This is not a theoretical precautionary tale intended to trigger your imagination into wondering what it would be like if someone else’s problems were your own. This is real, unbridled, serious insight into the power of inactivity. This is the story of how a man who had never been out of shape, who had never gone more than a 1-week vacation without exercising, who literally was in the best shape of his life at age 34 suddenly found himself in the worst shape of his life at age 35. Thanks to the CoVid-19 pandemic, this relatively young man, a personal trainer no less, went from a 175lb lean athlete to a 200lb achey sack of sedentary sadness.
In case it was not obvious, that young man is me, and I’m not exaggerating when I say I was in the absolute best shape of my life just a few months before the pandemic started. I can still remember feeling something akin to lightening in my legs when I would row during my CrossFit workouts. I’d never felt that before. I’d started doing CrossFit in July 2019 and by that November I couldn’t believe how strong, fast, energetic and athletic I felt. I had never exercised at such high intensity before and I’m still amazed and forever grateful that circumstances pushed me in CrossFit’s direction. I was lifting more than I ever had, running the fastest I had since my early 20’s, and all while having a baby and starting grad school.
Let’s pause there and talk about a few facts of atrophy. Then we will pick back up where things started to go South for me.
Facts About Atrophy
Atrophy takes a toll on more than just muscle tissue, and its effects and rate of progression vary greatly. Muscular atrophy has been measured at a rate of 0.5-0.6% of total muscle mass lost per day of inactivity for up 42 days upon the onset of inactivity (most commonly a result of disuse due to injury or illness). Strength has even been measured to decrease as much as 50% during that same time, or approximately 12% per week.
It’s important to know that strength, especially in the early stages of beginning to strength train, has very little to do with how much muscle mass you have. Someone who has been sedentary for years and then begins a basic resistance training program can very easily double their strength in a matter of months. During that time, their total volume of muscle mass could easily go unchanged, or it could increase as much as 5-10%, but nothing remotely close to their percentage increase in strength. Strength increases quickly in this case not because muscles have enlarged, but because the brain has improved its connection with all the muscles responsible for movement. It has improved the coordination, direction, order and intensity of impulses it sends to each muscle, which increases the stability around each joint and the power produced by the mobilizing muscles, all of which results in greatly improved movement efficiency and subsequent force production.
The fact that strength is inextricably dependent on neuromuscular coordination means you can expect that your nervous system, along with the brain and spinal cord, have deteriorated to a significant degree if you have also lost the kind of strength mentioned above. It should not be surprising since we can probably all think back to a skill we lost at one point in time due to time away. Playing an instrument, a seasonal sport, even finessing the controls for a video game are skills we have to reacquire when we have not used them for more than a few weeks. While it might be true that the longer we go without using those skills the longer it takes to redevelop them, what is also true is that no matter how long it has been or how old you are, your body is still very capable of getting back much of that lost progress!
The S*** Show Begins
Picking up where we left off, Thanksgiving and Christmas come and go, setting me back a bit with my fitness as it does every year thanks to traveling and eating holiday foods. In January I’m back on track but a bit less consistent because I become the primary caretaker of our then 5 month-old so my wife can go back to work. Then February arrives and the s*** show that is the still-present pandemic begins. By March we’re officially locking down. In April every gym is closed. I was so sure that by September everything would be back to normal and my wife could celebrate her April birthday along with mine since we couldn’t go anywhere for hers. To no one’s present-day surprise, I’ve now had two birthdays that couldn’t be celebrated normally. Maybe third one’s the charm?
Thankfully the USA starts rolling out CoVid vaccines in early Spring and by the 1st week of May 2021 I’m fully vaccinated. Unfortunately, however, we have a baby that could arrive any day, and he ends up coming almost 2 weeks late on May 31st. Parents out there know, we were in the thick of it then. Our oldest still has a few months before he turns 2, and now we have a newborn, all while mid-pandemic and the Delta variant looming on the horizon. Suffice to say, a return to the gym was not yet appropriate.
Here Comes the Pain
I knew I was in for a humbling learning experience after those first few months without a gym. Surprisingly, it took 6 months before I started losing any visible muscle mass which was twice the time I expected it to take. The aches and pains started around that same time – coming and going with no discernible pattern. It seems as if I’ve bounced back and forth between joint aches for the last year and a half. I literally lost track of how many new pains I developed over the course of becoming a couch potato, but here’s all the ones I remember:
- 1-2 weeks of sharp pain around one hip
- 1 month of knee pain on one side, then the other
- Aching ankle for days after trying to run just once
- Knee pain in the bottom of a basic unweighted squat
- Wrist pain and weakness in hands
- Fatigue from going up a flight of stairs
- Intermittent lower back aches from doing household responsibilities
- Most recently and for the 1st time ever: plantar fasciitis
None of these were pleasant, or easy to recover from. Each one interferes significantly with daily living and takes anywhere from one week to more than a month to heal. Luckily as I write this I’m nearly over the plantar fasciitis thanks to a great strengthening exercise I came across recently from “@rethinkingphysiotherapy” on Instagram. I can’t be 100% certain what caused the issue, but I’m very positive that a combination of wearing worn out tennis shoes (unsupportive soles) and playing basketball nearly every workout as my form of cardio in in my first weeks back to the gym in 1.5 years are to blame.
Had I worn more appropriate footwear I might have avoided the excessive inflammation in my foot, but jumping right back into a plyometric dominant sport like basketball was undoubtedly not an appropriate thing to do, and in fact that’s why many aging adults give up on their favorite activities. They try it after taking a 1+ year break from it, they hurt something, so they decide they must be too old for it and give up on trying it ever again. I’m here to tell you that there’s never an age that you need to completely give something up, there’s merely a different path you need to take to enjoy it again.
Too many people quit doing things they love because they think there’s an age limit to the activity. Repeat after me: “It’s not your age, it’s your atrophy.” Age is something you can do nothing about. So trying to blame your age allows you to believe that the problem is in no way your responsibility. Atrophy on the other hand, is something you can take control over. Atrophy puts power back in your hands. It requires accountability, admitting you have a role what happens next, but where blaming age is a dead end, admitting it’s atrophy is accepting that there’s hope.
In case you are wondering why I wasn’t exercising regularly from Spring 2020 to Summer 2021, it’s because I hate working out at home. I did it a few times. I joined the outdoor Bootcamp that I run on weekends for a few workouts. I did some outdoor CrossFit classes for a short stint, but there’s only so much running and light resistance workouts you can do before you just get frustrated and decide to wait until a gym is a viable option again. Even when some gyms opened up, you had to wear a mask and I just wasn’t ready to workout with a mask on. That sounded like being given the keys to a sports car but only being allowed to drive it in 1st gear. I was willing to wait for when I could get back to the real thing, because surely it was not going to be that much longer, right? You know the answer to that one.
The Point of Must Return
Eventually enough time had passed (and enough progress had been lost) that the week after my second disappointing birthday in a row, I decided I was ready to start going to the gym again, even though I had to wear a mask. I bought several of the best looking athletic masks I could find, signed up at the fanciest health club I’d ever been to (because it was one of the few places that was offering child care), and got back to it. I’ve been going for a couple months now and while I’m definitely fighting the uphill battle of getting my joints healthy enough to start doing my pre-pandemic workouts again, I definitely see and feel progress every week. When it comes to your physical fitness, if you are not moving forwards, you are moving backwards, so even though my activity looks very different and my ability level is not what it used to be, the mechanism to adapt and improve is still present in my body. It never goes away. It ages and slows down along with us, but it doesn’t die until we do. Remember that the next time you wonder if you have to give up doing something you love because your body doesn’t feel up to it anymore.
I look forward to updating you on my progress down the road. What took a year and a half to undo I am hoping can be rebuilt in less time. Two months in, I definitely don’t feel like I’m on the fast track, but I know that every week of progress compounds with consistency, and you can literally wake up one week and find yourself feeling like you’ve regained months of not just lost progress, but years of life as well.
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