If you sat around and did absolutely no physical activity, how quickly would it affect your fitness level? Most people would correctly say, “A whole bunch, Darryl.” Thank you for playing. Now, tell me specifically how quickly and how severely your fitness level would suffer?
You can stop saying “um”. I have some answers.
First, if you are a gold medal winning, Olympic athlete who trains for 20 years, you would think you have bought yourself some anti-fatty insurance. Sorry. Studies of this group show that if they stop all physical activity in their later years, they are at the same risk as other mortals. Enjoy your medal—and your bypass surgery.
Second, it happens quickly. People who perform high intensity activity start to lose their gains in strength and endurance in a matter of weeks (about 10-12% in the first month). This includes 20-somethings who have been training hard their entire life. This is your body’s reaction to you telling it that you don’t “need this stuff” anymore.
Third, loss in proficiency, strength and endurance can be maintained relatively well with a tapered, maintenance program. You will not stay at the top of the summit, but you will remain close to the top of the mountain. Since you enjoyed this view before, I suggest you try staying there.
Exercising at a moderate level as little as once per week has been shown to maintain most of the strength and endurance gains you have worked hard to achieve. However, that is the catch: you have to get into great shape FIRST. You have to earn the right to keep your gains with less work.
No shortcut. Sorry.
Keep one more thing in mind: this does not mean you get to eat the same. Michael Phelps famously brags about his caloric intake that exceeds 12,000 calories a day when he is training. That is not a typo. That is what his body needs to fuel that level of performance. When he lowers his level of effort one day, I hope he divides that number by six and devotes himself to maintenance programs. Otherwise, he is going to start looking less like a swimmer and more like something you see while you are swimming.