Nearly all of us go through times when we just aren't active—there's no time, we've lost our motivation or suffered an injury, or maybe we've gotten wrapped up in the holiday bustle. Often, we give ourselves a hard time about it, feeling guilty that we haven’t gone for a run or shown up at yoga class more often. The reality is that it’s OK if your energy dips or life gets busy for a bit, or you simply don’t want to get on the elliptical sometimes; in short, you don’t have to be perfect at exercise to stay in shape. But it is important to know how to maintain your fitness during less-active periods, because you can lose the gains you’ve made more easily than you may realize.
Aerobic conditioning is the first aspect of fitness to suffer when you spend more time on the couch. After two weeks of little or no exercise, about 10 percent of your aerobic capacity—your cardiovascular system’s ability to use oxygen efficiently and create energy—is lost; after eight weeks, you're back to square one. When you stop aerobic workouts completely your lungs begin to lose elasticity, blood vessels shrink and the volume of blood your heart pumps per minute decreases.
Strength conditioning lasts a bit longer; after about eight to 10 weeks of no weight training you begin to lose the muscle mass (muscles will appear smaller and less toned) you’ve built over time, otherwise known as disuse atrophy. What's more, the fibers in your muscles actually change: Lack of movement decreases the fibers that aid in endurance (Type I fibers) and those that generate short bursts of strength and speed (Type IIA fibers), and inactivity increases the fibers that cause quicker fatigue (Type IIB fibers). Certain muscles will lose strength faster than others, depending on use; for example, your hamstrings may remain stronger longer than your quadriceps because they’re more often engaged throughout the day.
Without a regular exercise routine, your flexibility begins to decline as well—the less you challenge your body aerobically and with strength training, the harder it becomes for your joints to move easily, increasing the possibility of stiffness and the risk of injury.
The good news is that it's not so hard to maintain close to your usual fitness level by adjusting your workouts during the times you’re not as motivated or you’re busier than usual. Here are six ways to get some activity in:
Exercise at least every third day. Daily movement is great, but when it’s not possible, try working out every three days. This ensures your downtime isn’t too long and you’ll still be able to stay at your current level on the treadmill or bike or keep up in your favorite class.
Cut your aerobic workout down. You can reduce the aerobic (cardio) portion of your routine by half, but it’s important to keep up the intensity. So maybe you run half your usual distance but at the same pace; or you might choose a shorter lunchtime class with a heart-pumping routine that challenges you just as much as longer classes. Research suggests that you can shorten your workouts for up to four months and lose very little fitness. When cutting down your sessions, aim to exercise at 70 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. Ask your local exercise physiologist to determine your optimal target heart rate.
Strength train at least once a week. During that once-weekly session, don't cut back on the amount of weight you use. Making sure you’re challenging your muscles—whether with machines, dumbbells, other tools or your own bodyweight—will help you maintain lean muscle mass and strong muscle tissue. You can even try shorter routines (got 20 minutes?) that target various muscles groups.
Stretch throughout the day. If you don’t have time to thoroughly stretch before and after a workout, incorporate some moves into your day by stretching at your desk, while you’re on the phone or before bed. Fitting in some seated stretches or other dynamic and static stretches allows your body to remain limber, promoting healthy circulation and helping you move with ease, avoiding stiffness and aches.
Be creative. If you’re traveling or are in a different place than you’re used to working out, improvise and use what’s available. Ask about nearby walking trails; or keep some bodyweight exercise instructions handy if you don't have equipment. There’s always an opportunity to move your body efficiently no matter where you are.
Be open to your changing schedule. You may prefer to work out in the evening, but if you’re having a week that doesn’t allow for that, try another time. Maybe you'll find that you enjoy morning workouts or feel more energized during a mid-afternoon session. Being flexible about when you exercise will give you more opportunities to move and maintain your fitness level. Plus, it allows for more variety—maybe you’ll try a morning class you’ve never considered or make plans to walk with a friend after lunch.