What Happens If You Stop Going to the Gym?

Life gets busy, and sometimes the gym is the first thing to fall by the wayside. Or you get injured or ill and are forced to quit working out for a while. Neither scenario is good for your body or health.

Long-lasting health depends on regular exercise. (Image: PeopleImages/E+/GettyImages)

After leaving the gym, weight gain, muscle loss and a decrease in cardiovascular capacity are inevitable. Continuing to live a sedentary lifestyle can even increase your risk of death. Whether busy or ill, your first priority — when you are able — should be to get back to exercising regularly.

Tip

You risk muscle loss, weight gain and chronic diseases when you stop exercising.

You Will Lose Muscle

It doesn't take long to begin losing muscle mass and strength after you quit the gym. When you stop applying stimulus to your muscles, in the form of resistance training, they stop adapting, which is how you build muscle and grow stronger. Basically, if you don't use it you'll lose it.

In a 2016 study in Diabetes, 10 healthy young males were assigned to one week of strict bed rest. At the end of the week, the men had lost an average of 3 pounds of muscle and 3.9 percent of biceps cross-sectional area. If you are injured and on bed rest, you can expect the losses to be quite rapid.

If you are still active in your daily life, muscle loss will be slower, but not by much. Once you've stopped going to the gym for a month, losses in size and strength will be noticeable. The good news is that when you resume strength training, your gains will likely be much more rapid than when you first started training.

You Will Gain Fat

When you cease exercise activity, it's likely that you will experience a shift in body composition, even with an adjustment in calorie intake. While it's a myth that muscle turns to fat when you stop working out, as you lose lean muscle, your resting metabolism declines, making it harder for you to manage your weight. Your daily calorie burn also declines, resulting in an imbalance of calories in versus calories out.

A 2016 study in PLoS One examined the effects of eight weeks of detraining on elite Taekwondo athletes. Participants were prohibited from doing any form of exercise training or vigorous physical activity, and they were given detailed nutrition guidelines to control their dietary patterns based on their individual daily energy requirements. At the end of the eight-week period, the athletes had gained approximately 21 percent body fat and lost 4 percent muscle mass. They also had elevated biomarkers of systemic insulin resistance, which contributes to fat accumulation.

Your Cardiovascular Fitness Will Decline

Similar to muscle growth, increases in cardiovascular fitness come from applying regular stimulus for the body to adapt and grow stronger. Regular cardiovascular exercise, especially the vigorous type that places increasingly higher demands on your cardiovascular system, increases your body's ability to use oxygen and your aerobic capacity. When you stop placing these demands on your cardiovascular system, your aerobic capacity will decrease.

The 2016 PLoS One study showed that VO2 max, a measure of the body's ability to use oxygen, declined by 2.4 percent at the end of eight weeks. However, in endurance athletes, such as soccer players, the decline can be significantly higher, according to results from a different study in PLoS One in 2014.

Your Risk of Disease Increases

A sedentary lifestyle is linked to a host of chronic diseases. Not getting regular exercise raises your risk of:

  • Obesity
  • Heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • High cholesterol
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Certain cancers
  • Osteoporosis
  • Depression and anxiety

A study in JAMA in 2018 found that cardiorespiratory fitness was a reliable indicator of long-term mortality. In fact, living a sedentary lifestyle was shown to increase the risk of death as much as or more than smoking, heart disease and diabetes. Study participants with the highest levels of aerobic fitness had the greatest rates of survival.

It's clear that quitting the gym — and not doing any other type of exercise — not only causes muscle loss, fat gain and decreased cardiovascular fitness, but also may lead to an early death.

Working Out Without the Gym

You don't need to go to the gym to get an effective workout. If you have a packed schedule, find ways to fit fitness into your day. Climb a few flights of stairs in your office on your lunch break, ride your bicycle to work or keep some weights by your desk and lift them or do squats while you're on the phone.

You can even bring the gym to your home, which makes getting to the gym a nonissue. Invest in a few sets of dumbbells or resistance bands, a jump rope, a weight bench or plyo box, a yoga mat and some other nice-to-have accessories such as medicine balls, kettlebells and even a compact treadmill or stationary bike. That way, whenever you find yourself at home with a window of free time, you can grab a quick workout — and a shower — in less time than it takes to get to the gym and back.

Even your daily activities of living can serve as exercise — park farther away from your destination and/or walk or jog there; always take the stairs when you have the option; do biceps curls with your bags of groceries while walking to your car.

If you have an injury or illness, there may still be some exercises you can do as long as your doctor or physical therapist approves it. When you're in recovery, you may not have the energy to exercise, but even a little bit can make you feel better. Go outside for a short walk if you are able, and continue to increase the distance or your pace with each successive walk. If you're unable to stand, you can do a chair workout.

Remember, anything is better than nothing, so just get moving.

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