As if our exercise habits this year hadn’t been erratic enough, now we’re into lockdown 2.0, gyms are closed and it’s winter, which often zaps any enthusiasm for getting out of bed for a morning run. And that’s before we factor in regular winter illnesses like colds and flus (not mentioning The Big One).
We all know how good regular exercise can feel, both physically and mentally, with a plethora of studies to back up why we should do it (weight loss, bone density, mental health gains, sleep benefits) – but what happens when we stop for certain periods of time. And how long do the effects last?
What happens when you stop exercising for a few days?
Don’t worry – not much physiologically. In fact, a few days away from exercise – even a week – might just be what you need for your mental health, according to Adrienne Herbert, personal trainer, podcast host and author of the upcoming book Power Hour: How to Focus on Your Goals and Create a Life You Love. “If you’re very emotionally stressed and exercise isn’t helping, then a week off might do you the power of good; you sometimes find that you take time off and your body feels so much better after that circuit break.”
But, she warns, there is a juggling act involved here. “We know how essential physical movement is for our mental health and sometimes we do need to consider being compassionate for our future self. So, while hitting snooze and skipping that pilates class might feel like the right thing to do while you’re in bed, you might regret it later.”
What happens when you stop exercising for a week?
This is when the body starts to show the effects of not exercising. “Various studies show that you see health compromises after about five days or so,” Dr Kelly Bowden Davies, a lecturer in exercise physiology from Manchester Metropolitan University, who studies the effects of inactivity, says.
It might also start to affect our sleep. Studies, including a recent one that looked at adults with chronic insomnia by the Department of Neurology at Northwestern University, show that exercise helps us sleep; by not exercising, we can wreak havoc with our biological rhythms. “Physical activity increases time spent in deep sleep, the most physically restorative sleep phase,” confirms Natalie Pennicotte-Collier, a sleep expert who works with elite athletes. “Deep sleep helps to boost immune function, support cardiac health, and control stress and anxiety.”
Also, our mood might start to dip without a regular shot of exercise-induced endorphins. Recent research in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that working out creates proteins which can help protect your brain from stress-induced depression. So when you stop working out, you can miss out on these natural anti-depressants.
What happens when you stop exercising for two weeks?
Now this is when you might want to start to take notice. A study by Dr Bowden Davies and her group of 28 healthy, regularly active adults…