Jenny Solpietro had been doing well with her exercise routine, getting out for regular runs and practicing martial arts on a consistent basis. She’d been eating well and tracking her calories, too, feeling good after what had been a tough couple of years because of injury and job stress. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
“I have anxiety and it brings out self-destructive behaviors, like self-medicating with food and making excuses not to exercise,” the 39-year old software engineer from Columbia, Md., says. “Social media doesn’t help, either — I see pictures and videos of people doing at-home workouts or talking about how much they miss the gym, and I feel even more inadequate.”
With all the bad news, Solpietro has found her main fitness effort now is “burrowing into the couch.”
Ryan McGrath, a 38-year old competitive runner and triathlete from Baltimore, is encountering a similar lack of motivation right now.
“I stayed in shape for most of winter, but was starting to gear up for spring and summer races,” he says. “When they all started canceling, I just lost my desire to train.”
Like Solpietro, McGrath has found he’s having a hard time following good dietary habits that can be important for a competitive athlete.
“Right now, I’m eating fast food like fried chicken sandwiches, cheesesteaks and burritos several days a week,” he says. “I’m not overly concerned with weight gain, but I hate feeling sluggish like I do right now.”
Solpietro and McGrath are not alone in finding themselves unmoored when it comes to their health routines in the middle of a pandemic.
Darrell Gough, a National Academy of Sports Medicine-certified personal trainer, says that many people struggle with motivation when they feel isolated. In normal times, he says, “I lead a big boot camp class and I’m seeing lots of those members now miss the group dynamic. I’m trying to use Zoom and social media to help them stay connected and inspired to keep going.” But for many people, that is hard.
If you lose your exercise mojo, how quickly will fitness disappear? And how long will it take to regain it?
The old exerciser adage, “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” is fact-based and certainly applies now, trainers say.
“Early studies on deconditioning used bed rest as the marker for inactivity,” says Tony Boutagy, an Australian exercise physiologist, and owner of the Boutagy Fitness Institute. “More recent studies have used reduced step count. Both types of research are valid in places where a lockdown is in place.”
Deconditioning effects extended to both the cardiovascular system and musculoskeletal system. For instance, a small study of male subjects on bed rest found that in as little as 10 days of muscle disuse, subjects experienced lean tissue loss and lower VO2 max — which is the measure of oxygen a person is able to use during intense exercise. This number rises and lowers depending on fitness level.
Additional research found that after eight weeks of detraining, recreational marathon runners saw a decline in measured treadmill performance, and a reduction in the size of heart muscle.
Research on steps reduction, Boutagy says, suggests a two-week time frame for lost health, with both a diminished VO2 max “and half a kilogram [just over a pound] of muscle mass loss.”
Solpietro says that was what she found after halting her routine entirely duringthe first weeks of the pandemic’s spread to Maryland.
“It didn’t take long to feel the effects,” she says. “Within a week, I felt bloated and run down, and my jeans were tighter.”
Robert Mazzeo, associate chair of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says cardiovascular health is heavily tied to muscle mitochondria — often dubbed the powerhouse of a cell, for its role in converting nutrients into energy — “mitochondria turn over quickly, so you will lose this area of fitness before you lose muscular strength, which turns over more slowly,” he says. “But much of the loss and return to fitness is relative, and tied to your level of fitness prior to detraining.”
What is well established, Boutagy says, is that returning to fitness takes longer than losing it, and this is especially true for older people. “One week of bed rest in the elderly can take six months of training to return to their pre-rest levels,” he says. “Previous exercisers, however, will have a faster return to fitness levels after inactivity.”
A 2000 study from Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise journal found that during a six-month detraining period, young people (ages 20 to 30) experienced an 8 percent decline in their one-repetition maximum weightlifting, while older people (65 to 75) lost 14 percent of strength.
Mazzeo says that there’s room for variability in all of this because of individual training and fitness levels before detraining. “It may take an older person longer to return to fitness, but they can get back to their former level if they are as dedicated to training as before,” he says.
McGrath, who has been a runner most of his life, is convinced that high conditioning and training will stand him in good stead even with the pandemic limiting his exercise on good days to about half of what he normally does.
“I know that if I needed to, I could go out and ride my bike 100 miles this weekend,” he says, “and that within a few weeks, I’d be able to pull my fitness back.”
People can reclaim their fitness when stay-at-home efforts end, but “getting out for a brisk walk a couple of times a week [now] can help offset some of the loss,” Gough says. “Find an accountability buddy and check in with each other to help stay connected and motivated.”
Mazzeo concurs, and points to the many benefits of walking.
“You don’t have to be working out at an intense level to maintain basic health,” he says. “Moderate activity is great right now.”