Stopping Exercise Hurts Your Body

man and woman sitting on a couch
December 21, 2015 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

We’re deep in it now—the holiday bulge.

This is when many of us travel, eat with family, go home, order out because there’s nothing at home, eat again, and then eat one last time.

A lot of my patients will throw up their hands in defeat around now. Between all the bad nutritional choices available, and the chaos of the holidays, some write off the entire period as a feasting free-for-all.

“I’ll fix whatever damage I do later,” they tell me. “There’s no avoiding the holidays.”

Well, for some of us, there may be no avoiding your sister’s favorite pie recipe. But if it’s hard to stay on track nutritionally, that doesn’t mean you should let everything else slide as well.

In fact, now more than ever, keeping tight to the rest of your health routine is important.

Most especially, you’ve got to keep moving.

Staying active will not only help offset some of the large family feasts that come around this time of year. It also will make it much easier to reverse the over-eating damage later on.

In fact, if you stop exercising, all sorts of bad things happen to your body. Some of them occur almost immediately.

Let’s take a look at what happens to your body when you become too sedentary.

And then we’ll remind ourselves of good ways to keep moving—even in the middle of a cold holiday season.

Five effects of being too sedentary

1. Your blood pressure rises.

This is nearly instantaneous. Your blood pressure is lower on days when you exercise or do something active. It rises on days when you do nothing.

And, if you are overly sedentary for just two weeks, your blood pressure’s baseline will rise. After one month, it will be like you’d never done any exercise at all.

2. Your blood sugar goes up.

When you are moving about, your muscles make quick work of glucose in your bloodstream after you eat.

After just five days of inactivity, your muscles aren’t eating as much sugar, and your blood glucose levels spike. Living in this condition for a prolonged period of time is a great way to develop diabetes, or heart disease.

3. Your muscles shrink

Almost as soon as sloth overtakes you, you will start to lose muscle mass. Within a week for women, and two weeks for men, your muscles will noticeably decrease in size.

And bear in mind, building muscle up is a bit like the inverse of gaining weight. It’s easy to gain weight quickly, and much slower and harder to take it off.

Muscles are the opposite. A small stretch of inactivity can trim a lot of muscle mass quickly, and it takes much longer to put it back on.

4. Your metabolism slows down

Within about a week, as your muscles burn through less fuel, your metabolism slows.

You know exactly what that means. Your body is less efficient at burning through calories, leading to a whole host of problems. Weight gain is one, yes, but it’s just the most visible and immediate.

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5. You hurt your head

Within two weeks of becoming inactive, you will become more tired, grumpier.

That’s because your hormone levels will go out of whack—you won’t receive the dopamine or endorphins you should.

And you won’t sleep as well either. Sedentary folk have a harder time falling asleep, and don’t sleep as well when they do.

The good news is, when you exercise or lead an active lifestyle, you get the reverse of all these problems. Your blood pressure goes down, your blood glucose level drops, your muscles strengthen and grow, your metabolism speeds up, and your mood and sleep improve.

That’s just for starters, of course—but it’s a pretty good reason to exercise. So if you’ve taken a break, it’s time to get back on that horse.

Three easy ways to stay active during the holidays

1. Take a walk

After every meal, get up and move around.

If you can get outdoors and do a 30-minute stroll around the block, that’s wonderful, you’re ahead of the game.

But even if you can’t do that, try to get your “walk” in other ways. Clear the table carrying only a few plates at a time to the kitchen, so you grab a few extra trips. Volunteer to be the one who moves all the chairs from one room to the other. Make it your responsibility to go outside and move around when someone needs to leave.

Whatever you do, just make sure you get up and get active. Especially right after a meal—when the temptation to sink into the couch is strongest, and can easily last all night.

2. Lift Yourself Up

You don’t need to go to the gym to get a good workout.

In fact, you don’t need anything more than a floor.

If you’re pressed for time, or space, one of the best ways to get your blood flowing is by doing exercises that use your body as weight.

That can be pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, crunches, or lunges.

If you can find 15 minutes at the start of your day to do a few body-weight exercises, you’ll be amazed what a difference it makes throughout the rest of the day. You’ll feel better, and you’ll process all that holiday food better as well.

3. Remind yourself who’s in charge

The holidays can come with a lot of peer pressure. Pressure to eat. Pressure to go out. Pressure to stay up late drinking, running into your morning routine.

If a sister you haven’t seen in a year wants to stay up all night talking, that’s one thing. If a cousin who lives down the block wants to go out drinking—just like you did last week, and will again next month—that’s another.

Remember, you’re in charge of your own time and your own actions. No one can force you to do anything you don’t want.

That applies to nutrition and food, of course. But it also applies to exercise and staying active. Because the biggest obstacle to staying active during the holidays is the time drain. And if you let your brother talk you into watching 9 hours of football, instead of taking a break at some point to get some air, you’re just hurting yourself.

So remember what your personal goals are, whatever they may be. And don’t let the demands of the season derail you. After all, you’re in charge of yourself. Act like it.

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