of up to 35%. This decline will continue to progress if the individual remains inactive for extended periods. The rate of muscle loss is also influenced by factors such as age, sex, and baseline muscle mass.
For example, older adults and women may lose muscle mass at a faster rate than younger individuals or men. It’s important to note that you can minimize muscle loss by continuing to engage in some form of physical activity, even if it’s at a lower intensity than before.
What About the Longevity Benefits of Exercise?
The longevity benefits of exercise refer to the positive effects that regular physical activity has on lifespan and overall health. These benefits include reducing the risk of chronic diseases, improving cardiovascular health, and healthy aging. Like declines in muscle mass and aerobic capacity, you can lose the longevity benefits of exercise if you return to a sedentary lifestyle.
The degree to which this happens depends on the duration of inactivity, the intensity of the previous exercise regimen, and your overall health and fitness level. You won’t lose these benefits right away. It may take months or even years to Regular physical activity is crucial for maintaining good health and can help to promote longevity and well-being.
One reason exercise may improve longevity is by improving insulin sensitivity, and how cells process glucose. Better insulin sensitivity is linked with longevity. Research shows the benefits of regular exercise on glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity can last for several weeks to several months after a person stops training. However, the exact duration of these benefits can depend on factors such as a person’s age, fitness level, and the type and intensity of the exercise.
Yet even taking brisk walks, especially after meals, helps improve glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity. So, you can scale back the intensity and frequency of exercise and still retain some of the health and, potentially, the longevity benefits of exercise.
Exercise isn’t a one-and-done. You can’t exercise for a year or two, stop and expect to retain the health and longevity benefits. While there are numerous benefits to exercising regularly, such as improved physical health, enhanced longevity, and enhanced mental well-being, you won’t retain these benefits if you stop.
Regular physical activity must be an ongoing lifestyle choice to truly reap the health and longevity benefits it provides. This doesn’t mean you can’t take breaks here and there – everyone needs them! But make it your goal to keep moving your body to reap the full health benefits of exercise.
- Reimers CD, Knapp G, Reimers AK. Does Physical Activity Increase Life Expectancy? A Review of the Literature. Journal of Aging Research. 2012;2012:1-9. doi:10.1155/2012/243958
- MD A. Can exercise extend your life? – Harvard Health. Harvard Health. Published March 13, 2019. Accessed January 14, 2023. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/can-exercise-extend-your-life-2019031316207.
- If You Stopped Exercising Today, Here’s How Long It Would Take Your Body To Notice. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2016/12/01/if-you-stopped-exercising-today-heres-how-long-it-would-take-your-body-to-notice/?sh=2684c9f014d3. Published October 12, 2022. Accessed January 14, 2023.
- Gremeaux V, Gayda M, Lepers R, Sosner P, Juneau M, Nigam A. Exercise and longevity. Maturitas. 2012 Dec;73(4):312-7. doi: 10.1016/j.maturitas.2012.09.012. Epub 2012 Oct 11. PMID: 23063021.