Marion Webb by Marion Webb

It’s happened again. You’ve fallen off the exercise bandwagon and are having trouble jumping back on or you really want to start exercising, but don’t know how to get started.

In either case, it’s never too late to start exercising, and the sooner you start, the better you’ll feel.

In this article, ACE’s Exercise Scientist Trish Schwartz reveals facts for everyday healthy people and athletes on length of time and safe progression for getting back into cardio and strength-training shape. She’ll also address common mistakes people make in trying to achieve previous fitness successes, how to avoid mistakes in the first place, and tips for achieving an active everyday lifestyle.

Effects of De-Training

Anyone who has experienced a higher fitness level knows first-hand that to achieve this takes time and commitment. Sadly, the achievements can be lost in equal or less time, especially, if you stop exercising completely.

How quickly or slowly you lose fitness levels after detraining can depend on multiple factors: Your age, genetic responsiveness to training, the level of fitness you possessed prior to detraining, whether you stopped working out completely or just cut back, and how aggressively you resumed your training.

Cardio Enthusiasts Beware

Any cardio enthusiast who has gained a higher level of fitness or prepared for a competitive event knows that fitness gains will deteriorate quickly, if he or she stops exercising completely. 

Scientific studies have shown that cardio fitness tends to go away quicker than fitness built by power lifters or strength-training enthusiasts. For instance, one scientific study showed that individuals who performed cardio for eight weeks, then stayed somewhat active for 20 more days saw their VO2max (a fitness indictor measuring a person’s maximal capacity to transport and use oxygen) drop by 5 to 10 percent. By comparison, the control group on bed rest after doing eight weeks of cardio showed their VO2max decrease by 27 percent. This shows that even small bouts of daily cardio exercise can help retain some fitness, but stop completely, and all your fitness gains will be lost.

Strength Training

Similar findings are true for strength-training. According to a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 1996, a person who stops performing resistance training will lose strength at about half the rate it was gained. So, for instance, if you increased your leg strength by 50 percent in a 10-week training program, and then stopped working on your legs completely, you’d lose half of that strength in 10 weeks, and all of it 20 weeks later.

At the same time, it only takes 8-12 weeks of regular strength training to achieve significant gains, even for untrained individuals, said Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., fitness research director at Quincy College in Quincy, Mass. in the fourth edition of the ACE Personal Trainer Manual.

On average, previously untrained youth, adults and older adults increase their muscle mass by two to four pounds and their muscular strength by 40-60 percent after eight to 12 weeks of standard strength training, according to Westcott.

Since muscle mass weighs more than fat, don’t be alarmed, if your body weight increases by a few pounds, because typically when an exercise program initiates muscle gain, there is a concurrent decrease in body fat: Lean muscle mass is what gives you that toned physique.  Even cardio enthusiasts should consider performing some type of strength-training on a regular basis, considering that muscle mass decreases with age.

People who don’t exercise, can lose three pounds of muscle mass every six years. But a basic strength-training program can add three pounds of muscle in only three months, Westcott added.

Basic Guidelines for Getting Back into Shape Safely

So when exactly are you officially “out of shape”? Scientists say that if you stopped training for four months or more, you’ve lost enough muscular strength and cardiovascular endurance to merit starting out at a beginner level, or if you’ve had a high fitness level before, you need to start off very slowly.

Getting Back into Running Shape

A safe way to get back into running shape or any other cardio training is by doing 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic activity at a relatively low intensity, two to three times a week. After you complete a 30-minute workout at a low intensity without stopping or slowing down, you can begin to either increase the duration of exercise by two to five minutes or the intensity by 5 percent, but not more.

The biggest trap people fall into is trying to do too much, too soon. While the renewed excitement of that endorphin rush, that gives you that “natural high,” can easily seduce you to become overzealous, giving into more activity can lead to burn-out or injury.

Getting Back into Weight-Training Shape

Similarly, if you haven’t seen the inside of a weight room within four months, it’s best to start from scratch. Choose a weight that you can lift at least 12 times in a row, but no more than 15. This could be anywhere from 50 to 90 percent less than what you’ve lifted four months ago. But that’s okay. You are your own best judge to determine, if the weight is too light or too heavy, so decrease or increase the weight respectively.

Start out by doing one exercise for each major muscle group twice per week (with at least one day of rest between workouts) and perform only one set of 12 to 15 repetitions for each exercise. Work the major muscle groups before isolating smaller muscle groups. After you feel comfortable lifting twice a week at that level, increase the number of sets from one to two for the next two weeks without increasing the amount of resistance by more than 5 percent. After three to four weeks, you may increase to three sets and while continuing to increase your resistance, lower the number of repetitions to eight to 12. 

You’ll be back to where you started in no time.

Common Mistakes

Another common pitfall, besides trying to do too much too soon, is that people often get discouraged when life gets in the way of planned exercise. Expect setbacks, such as an unplanned meeting at work, sickness, a family vacation, holidays, or a long night out with friends.

As long as you establish a regular exercise routine and resume it after you had to miss a workout or two, you won’t lose your fitness and start from scratch.

If lack of motivation is a factor, hire a personal trainer to help you establish a regular routine.

Studies have shown that people who exercise early in the morning tend to be most successful in sticking to a regular exercise program. If you have trouble getting out of bed, find a friend or a group to meet up with you in the morning to exercise, especially now that the days are getting shorter and colder.

Leave your gym bag at your front door at home, in your car or at your work to avoid excuses about leaving your exercise gear behind.

By planning each workout on your calendar like you would any other daily appointment, being active will soon become as important to your life as work, family and other obligations.

When you don’t feel like working out, remember how much better you’ll feel afterward: Exercise is a great stress-reliever, energizer and the best way, combined with a healthy diet, to establish and maintain a healthy weight.

Follow these basic tips and you’ll never have to worry about falling off the exercise bandwagon again.