If you've entered full-on hibernation mode for the remainder of the winter, you may need to reconsider. Slashing the amount of physical activity you get for even a few days can take a toll on your health, according to a recent study in the Journal of Applied Physiology.
Researchers examined regular exercisers who trekked more than 10,000 steps per day. That's the equivalent of about 30 to 60 minutes at the gym plus additional physical activity. They then told participants to cut out any exercise and reduce their activity to less than 5,000 steps per day for five days.
After just five days of inactivity, volunteers experienced a decrease in blood vessel function. Specifically, the blood vessels in their lower legs showed a significant reduction in their ability to dilate, which can be a precursor to peripheral artery disease and, possibly, coronary artery disease. Eek!
"We're not sure why this occurred so rapidly, but our results clearly show how vulnerable the vasculature is to a sedentary lifestyle," says study coauthor Paul Fadel, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Medical Pharmacology and Physiology at the University of Missouri. Whether a gym-free week will wreak havoc on your heart health in the long run is still to be determined as well as whether—and how quickly—your blood vessels bounce back when you return to your regular level of activity.
In the meantime, however, Dr. Fadel recommends incorporating as much activity as you can into your day even if you can't fit in a workout. "Doing something is better than nothing and trying to maintain some activity is important," he says. He also suggests investing in a pedometer and aiming for 10,000 steps per day. "If at the end of the day you have limited steps, a pedometer can help motivate you to get out and go for that walk after dinner instead of sitting on the couch," he says.