In some parts of the country, the tank tops and shorts have already been stowed away as colder weather begins to creep in. Soon, the rest of us will also be entering the months of bundling up in layers and snuggling indoors by the fire. Making those 6AM trips to the gym when it’s chilly outside is not easy, especially after Daylight Saving Time ends and it’s still dark out.
So how can you motivate yourself to stay in shape? And if you do take a self-imposed sabbatical from exercise, will you lose that muscle mass you worked so hard to build? And if you stop hitting the running and biking trails, will all of your cardiovascular capability disappear?
“Two factors come into play,” says Deborah McConnell, MS, CES, an advisor for Lose It!, a comprehensive app-based weight-loss program with more than 25 million members in the U.S. and Canada. “First, your current fitness level, and second, how long a break you’re taking.” For those who are more fit, McConnell says, it takes longer for the body to lose its muscle mass. But people new to exercise will lose what they have gained more quickly.
McConnell, who has more than 18 years of fitness industry experience, says that you lose flexibility (think yoga, Pilates, stretching) the fastest if not maintained, followed by cardio fitness. Strength and muscle mass fall away the slowest. “They are retained a bit more easily than your cardio system because your body has muscle memory,” McConnell explains.
After two weeks of zero cardio, you’ll see a significant reduction in your fitness level, measured as your VO2 max—the maximum rate of oxygen consumption as measured during incremental exercise, or a measurement of your body’s ability to consume oxygen. McConnell sites several studies that have shown a 10 percent drop in your VO2 max after two weeks of no cardio and a 20 percent drop after four weeks of no cardio. In other words, if you cut the cardio, you’ll have a lot more trouble shoveling the snow out of your driveway without getting winded.
NASM/ACE Certified Personal Fitness Trainer Teddy Bass, whose celebrity clientele has included Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu and Christina Applegate, says that sometimes, becoming unfit can happen even faster than 14 days. “They say that if you’ve been working out at least two months and then you stop, it takes two weeks to start losing that muscle mass that you gained,” Bass explains. “But realistically, studies have shown that within 72 hours, you start losing muscle gain. The muscle atrophies because you’re not working it.”
Another factor is age. The older you are, the quicker you lose your cardio fitness and muscle mass. Active, older adults, McConnell says, lose strength twice as fast during inactivity as someone in their 20s or 30s. And what about your metabolism? Can you still chug those full-fat lattes? “Men have higher metabolism than women because they have more muscle mass,” McConnell says. “When you start losing muscle mass, that’s one factor that can slow down your metabolism.” If you stop exercising, you’ll likely have to cut 250 to 300 calories per day (at a minimum!) from your diet in order to prevent weight gain. That’s an especially tall order during the holidays.
So rather than skipping out on the eggnog, maintaining some form of exercise—even one or two days a week—is your best option. Several apps like Nutrino, MyFitnessPal and McConnell’s Lose It! can help you control your diet and monitor your exercise, often offering motivational tools for your workouts.
Both McConnell and Bass recommend finding a type of exercise you love—with options that you can do inside. “If you know you have months where it’ll snow and you won’t get out, start doing jumping jacks, crunches, push-ups and planks in your house,” Bass says. “Your body weight is enough. You don’t need a gym. Run around your block; if it’s snowing, go inside to an auditorium at the local school.”
Find several friends and hold each other accountable. Or hire a personal trainer, as the cost of the sessions will hopefully be motivating enough to get you out the door. Sign up for a mud run or a spring race and start training. Options abound—find yours.