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There are plenty of reasons to stay in shape. Better mental and physical health, more energy when you need it, reduced risk of chronic diseases and some forms of cancer, restful sleep, and stronger bones and muscles are some of the most well-known benefits of regular exercise. But sometimes life imposes other benefits that often don’t make the headlines.
A few weeks ago, I dislocated my ankle. Play pickle ball. I lunged properly, grabbed my shoe on the field and the ankle continued. Several hours later, I left the emergency room with a pair of crutches, my lower leg in an Aircast shoe and instructed to stay off my ankle for six weeks.
If you’ve used crutches before, you know the effort it takes to get even the simplest of household chores done. Climbing several flights of stairs requires the energy of running 5 km. Meal preparation requires a level of energy and determination worthy of an elite athlete. And since these types of tasks repeat multiple times a day, I’m grateful for the flexibility I’ve gained from years of long runs, swimming, spin classes, rackets, and aerobics.
But fitness isn’t just about endurance. I haven’t broken any bones – a rarity when it comes to a dislocated ankle, something the doctor attributes in part to the strength of the bones. Take advantage of another benefit I gained from all the years he spent pounding the pavement. Running slows the rate of bone loss associated with aging, making the bones in my lower body more resistant to accidents like this.
Then there’s the acrobatic routine that gets done every time I get in and out of the bathtub, made easier by the flexibility I’ve maintained through yoga. The strength of my upper body is also useful when lowering and lifting myself in and out of the pedestal basin. Finally, I’m grateful for all of the balance exercises you’ve done, making it easy to sit and stand with one supporting leg.
Admittedly, I didn’t think about all of this while I’ve been working so hard all those years. But the sheer amount of physical assets I’ve gained over decades of training has suddenly become more valuable, allowing me to maintain as much independence as possible while waiting for my injury to recover.
But no matter how much I rely on my general fitness to mitigate the impact of my injury, it will take months before I can resume my regular exercise schedule. The inactivity of this scale would almost certainly result in a physical adaptive erosion. Fitness is not something that can stand idly by in a bank waiting for a rainy day – it requires a consistent and consistent investment of time and effort. Knowing that exercise options are limited for the next six weeks or more, I wondered how much of my hard-earned fitness would be lost during my downtime from the gym.
Using the large global community of professional athletes as subjects of the study, researchers have compiled a fair amount of data regarding what happens to physically active individuals who suddenly become inactive. Not surprisingly, there is a rapid loss of aerobic fitness – more than the average individual experiences. Although there is no significant loss in the first few days of inactivity, it is not uncommon to experience a 7% decrease in aerobic fitness (VO2 max) after 12 days of inactivity, which rises to 18% after 12 weeks.
This is the bad news. The good news is that VO2 max improves quickly when training resumes. This improvement often occurs earlier in younger athletes, but professional athletes also tend to rebound fairly quickly. A 9 to 13 percent increase in cardiovascular fitness was observed in professional athletes aged 20 to 70 after just eight weeks of high-intensity interval training.
Restoring lost fitness after an injury such as an injury should focus on more than restoring aerobic fitness. Rebuilding the muscle mass, strength, movement, and proprioception in my injured leg and ankle joint is essential if I want to resume the activities I love, including returning to the pickle ball court. I have a small team of professionals on standby to help me put all the pieces together, including the slow progression from light or light weight-bearing activities like swimming and cycling to eventually walking and running.
It will take time and commitment to get to where I want to be physically. And there will likely be setbacks along the way. But that’s no different than anyone trying to stay healthy and achieve their performance goals.
So the next time you’re wondering if all that hard work in the gym is really paying off, or not. And sometimes in ways you least expect.
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