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6 Ways to Boost Your Immune System

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Your immune system has likely been on your mind a lot lately. As the COVID-19 pandemic carries on, it continues to leave a puzzling array of outcomes in its wake: Some people die, others suffer severe complications, still others never show symptoms. This has left all of us struggling to understand the factors that contribute to this vast disparity.

One thing seems clear: A strong, balanced immune response can mitigate the effects of any infection, including the novel coronavirus. This means that bolstering your immune system may be a key to fending off illness when it strikes — or avoiding it altogether.

Here are key insights into how the human immune system operates, along with six things you can do to support your system’s most effective response to infectious agents.

Meet Your Immune System

The human immune system is divided into two primary parts: innate immunity and acquired or adaptive immunity.

“The main distinction between the two is that innate immunity needs no prior exposure to be activated,” explains integrative practitioner Robert Rountree, MD. The most elemental parts of the innate immune system are the body’s barriers — the walls of the skin and the gut, as well as the wet membranes of our eyes, ears, nose, gastrointestinal tract, and respiratory tract, which contain enzymes and free radicals that deter invaders.

“Like Teflon, our bodies slough off 99 percent of the things we’re exposed to,” he says.

If a pathogen does manage to breach one of these barriers, it encounters the next line of defense. Our bodies come preloaded with innate immune cells, including macrophages, neutrophils, dendritic cells, mast cells, and natural killer cells. These cells hang out at the body’s gateways — the skin, eyes, nose, throat, gut, bladder, respiratory tract, and so on — waiting for suspicious-looking strangers.

“The job of the innate immune system is surveillance — it’s the rapid responder,” says Rountree. Some of these immune cells, such as phagocytes and natural killer cells, take a good crack at eliminating the invader on their own through a range of mechanical and chemical actions.

Meanwhile, macrophages and other immune cells release inflammatory proteins called cytokines that lead to the typical signs of an inflammatory response, such as redness, heat, swelling, and pain. (For more on the double-edged sword of cytokines, see “When the Immune System Goes Rogue” at the end of this article.)

Neutrophils are responsible for releasing chemical signals to summon the heavy hitters of the adaptive immune system, such as the T cells and B cells. These mount a specific response to the unwelcome visitor like a sports team that has studied its opponent’s weak spots.

Once the adaptive immune system has been activated (sometimes days or weeks after the initial infection), it intensifies the inflammatory response started by the innate immune system and mobilizes an army of T cells and antibody-producing B cells to find and destroy the proliferating invaders.

T cells, which mature in the thymus gland, are divided into helper T cells, killer T cells, and suppressor T cells — each with its own important role.

B cells, which develop in bone marrow, circulate in the blood, hunting for ne’er-do-wells and producing hordes of antibodies specifically designed to inactivate the invader or mark it for destruction.

Vaccines take advantage of this antibody-producing action by introducing B cells to a weakened form of an enemy they may encoun­ter later, giving them a chance to prepare neutralizing antibodies in advance.

Supporting a Balanced Immune Response

Plenty of advice has been circulating on how to boost your immune system, but preventive-medicine specialist David Katz, MD, notes that a healthy immune system is not necessarily the most aggressive one. It’s the one that’s in balance.

“A healthy immune system is vigorous enough to defend the body against pathogens and rogue cells that produce cancer, but doesn’t overreact to mild provocations.”

Excess stress, poor sleep, exposure to toxins, excessive alcohol use, and a junk-food diet can all throw the immune system off kilter and contribute to chronic inflammation. This may increase your susceptibility to a host of illnesses, from upper-respiratory infections to cancer.

The good news is that many of the factors that support overall health also support a well-balanced immune system. Regular exercise; adequate sleep; stress reduction; a plant-heavy, whole-foods diet; and a healthy gut all help ensure your immune system is calm and ready for anything. Judicious use of supplements and herbs can lend extra support.

These are six of the most important tools for building and sustaining a robust and balanced immune response.

1. Exercise

Regular physical activity is one of the keys to supporting immunity. David Nieman, DrPH, FACSM, an exercise immunologist at North Carolina’s Appalachian State University, explains that regular, moderate physical activity, such as brisk walking, jogging, cycling, or swimming for 30 to 60 minutes most days of the week, can help reduce the risk of chronic disease and respiratory infections.

“Most of our immune cells are in the peripheral lymphoid tissue like the spleen, thymus, lymph nodes, and bone marrow,” he says. “Those are like the Marines’ military base. When physical activity starts, important immune cells are recruited to start circulating in the blood looking for pathogens. Having these fighters [T cells, natural killer cells, and other immune cells] moving around outside the bases gives them an increased chance of finding and engaging the enemy.”

Within a few hours postexercise, the deployed immune cells return to base, waiting for the next bout of exercise to summon them again.

“When you exercise day after day, a summation effect occurs, and that increased immunosurveillance leads to a reduction in viral and bacterial load,” says Nieman. In a 2011 study, he found that people who were aerobically active on most days had a 43 percent reduction in days of illness with upper-respiratory infections compared with those who were inactive.

More of a good thing isn’t necessarily better, however. Nieman noticed when he was running a lot of marathons back in the 1980s that he and his fellow runners were more likely to get sick in the days following a race. In 1987 he followed 2,311 Los Angeles marathoners for two months before the race and a week after they had completed it. He found the runners were nearly six times more likely to contract an upper-respiratory infection in the week following the race than nonmarathoners.

“When you push beyond 90 minutes of unrelenting, high-intensity exercise, the glycogen stores in your muscles and liver get drained, stress hormones are released, and the immune system gets into an inflamed state,” he explains. “It’s like those Marines have been doing all that surveillance and not sleeping, so they can’t function as well.”

Specific nutritional and training strategies can mitigate stress to the immune system for elite athletes, soldiers, or others who need to train heavily, but for most of us, Nieman says, “we’re lucky that the most benefit comes from just 30 to 60 minutes of exercise most days of the week.”

Building muscle mass through strength training may also help support more robust immune function. Studies of mice suggest greater muscle mass helps support a healthy reserve of T cells, and human studies indicate that ample muscle mass correlates with better longevity. (For more on the value of strength training, see “Be Strong, Live Long”.)

Exercise has the added benefit of encouraging other immune-supporting behaviors on this list, such as stress reduction and sleep.

“Physical activity is the hub for wellness,” Nieman says. “If you’re active, you sleep better, control stress better, and tend to be more conscious of your diet. Make the decision to be active and many other things fall in line.”

2. Sleep

While your conscious mind may experience sleep as a chance to rest, your body uses it to check off major items on its to-do list, including repairing and creating immune-system cells.

If you skimp on sleep, you may find yourself short on natural killer cells. One study found that a single night of sleep deprivation in 42 healthy male volunteers resulted in reduced immune response and T-cell cytokine production.

“Sleep affects our energy level and what we eat, and it’s directly linked to hormonal cycles,” notes Katz. “Sleep deprivation almost inevitably produces an imbalance in prevailing hormone levels, which in turn adversely affects the immune system.”

Studies have found that subjects who got a good night’s sleep following vaccination for hepatitis A produced twice as many antibodies as those who didn’t sleep, forming both a stronger initial adaptive-immune response and better long-term immunological memory. And a 2015 University of California, San Francisco study discovered that people who sleep six or fewer hours per night were four times more likely to catch a cold when exposed to the virus compared with those who slept seven or more hours.

3. Reduce Stress

Stress affects the immune system in a number of ways, from inhibiting sleep to increasing cortisol production. Because cortisol reduces the number of lymphocytes in the blood, chronic stress can suppress the immune system and leave you vulnerable to infection.

“Stress changes your body biochemically,” notes functional nutritionist Dee Harris, RDN. “It changes your whole immune system and the biochemistry of the gut and microbiome.”

Harris says she encourages her patients to use breath work and a spiritual practice of some kind to reduce stress. “Now is a great time to explore your spirituality and find your center,” she says, whether through a religious practice or meditation.

Harris also recommends taking a moment to feel gratitude before a meal. “That 15 to 30 seconds of relaxation before eating helps reset the vagal nerve and improves digestion.” (For more on stress relief, see “Reset Your Stress Response”.)

4. Eat Well

“Diet is all-important,” says Katz. “You’re building white blood cells, enzymes, and antibodies every day, and the food you eat is literally the source of your construction materials.”

A single meal can alter how immune cells respond to provocation, and the effects accumulate over hours, days, and weeks, he explains. “You can do a complete 180 and optimize a badly broken immune system in as little as weeks by improving your diet, so it’s a very immediate return on investment.”

Foods that dampen the immune system include highly processed or fried foods, those high in added sugar, and nonorganic foods grown with glyphosate, the chief ingredient in Roundup, a common herbicide that has been linked to cancer.

On the flip side, foods rich in polyphenols — beneficial plant compounds found in many vegetables, fruits, and legumes — support immune function. Rountree notes that the Mediterranean diet (plenty of colorful vegetables, nuts, and olive oil; moderate amounts of protein; and a little red wine with dinner) provides a good general template for immune-supportive eating.

Some immune system–balancing superstars to focus on:

Green tea is rich in polyphenols, including potent antioxidants called catechins that have antimicrobial properties and may help protect against influenza. It also contains quercetin, a flavonoid that Rountree calls a “time-honored immune-supportive agent.”

Berries are a potent source of immune-supporting flavonoids. “When you eat berries, most of these pigment molecules go to the colon, where bacteria break them down into smaller molecules that escape and circulate in the body, exerting antiviral effects,” says Nieman.

Turmeric gets its deep orange-yellow from curcumin, a compound that helps balance the immune system. It has a modulating effect on T cells, B cells, macrophages, and other immune cells, and can also enhance antibody response.

Garlic contains sulfuric compounds with a range of antimicrobial effects, such as inhibiting the biofilm formation of bacteria. It also has natural antiviral properties and can help reduce hypertension, one of the leading risk factors for COVID-19. (For more on garlic, see “Garlic”.)

Citrus fruits such as grapefruit, kiwi, and lemon deliver abundant ­vitamin C — one of the most important nutrients for the immune system, aiding in the formation of white blood cells. (For more on this essential ­nutrient, visit “What You Need to Know About Vitamin C”.)

Sauerkraut and other fermented foods contain lactic-acid bacteria, which produce compounds in the gut that spur the immune system into action. And cabbage itself is another excellent source of vitamin C.

Medicinal mushrooms are rich in beta-glucans, an immunomodulator that activates macrophages, natural killer cells, dendritic cells, and neutrophils. “Mushrooms like shiitake, oyster, and maitake have been shown to prime immune cells in published studies,” says Rountree. He recommends both eating shiitake mushrooms and taking a mushroom extract to support the immune system.

5. Support the Microbiome

“Having healthy barriers [such as a healthy gut lining] is the No. 1 thing for a healthy immune system,” says Rountree. “And the healthier the microbiome, the better those membranes are going to be.”

Excessive use of alcohol and pain relievers like ibuprofen, as well as chemicals in our food, can all damage the integrity of the gut lining. This can lead to leaky gut and chronic inflammation.

Certain bacteria, such as Helicobacter pylori and Prevotella, can also cause imbalances in the microbiome, says Harris, in part by inhibiting the body’s ability to absorb critical minerals, including zinc, iron, and magnesium.

Harris always begins her work with a new patient by performing a GI panel that looks for parasites, candida, and any dysbiotic bacteria. She also checks for secretory immunoglobulin (or sIgA), an antibody that plays a critical role in immune defense against pathogens and can be depleted by antibiotics or an inflammatory diet.

To boost low sIgA levels, she recommends drinking gelatinous bone broth; eating mushrooms rich in beta-glucans, such as reishi, shiitake, and maitake; and taking Saccharomyces boulardii, a probiotic yeast.

Supplementing with a quality probiotic can also help bolster the immune system. Common probiotic strains, such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria, have been shown to stimulate the activity of natural killer cells and enhance gut immunity. (For more on choosing the right probiotic, see ­“How Do I Find the Right Probiotic Supplement for Me?”.)

6. Supplement Wisely

“Micronutrient deficiency is an epidemic,” says Harris, noting that the standard American diet, typically high in processed foods and low on fiber, causes nutrient depletion and stress on the body. A diet rich in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains will deliver many of the nutrients your body and immune system need, but certain supplements can offer extra support and help you reach optimal levels of vital nutrients.

Multivitamin: “For a healthy immune system, I think about the first part of the alphabet — vitamins A, B, C, D, and E,” says Rountree. “A quality multivitamin is the star.”

Harris recommends brands containing an active form of B12 and B9 (folate).

Vitamin D: Deficiency of vitamin D has been linked to both common and more severe upper-respiratory infections. While conventional medicine says vitamin-D blood levels over 30 ng/ML are adequate, Harris says that, from a functional-medicine perspective, optimal levels are much higher — between 60 and 80.

The sun is a generous provider of vitamin D: Those with fair skin may need as little as 10 to 15 minutes of direct sun exposure daily to make several thousand IUs, while those with darker skin tones may require up to two hours of exposure. Alternatively, most adults can supplement with up to 5,000 IUs of vitamin D3 daily, particularly in the dark winter months. (Work with your healthcare provider to check your D levels every few months.)

Zinc: “Zinc is important to the function of lymphocytes that defend against viruses,” says Katz. He recommends taking up to 30 mg of zinc daily, whether in a multivitamin or on its own. (See “Zinc Essentials” to learn more about how to optimize this vital mineral.)

NAC: Short for N-acetyl-L-cysteine, NAC helps the body make the antioxidant glutathione, which plays an important role in protecting against cellular damage and supporting immune health. In one clinical study, elderly people receiving 600 mg of NAC daily experienced fewer days of sickness from the flu than a placebo group, and showed fewer symptoms, despite similar infection rates.

Probiotic: The microbiome plays a critical role in immunity, says Katz. You can support a diverse and healthy microbiome by taking a quality probiotic. Harris recommends brands that contain a blend of Bifido and Lactobacillus bacteria and offer at least 100 billion CFUs.

Herbs: Herbs such as astragalus, echinacea, Chinese skullcap, and ashwagandha have been used as immuno-regulators in Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine for millennia. (For more on their protective and healing properties, see “9 Healing Herbs”.)


Mo Perry
is an Experience Life contributing editor.

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5 Ways to Get Your Fitness Routine Back on Track

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Two days before Amanda Thebe noticed her first COVID-19 symptoms in March 2020, she did a 25-minute barbell workout and ran six miles. It was the last time she would exercise for almost 10 weeks.

Although she kicked the virus and tested negative after five weeks, residual symptoms flared up every time she even tried to take a walk.

“I was in a pity party for a good six weeks,” says Thebe, a personal trainer in Houston with more than 20 years of strength training under her belt. “Then one morning I woke up and thought, I can’t let this virus keep me down. I have to find the small wins every day.”

Over the next several months, Thebe rebuilt her health and fitness. Through patience and consistency, she regained her pre-COVID conditioning by October 2020.

Illness is just one reason you might fall off the fitness wagon. Injury; surgery; postpartum recovery; a major life event, such as a divorce or death; a consuming work project; or simply losing interest in an exercise routine can all disrupt your trajectory.

And while the world may be chanting, “No excuses!” the reality is that life is full of ups and downs and pauses and resets.

Getting Back on Track

When priorities need shifting, the key to getting back on track isn’t trying to climb back on a moving wagon. It’s carefully considering what you want from a fitness routine and developing a realistic plan to help you get there. Successful reentry into a workout regimen requires strategy, adaptability, and plenty of support.

Our experts discuss what happens physically and mentally when we take a break and suggest five steps for easing back into exercise.

1. Set Realistic Expectations

Imagine you’re a seasoned runner training for a marathon PR when you injure your knee. You start seeing a physical therapist, who tells you it will be six to eight weeks before your knee heals. Your race is in eight weeks, so your goal stands. But is it attainable?

“The problem starts when people have unrealistic expectations,” says Shanté Cofield, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS, a physical therapist and movement educator in San Diego.

Completing your PT sessions or recovering from a contagious illness is not necessarily a green light to resume your former fitness routine. Cofield says it’s crucial for healthcare providers and movement professionals to help patients manage expectations.

“The No. 1 thing is to realize the value of playing the long game,” Cofield explains. She advises setting goals over 18 months. The long-game mentality is vital whether your hiatus was prompted by injury, illness, or some other unforeseen life circumstance.

Setting realistic expectations allows your body and mind to get on the same page, says sport and exercise mental-skills coach Carrie Jackson Cheadle, MA, coauthor of Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger from Sports Injuries.

“It’s important to be able to define success in that moment and not define it based on what you could do before,” she says. “What we don’t realize is that our brain holds on to our original goal and expectations. We need to consciously redefine these.”

Cheadle frequently works with athletes who want to push their bodies hard right away. “They’re excited and they think, That’s what I was able to do before, so I should be able to do it now. They want to see if they can get to the level they were at, so they put everything out there. And they don’t feel the effects until the next day.”

In these instances, trying to “listen to your body” may not be enough to guide a return to workouts. Experts recommend listing your goals and holding yourself accountable to gradual increases in load, speed, distance, or other variables.

“Where you were is not where you should start,” says Mark Schneider, a Minneapolis-based strength coach who specializes in injury rehab and pain management. “Having realistic expectations is starting at about 60 to 70 percent capacity of where you were before and doing a solid month there before slowly progressing your capacity.”

Cofield advises adding no more than 10 percent of any variable (volume, load, speed, distance, etc.) at a time.

She also notes that pain is a lagging indicator that you’ve been pushing too hard. It’s better to start slow, make incremental changes, and track markers other than pain. “If you wait until you have pain [before dialing back], you’ve waited too long.”

Tracking your training along with your overall physical and mental health can help you recognize patterns and determine whether your goals are appropriate. For instance, once Thebe started monitoring how she was feeling on a 1-to-10 scale each day, she found that she could only do about half of what she thought she could do without experiencing residual coronavirus symptoms.

“I looked at goals I could normally achieve in a month and set them for the end of three months. Since deciding that’s what I had to do, it was actually quite empowering. It gave me control,” she says.

“There’s so much pressure to be perfect in fitness. It’s OK to press the reset button and be a beginner again.”

2. Focus on Consistency

Some athletes assume that easing back into fitness means working out less frequently. But if your old schedule worked well for you, the comeback version doesn’t have to differ much. Using the overall structure of your former routine as an outline for your new one can be helpful, says Danny King, master personal trainer at Life Time.

“I want clients to come back with the routine that worked for them — that routine is part of what made them successful — but I want them to ease back into total volume and modify really aggressively,” he says.

For example, if you previously ran five days a week with your weekly mileage totaling 30 miles, you can still lace up your shoes Monday through Friday, but maybe you run or walk only one mile at a time.

Or if you were hitting the gym every other day at 6 a.m., set your alarm on those days and go lift weights, even if it’s just for 20 minutes.

“Your priority should be frequency and consistency,” says Schneider. “Getting back into the environment you were in before should take priority over what you were doing in that environment.”

Moreover, if a routine wasn’t working for you before, a break can offer the chance to create a training plan better suited to your goals and lifestyle.

“The stopping and restarting is an opportunity to highlight your desire and the goals surrounding it,” he says. “Maybe this time gave you the opportunity to run around and play on the playground or in nature. Maybe you’ve decided you don’t really want to continue hitting the same cardio machine and doing upper- and lower-body splits in the weight room like you’ve always done.”

It may be time to try a new group fitness class, activity, or sport.

Before resuming a workout regimen, ask yourself if you enjoy it and want to commit to doing it again. “What matters to you? What do you ultimately want to get back to doing?” says Cofield. “Movement is medicine. You don’t want to take it if it tastes bad.”

3. Program Smart

Whether you’re returning to an old routine or starting a new one, focusing on form and technique and considering different kinds of movement can help you avoid injury and keep you from getting discouraged.

For example, if you were following an advanced strength-training routine, King advises starting with big-muscle groups and movement patterns (squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull), and spending a month or two doing more general workouts. “You’ve got to treat your body like it’s a beginner again because, in some ways, it is one,” he says.

He also recommends deliberately training stabilizer muscles, including those of the core, glutes, and shoulders. These areas don’t get worked much in everyday movements and could weaken during a break. No matter what sport or activity you are resuming, strengthening these muscle groups will make you more resistant to injury.

Thebe’s reentry into strength training started with an emphasis on her core — not just the abs but all the muscles of the trunk. “Strength and mobility come from having a stable core. Having a strong core is the foundation of all movements,” she says.

If you’re feeling discouraged, incorporating a variety of movements and training can help you avoid getting caught up in what you could do previously. “Try something you’re less emotionally tied to — whether it’s a different exercise or running a different route,” says King.

Start with single-leg kettlebell deadlifts instead of barbell deadlifts, or dumbbell chest presses instead of bench presses. Or, King suggests, manipulate tempo and slow down the eccentric part of the lift, which can strengthen tendons and ligaments prone to injury. (For more on modifying your strength routine, read “Personalize Your Strength Routine”.)

The emphasis on form and technique isn’t limited to resistance training. Whether you’re a lifter, runner, swimmer, cyclist, dancer, gymnast, competitive athlete, or simply an avid exerciser who loves all sorts of activities, it’s critical to sharpen your awareness and focus on how you’re currently moving. Prioritizing form does double-duty by keeping you safe and injury-free while also giving your mind a place to settle without judgment.

On your next run, consider your gait. On your next bike ride, pay attention to your posture. Whatever you do, make sure you are breathing. (Learn more about building body awareness to improve your fitness at “How to Build Body Awareness to Improve Fitness”.)

4. Don’t Overlook Your Lifestyle

“For a lot of people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers a lot of other good habits, and when it’s removed, a lot of these other habits are, too,” says Schneider.

Think about lifestyle factors, such as diet, sleep, hydration, and stretching: Have any of these habits changed since your hiatus?

“A key in both fitness and fitness longevity is the ability to monitor and recover as needed,” he explains. “Your rituals around exercise may have to be reset for this to happen.”

Lifestyle becomes especially crucial after illness, injury, or a stressful life event. Adequate nutrition helps your body rebuild and restore tissue and makes you less likely to get injured or sick, or overtrain.

Incorporating mental-health practices, such as meditation and deep breathing, can reduce your overall stress and cortisol levels, which cause fatigue and interfere with muscle remodeling when elevated.

“It’s OK to slow down. Take the time to think about how much time you really have here and consider how you’re sleeping, your resting heart rate, your mood, your breath,” says Cofield. “Your nervous system doesn’t know the difference between your boss swearing at you and you lifting weights. If you want to recover, the answer is not more stress.” (Learn more about the importance of recovery at “Why Workout Recovery Days Are Essential for Optimal Fitness”.)

Thebe says that going out of her way to sit in silence and drink a cup of coffee has helped her start her days on the right track, both mentally and physically. She’s prioritized nutrition and movement outside of deliberate exercise, such as going for walks and swimming. “Recovery is holistic. I’m focusing on things I can control,” she says.

5. Surround Yourself With Support

We know that adequate support is key to coping with an injury or illness, but it can be equally valuable during a return to exercise, says Cheadle. She’s seen athletes who self-sabotage their return by pushing too hard too fast, as well as those whose fear and anxiety prevent them from moving forward.

“Sometimes in the moment that people need the most support, they are getting the least. People don’t realize that they need to recover mentally as well,” she says.

The Association for Applied Sports Psychology identifies three types of social support — educational, tangible, and emotional:

  • Educational: Information gathered from specialists can help you make better choices about your recovery and comeback. For instance, your doctor or physical therapist telling you that glute strength is key to avoiding injury as a runner can help you choose appropriate exercises to supplement your return to running.
  • Tangible: Practical assistance with your daily efforts. For example, a friend might offer you a ride to the gym.
  • Emotional: Informal or formal counseling to help you cope with frustrations and negative emotions. For instance, a friend who’s dealt with a similar hiatus and comeback may encourage you and remind you to see the big picture.

Cheadle’s mindset for coaching often includes both educational and emotional support to athletes. For those who are resuming training after an injury, it’s common to feel anxious about reinjury.

“We become hyperaware of any sensation in that part of the body, even if it is normal,” says Cheadle. She employs mind–body techniques, including breath work and positive mantras, that athletes can use to reduce their stress response.

Cheadle also encourages her clients to connect with a physical therapist, who can help them improve mobility, increase their range of motion, or develop greater strength or cardiovascular capacity. Focusing on the “before” can make it difficult to see some of the subtler indications that you are on the right track to recovery.

Regardless of your reason for taking a break, Cheadle stresses the need to treat your-self with compassion.

“Whether you were taking care of a loved one, or you were just called to put more energy into your business, this is life. You don’t have to punish yourself because life pulls you in a different direction.”

What to Expect in a Comeback

Expressions like “falling off the wagon” and “use it or lose it” can make it seem like we start from ground zero after we take a break from working out. Sometimes it may feel as if that’s the case, but does taking time off really send us back to the beginning?

“When you’re looking at loss of fitness during a break, the question is more like how long have you been training versus how long have you stopped,” says coach Mark Schneider. “The longer you’ve been training, the more your body has adapted to what you were doing, and the longer the break would have to be to affect you.”

Most of the time, any loss you incur within a week or two off is typically the extremes of which you’re capable, he says. For instance, your top running speed or one-rep-max bench press will decrease, but your foundational strength and endurance will remain.

“While peak ability does tend to drop quickly, it also increases quickly — it’s why athletes do a peaking cycle before a competition,” says Life Time master trainer Danny King. “What doesn’t drop quickly are the long-term aerobic-fitness adaptations the body builds over time.”

“This is why a person with a long history of aerobic exercise can train for a marathon much quicker than most people. These adaptations tend to stick around.”

Studies on endurance athletes have found that with inactivity, it takes as little as two weeks for cardiovascular adaptations, such as VO2 max and enzyme levels, to decrease. A study published in 2018 by the Journal of Applied Physiology found that after four weeks of relative inactivity, marathoners incurred significant changes to their heart, affecting how hard a certain pace would feel.

It’s important to recognize that these studies show a decrease in peak performance, as opposed to loss of endurance.

As for strength, research finds that it takes about three weeks for loss to occur. A 2017 study noted that men who did resistance training maintained their strength after two weeks of detraining. A 2013 study involving rugby and football players found that it took three weeks of inactivity before they started to lose muscle strength, which continued to decrease from that point.

Beginners may notice more significant losses than longtime exercisers, but that’s because their progress was likely more neurological and skill-based, explains Schneider. With a shorter training history, your body has less time to solidify fitness adaptations.

The good news is that what you lost will return much faster. Thanks to muscle memory and coordination of your nervous system, your body will find it much easier to perform a move, as compared with the first time you tried it.

It’s also worth noting that any muscle growth you achieved before taking a break gives you an advantage. When you first build muscle, part of the process involves creating additional nuclei for your muscle cells. When you lose muscle, you retain these nuclei. This greater number of nuclei allows you to build muscle faster the second time around.

Research shows that loss of fitness happens much more quickly and drastically if you’re bedridden and inactive, versus engaging in day-to-day physical activity. If you know you’re going to be taking some time off from deliberate exercise, don’t beat yourself up over it. And if you have the chance to keep moving, remember that every little bit counts and will make your comeback much easier.

This article originally appeared as “Your Comeback Story” in the January/February 2021 issue of Experience Life.

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