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With schools closed and business activity slower than usual, July to August is traditionally a period when UAE residents book long leaves and fly out of the country.

At a time when people’s fitness revolves around scheduled group exercise classes and personal trainer sessions at the UAE’s abundant health clubs, breaking routine and going to a place where they may not have access to familiar faces or high-tech cardio equipment can result in normally active exercise lifestyles screeching to a halt. Coupled with a more relaxed attitude towards nutrition, a sedentary holiday month can result in even the fittest gym rat piling on the pounds for an ungainly return.

Detraining

Sharon McConnell, Head Trainer at NRG Fitness, outlines what a fit body goes through over a week to ten days after it stops being exercised: “If someone has been a regular at the gym, let’s say they go three to five times a week and have high fitness levels, and stops training — we call this detraining — they will start to lose their VO2 max and begin to feel unfit.” 

VO2 max is the optimal rate at which your heart, lungs and muscles effectively use oxygen as they are being exercised. 

After a week of not working out, cardiovascular fitness takes the first hit, adds McConnell. “Walking up one flight of stairs may exert you the same way three flights would have done earlier.

“The next to go is muscle strength. For people who were regulars at the gym and who were used to lifting heavy weights — let’s say, they squat 40-50kg — as soon as they pick that bar up after two weeks of not training, they will feel their muscle strength has deteriorated.”

Then stamina levels decline while blood sugar levels start to rise, which causes weight gain. “This causes blood pressure to increase and that’s when you start to notice your body shape changing,” explains McConnell. “You might have been leaner and now you’re storing fat around the abdominal area.

“The fitter you are, the quicker your body starts to change. It should also be noted that age plays a big role in the detraining process. The older you are, the faster you lose muscle and VO2 capacity. A 20-year-old’s muscle memory is twice as good as a 40-year-old’s. It’s around 35 when someone’s muscle memory starts to slow down.”

Making a comeback

When trying to recover lost fitness, it’s important not to rush.

“When restarting your exercise routine after a long break, and a time where you might have indulged, it is advised to start slowly,” says Richard McWade, Studio Manager at Fitness First. “The temptation would be to start with has much as you can but this could lead to injury and unnecessary muscle stiffness, which will delay you even further.” 

Getting back into the game starts with the mind. “The most important thing is setting short-term goals — look the first four weeks, rather than 12 weeks,” explains McConnell. “If you think in 12 weeks’ time you want to lose, for example, 10kg, that’s a long-term goal. So after a week, if the scales haven’t moved, people might say to themselves, ‘How can I get to 10kg if I can’t even lose 1kg?’ For me, it’s about focusing on lifestyle — there’s no point in coming to the gym once a week and using 50 per cent effort if they’re eating stuff outside that’s not going to help them meet their goals.”

People often ask if it’s better to begin a weight loss programme with greater emphasis on cardio or weight. “If you look at it minute by minute, cardio burns more calories than strength training does,” says Renee Geoghegan, Lead Instructor at CycleBar. “But overall, the actual calories burnt have a better effect in strength training, because you’re basically ripping into muscle and it needs to go into repair. So you’re burning more calories overall. But in immediate exercise, the most effect comes through cardio.

“If I was looking at a ratio, 50 per cent of both cardio and strength training is good, but it always depends on where they are. Initially, I’d start them off with cardio, pick up the pace with high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and then I’d be introducing things like bodyweight exercises. Let’s be honest — body weight is a resistor you can take with you everywhere.

For long-term results, after a while you’d turn towards 60 per cent weight training, 40 per cent cardio. The reason being you’re looking for more lean muscle and sustainable results.” Geoghegan adds that the shift towards weight training should occur after someone has achieved a base level of fitness.

It’s not just long holidays that derail people’s fitness routines. “As a personal trainer, I get people who come to me to train for short-term goals,” says McConnell. “Whether it’s for a wedding or holiday, once they reach their goal, they think they’ve made it.” She cites the example of a friend who lost a lot of weight prior to her wedding. “She looked absolutely amazing on her wedding day, but then put on 25kg afterwards.” 

For Geoghegan, people need to be educated on how to stay fit without being overly reliant on gym equipment and exercise classes. “For example, if someone is going on a beach holiday, how can they incorporate exercise into this? They could go for a beach run or maybe walk in water, which is a lot tougher than walking on sand alone.”

Of course, exercise alone will not melt away recent ill-gotten weight gains. “Nutrition is 70 per cent of the result. People need to control portion size while monitoring fat, protein and carbohydrate intake.”