Get Fit After Years of Inactivity & Reverse Health Damage

by | Building Muscle, Fitness, Health, Weight Loss

Big belly, love handles, and chest fat? What about chronic fatigue? Abnormal blood work?

Sedentary life can cause a multitude of problems. Some are related to your physique. Others affect your health. But it's not too late to get in shape! You can reverse the weight gain. And avert most of the related health complications.

First, you'll learn about the health risk related to inactivity. Then explore various strategies to getting back in shape.

What Are the Consequences of Physical Inactivity?

Human evolution was shaped by movement. Survival required foraging for food, long-distance travel, and fighting off predators. Many biological systems adapted to this lifestyle. They require a certain level of activity to function normally.

Regular movement stimulates the production of natural chemicals. Examples include hormones, enzymes, and antioxidants. Products that regulate growth and repair processes. Sedentary life interferes with those beneficial functions.

Inactivity stimulates the production of different chemicals. But those products are less beneficial. High concentrations of these molecules may have adverse effects. Examples include excessive inflammation and oxidative stress. Even cancer cell formation.

Physical inactivity is a major health risk factor. Sedentary life increases the risk of cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

Special Cases, Ongoing Health Issues, & Complications

Some conditions are easily reversible. They might initially prevent you from following an optimal fitness regime. But once you pick up momentum most issues resolve themselves.

Other problems can’t be fixed by getting in shape. Some conditions may be the cause of your current state. Not the result of it. Through proper training and dieting may still help.

Reversible conditions:

  • Minor health conditions. For example, excessive inflammation, sleep apnea, and elevated blood pressure (in some cases). Improving your fitness habits may be enough to eliminate the symptoms.
  • Muscle atrophy and weakness. Inactivity can reduce baseline muscle mass. But proper training can reverse the process. This effect extends to strength, speed, and endurance.
  • Limited mobility due to excess body fat. It’s easy to regain your mobility once you drop the extra weight. Being lighter also helps you move easier.

Partially Reversible:

  • Genetic disorders affected by lifestyle. For example, type II diabetes and Hashimoto. Complete recovery is not possible. But a switch to a healthier lifestyle can improve the quality of life.
  • Aging. You can’t reverse the aging process, but you can slow it down. Training reduces DNA oxidation and other cell-damaging effects. You can still get in shape even at the age of 30, 40, and even 50+.
  • Loose skin. Significant weight loss will result in loose skin. Over time some of the skin may be pulled back. Muscle growth also helps fill in the gaps. But anything more than 0.5 or 1 inch of sagging skin may require surgical removal.

A quick note on mental conditions. Some disorders are affected by body composition and fitness. Examples include body image issues, eating disorders, and even depression.

Training has a positive impact on mood and stress. Losing weight can reduce anxiety and boost your self-esteem. However, serious mental disorders may require therapy, medication, and massive social support.

Irreversible Conditions:

  • Incurable and terminal illnesses. For example, cancer, dementia, and neurological diseases. Severe or advanced health conditions may not be affected by fitness. Training and dieting may even have a negative impact.
  • Severe injuries and permanent tissue damage. Exercise promotes healing and repair processes. But those effects are limited and far from miraculous.
  • Stretch marks. Unlike loose skin, stretch marks are mostly unaffected by lifestyle. Skin quality may improve. But not enough for stretch marks to disappear.

How to Start Being Active Again

Here’s a short checklist:

  • Consider your current state. Filter out inappropriate options.

Physical limitations narrow your selection of activities and diet variety. When (or if) your condition improves you can consider expanding your options.

  • Select your preferred strategy to get in shape.

There’s more than one way to get in shape. Pick something you enjoy. It’s hard to stick to a routine you don’t find engaging. Check the next sections for specific ideas.

  • Plan. Restructure your routines to ensure long-term commitment.

Progress is the result of small daily efforts. Meal prepping and working out should be part of your schedule. This way you can ensure you’ll put in the work.

  • Take baby steps. Being too ambitious may get you hurt or discouraged.

The body can’t switch gears instantly. Transitioning from a couch potato to a gym rat takes time. Trying to force the process may lead to burnouts.

How Do You Return to the Gym After a Long Break?

First off, forget about your previous accomplishments. Important point if you used to be really fit but got out of shape.

It may be a while before you reach your old personal bests. You’re starting over now. This mindset allows you to enjoy every small win. Instead of stressing over your current state.

First Week

You can play around with some new and familiar exercises. No need for structure. Keep it light and fun. Your goals are:

  • get excited about training in a gym again
  • get an idea what you want in your workout
  • get over the initial period of soreness

Second Week

Commit to specific exercises. Cover all major muscle groups. Select 1-3 exercises per muscle. Here are a few examples:

  • chest (pecs): bench press and flys
  • back (lats and traps): pull up, pull-down, and various rows
  • shoulders (medial delts): overhead press, lat raise, and upright row
  • arms (biceps & triceps): bicep curls, tricep extensions
  • front legs (quads): squat, leg press, lunges, and leg extensions
  • back legs (hamstrings & glutes): deadlift, hip extension, and leg curl
  • calves (soleus & gastrocnemius): seated and standing calf raise
  • abs (rec abdomens & obliques): various frontal or side movements

Add some structure to your training. Don’t be too ambitious though. You can always make your workouts more challenging later. Here’s how you can start:

  • 3-4 training sessions per week
  • 4-5 exercises per session
  • 2-3 sets per exercise
  • 7-15 reps per set (see the notes below)
    • the low end for multi-joint exercises
    • the high end for isolation exercises

Start with weights that are sufficiently challenging. Not too heavy. Not too easy. Enough for you to stay within the rep 7-15 rep range.

Third Week and After

Adjust as you go. If you don’t feel any fatigue after your workouts, make the sessions more challenging. Add new exercises, or sets to the old lifts. You can even add an additional training session. If things get too hard, use the reverse logic.

A Sample Workout (After a Layoff)

You can create your own workout based on the example below. Feel free to change the exercises, sets, and rep ranges.

Session #1

  1. Chest (eg. bench press): 3 sets / 7-10 reps
  2. Back (eg. pull down): 3 sets / 10-15 reps
  3. Shoulder (eg. overhead press): 2 sets / 7-10 reps
  4. Arms (eg. dumbbell curl): 2 sets / 10-15 reps

Session #2

  1. Front Leg (eg. squat): 3 sets / 7-10 reps
  2. Back Leg (eg. leg curl): 3 sets / 10-15 reps
  3. Calf (eg. seated calf raise): 2 sets / 10-15 reps
  4. Ab (eg. reverse crunch): 2 sets / 10-15 reps

Session #3

  1. Back (eg. barbell row): 3 sets / 7-10 reps
  2. Chest (eg. cable fly): 3 sets / 10-15 reps
  3. Shoulder (eg. lat dumbbell raise): 2 sets / 10-15 reps
  4. Arms (eg. triceps cable extension): 2 sets / 10-15 reps

Session #4

  1. Back Leg (eg. barbell deadlift): 3 sets / 7-10 reps
  2. Front Leg (eg. leg extension): 3 sets / 10-15 reps
  3. Calf (eg. standing calf raise): 2 sets / 10-15 reps
  4. Ab (eg. side crunch): 2 sets / 10-15 reps

What Happens When You Workout After a Long Hiatus?

You are deconditioned (out of shape). This means even a minor stimulus can cause notable reactions. That may have some great and some terrible consequences.

Pros of being out of shape:

  • training sessions don't have to be too long
  • fitness characteristics (strength, speed, endurance) can improve rapidly
  • proper stimulation of most bodily systems requires little effort
  • small diet changes can lead to notable weight loss
  • a flawed approach to fitness can still produce results

Cons of being out of shape:

  • unintentional over-training might increase the risk of injury
  • poor conditioning limits your training choices
  • recovery time can be very long
  • lost weight can be regained easily
  • old unhealthy habits might occasionally set you back

Initial results come easily. An aggressive approach can even hurt your progress. Or force you to take a break soon after you start.

Reconditioning your body may take a few months. The exact period depends on your starting point. Also, how much fat you have to lose. And how detrained your muscles are.

Potentially Risky Exercises to Avoid

There are no universally bad exercises. Though consider your limitations. Better avoid movements you can’t perform without discomfort.

But even lifts that don’t cause pain can become dangerous. Here’s what else you need to pay attention to:

  • Preparedness. Good form and proper technique are crucial for avoiding injuries. Warming up also helps you ease into the real workout.
  • Intensity: Not respecting your body’s limitations can get you hurt. This includes using weights that are too heavy. Or doing exercises that are just too challenging.
  • Total workload: Doing too much of anything will affect recovery. Even if you use good technique and light weights. The compound stress of too many sets and reps might get overwhelming.

How to Lose the Excess Body Fat?

Busy people should prioritize dieting. Exercise is not your main fat loss tool. Though any increase in activity will help you lose weight.

Weight changes based on the difference between intake and expenditure. You lean down when your expenditure is greater than consumption. The difference between low intake and high activity is covered by burning body fat.

It’s easy to enter fat burn mode by decreasing food (caloric) intake. In contrast, only a solid increase in activity will notably affect (calorie) expenditure. It takes less effort to skip dessert than doing ~45 mins cardio. Both options will result in a ~300 kcal deficit.

But if your goal is a total physique transformation, training alone won't cut it.

All this may sound like too much work. Getting can be a challenge. But we can help, keep on reading:

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Until next time!

~Niki, Fitness Mastery Coach

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