Detraining and Maintaining Fitness
What is the minimum amount of exercise required to maintain your current fitness? Knowing this answer will be helpful when on vacation, injured or when going to the gym is not possible.
I am happy to tell you, it is not as hard as you might think. It can be accomplished at home and without equipment. To best explain the research, I want to split fitness into cardiovascular and strength components.
A study in 2010 by Garcia-Pallares et al. looked at VO2max (the maximum amount of oxygen the body can utilize in a minute) in kayakers. They took 14 world class kayakers immediately after their world-championships (ie. at peak fitness) and split them into two groups - a) no-training (NT) and b) reduced training (RT). The RT group completed 2 x 40min sessions per week of cardio exercise for 5-weeks at moderate intensity (6/10 effort). The results showed that in 5-weeks the NT group’s VO2max dropped by 11% and in the RT group, V02maxed dropped by 5.6% or half compared to not training at all.
Takeaway: 2 x 40min at moderate intensity is not very much exercise and it slowed the reduction in V02max significantly compared to no training at all!
In 2020, Androulakis-Korakakis et al. reviewed all the available research on strength maintenance and summarized that a single set of exercise with high intensity (to voluntary failure - stopping because it is getting very hard), 2-3 times per week is best.
Takeaway: That is not very hard to fit into your day even if you do not have equipment. Do not worry about how many reps to do. Continue until it gets very hard (9/10 effort). To focus on all muscles groups, include push-ups, pull-ups, shoulder press, squats,
deadlifts and planks (front and side variations)!
Your perceived loss in fitness from time off (ie. feeling like a couch potato, sluggish, less motivated) is perceived and not fact or physiological. Much of it is mental and I assure you that once you return to your usual routine, you will feel normal quickly. 3 sessions of cardio and 3 sessions of strength per week at the recommended dose and intensities listed above will help maintain the majority of your fitness.
Registered Physiotherapist, B.Kin, MPT InReach Online Physio
Aaron is a sports telephysiotherapist with extensive post-graduate training in strength and conditioning. He loves to work with injured people throughout their rehab and continue to prevent it from happening again. Aaron has been working for several years in the virtual physio / online physio realm prescribing comprehensive exercise programs for his clients.
García-Pallarés J, Sánchez-Medina L, Pérez CE, Izquierdo-Gabarren M, Izquierdo M. Physiological effects of tapering and detraining in world-class kayakers. Med Sci Sport Exerc. 2010;42(6):1209-14
Androulakis-Korakakis P, Fisher JP, Steele J. The Minimum Effective Training Dose Required to Increase 1RM Strength in Resistance-Trained Men: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2020 Apr;50(4):751-765