Muscle Loss After Injury or Illness
How Long Does it Take for Muscles to Fade?
When exercise is a regular part of your life, it can be frustrating if illness or injury prevents you from working out. A day or two isn't a big deal, the break is a good opportunity to let your body heal. But sometimes the problems are more serious, and days can turn into weeks... or months. Then many people fear all that hard work will go away.
It got me thinking. Just how long does it take for muscle, or the beneficial effects of exercise, to fade? The question is simple, but the answer isn't. That's because it all depends on how fit you are to start. To get the answer that applies to you, I've put together three responses, based on your level of fitness when you stopped.
Never exercised or haven't worked out in 10 years or more? You don't have to worry about muscle loss, because there isn't much to lose. That's the good news.
The bad news is that it'll take longer for you to recover, your recovery often won't be as complete, and you're more likely to suffer long-term consequences than people who did exercise. You're also going to be more prone to having injury or illness in the first place, because you don't have as much strength to prevent them.
Long-term outcomes for people who don't exercise are bad as well. In a Harvard study of over 600,000 people, they found that exercising just 20 minutes per day, gives you a 31% LESS chance of dying in a 14 year period.
Workout two to three times a week? You're considered a casual exerciser and a week or two on the sidelines really won't produce a noticeable change in muscle tone, but your aerobic fitness is a different story. Your body's ability to efficiently use oxygen begins to decline right away. Studies show if you've been working out for less than a year, you could lose all your aerobic conditioning in as little as two months.
It'll take three or four weeks before you start to feel a loss in muscle, even if it's not readily visible. Between four and eight weeks the decline in muscle size will be measurable. Your arms, chest and legs will start to get smaller and your abs may become less pronounced. After four to six months, you'll have lost about 50% of the muscle you put on.
Workout four or five times a week for a year or more? You're considered an athlete and two to four weeks will barely make a dent in your general strength. However, if you train sports specific muscles like the slow-twitch muscle fibers of endurance athletes or the fast-twitch fibers of power athletes, those will disappear quickly. Your body will try to hang onto muscle, but those specialized skills fade fast.
In one study of endurance athletes, after twelve days of inactivity, their VO2 max dropped by 7%. Another study showed four weeks of inactivity led to a whopping 20% decrease in endurance athletes VO2 max. After three months, as much as half your aerobic conditioning may be lost. It's much less than the loss a casual exerciser will experience, showing how important a regular exercise habit is.
Age is a big factor. All these numbers are based on studies done with 20 to 30-year-olds. When the same tests are done on people 65 and older, the losses happen almost twice as fast. That makes it even more important to stay consistent, the older you get.
The biggest problem is for people who rely on exercise to burn excess calories. If your exercise routine burns 300 to 400 calories a day, and you suddenly stop, then you've got to cut out those calories from your diet. If you don't, you'll quickly pack on the pounds.
Talk with your doctor and see what's allowed. You don't want to make things worse, but if there are less strenuous things you can do safely, start doing them. Even short sessions can help stop the slide.
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