What’s happened to your body during lockdown? For almost everyone, there has been an enforced change in activity levels and activity choices. And for a lot of us, there have been changes in eating habits. How have these changes affected your body?
We discuss the changes that you may have made and how they might have affected you.
How has your life changed during lockdown?
It’s been a time of unprecedented social change. Here are some of the common differences compared to life before lockdown
- Restaurants have been shut. You will have eaten out a lot less. Maybe you substituted restaurant food for takeaways. Or perhaps you have started cooking more at home.
- Pubs have been shut. You’ll either have been drinking less, or just drinking more at home.
- Gyms have been shut. We’ve seen lots of variations here
- Some people have stopped exercising altogether.
- Some people, having previously been sedentary, have started exercising, mainly because the government has allowed us out once a day ‘to exercise’.
- Lots of people have started walking more in their ‘one hour a day’ and have continued as restrictions have lifted.
- Online at-home workouts have become much more popular.
- Most have found more time to fit exercise in and have made cardio part of their lifestyle – running, walking, cycling.
- Places of work have been shut. People have worked from home much more. That means it’s been possible to spend the entire day at a desk, having only taken a few steps throughout.
- Shops have been shut. Whereas you might have had a reason to go out and pound the streets or retail parks, that possibility has been removed. Again, that means people have been more likely to stay at home and be sedentary.
- People have hunkered down in their dens and stocked their homes with comfort food, snacks and alcohol.
The implications of these changes are many and varied, but I’ve phrased them in a way that highlights changes in our ability to stay healthy. Notice how each of the points listed has implications for calories consumed or expended?
But changes in calorie balance are not the only outcomes of the lockdown on our physiology. There are plenty of less visible, insidious health implications, depending on how you’ve chosen to live your lockdown life.
Let’s take a look at different scenarios.
What’s happened to your body during lockdown if you’ve been sedentary?
Before lockdown, plenty of people preferred to go to the gym for their exercise. Or they may have been active getting out and about. Not in lockdown. They have worked from home and done very little else. I’ve spoken to several people who fall into this category.
Assuming you exercised before lockdown, here’s what might have happened to you if you’re in this group.
You’ve gained weight
You guessed that was coming. On average, a man will burn around 1900 calories a day when sedentary and a woman around 1500. That’s a long way short of the ‘active average’ of 2500 and 2000 respectively. If you’ve carried on eating the way you did before lockdown, you’ll put weight on at the rate of around 1lb a week. Over 18 weeks of lockdown, that’s 1 stone 4 lbs! Ouch!
Your heart and lungs have weakened
Your heart is a muscle, and it needs exercise to stay strong. You need to force it to pump a lot of blood to supply working muscles over an extended period. That’s how you keep the heart muscle strong.
Your lungs too need to be put through their paces so you can breathe deeply and exhale fully for more efficient and complete gas exchange.
By regularly exercising your heart and lungs, you help them become more resilient, able to respond to sudden changes in the body’s need for oxygen.
Your insulin sensitivity has deteriorated
Insulin helps shuttle nutrients out of your blood and into your body’s cells. It does this by activating receptors on those cells. When you’re sedentary, those receptors become less sensitive to insulin. That reduces their ability to draw nutrients from bloodstream and so decreases your ability to lower blood sugar following a meal. In fact, your overall control of blood sugar is reduced. This, and several other physiological changes, including reduced fat burning ability, are collectively known at metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is regarded as a precursor to type 2 diabetes.
You have lost muscle
Muscles alternate between breakdown and synthesis all day. When you feed, muscle protein tends to be made. At other times, breakdown occurs: your body taps into your its only protein store – your muscles – to provide what it needs elsewhere.
The other stimulus for muscle protein synthesis is to work your muscles hard. If you’re sedentary, you’re not doing that.
If your weight has stayed the same or gone down during lockdown, then you will definitely have lost muscle.
You might be thinking, ah, but if I feed more, I can compensate for the lack of training and keep my muscle. Sure you can but, if you feed more, you’re going to gain weight and very little of it will be muscle.
As an example, take a client of ours who recently returned after lockdown. He’d had a stressful time and needed to unwind and let his hair down on holiday. He did just that. In fact, he put on 9kg, that’s 1st 6lbs, in only two weeks at the end of lockdown. That’s going some! How much of that was muscle? 0.3kg. So that’s 8.7kg of fat gained, 0.3kg of muscle gained.
So, if you’re looking to gain muscle, overeating is a poor strategy.
We tend to find that heavy people have quite a lot of muscle for the reasons above. But they are not necessarily strong. That’s because the muscle laid down is poor quality. What does that mean? It means muscle protein is laid down in an unstructured way – it’s just bulk.
On the other hand, with a trained muscle, protein is laid down where it’s needed, along the lines of tension, and is well innervated. What’s more, the tendons and other connective tissues are strengthened by the load put through them by training. It’s a much better approach to building and maintaining muscle.
The same goes for bone. Bone laid down due to overeating tends to be of poor quality and less robust. Bone laid down by the stimulus provided through muscle tension tends to be well structured and sturdy.
Your posture has worsened
If you’ve been sedentary, then you’ve been sitting. Increased sitting, in a sofa or hunched over a keyboard, will undoubtedly curve your upper back and tighten your hips. You might develop an ‘older’ posture and feel tight or stiff.
What’s happened to your body during lockdown if you’ve been keeping up the cardio?
Lots of people have taken up, or found the time, to do a lot more cardio in lockdown. That’s great; there are lots of benefits of cardio.
Almost all the health related concerns associated with sedentary behaviour are negated if you perform regular cardio. And I’m talking about running, jogging, cycling, that kind of thing. Something that will get you puffing.
What’s good about lockdown cardio?
Here are some great benefits of cardio
Strong heart and lungs
Cardio, more than any other form of exercise, strengthens the heart and lungs. The heart gets to pump full ventricles of blood over a hundred times a minute for the best part of an hour. That’s great exercise for the heart. It’s a similar benefit for the lungs.
Improved fat oxidation
If you read our article on fat burning the other week, you’ll know that getting rid of fat takes place in stages, the final stage being oxidation. Cardio makes you great at oxidation, so you’ll preferentially use fat for fuel and spare your carbs.
Improved insulin sensitivity
Any exercise that makes you pant will improve insulin sensitivity if you’ve been sedentary. That means you reduce your risk of developing metabolic syndrome or type 2 diabetes.
So, if you’ve been doing cardio, you’ve been keeping yourself healthy.
But it’s not all good.
What’s not so good about lockdown cardio?
Here are some of the downsides of cardio-only exercise.
You may have developed niggles
Let’s face it. If you don’t have access to a gym, there aren’t many choices. Walking, running, cycling. That’s about it. And during 18 weeks of lockdown, you’ll have been doing those activities over and over again.
That can take its toll. You may develop pain in the joints from impact forces. Or perhaps you’ll develop knots in the muscles that get overused. You may develop tension in working muscles and weakness in the unused muscles. That can lead to postural imbalances.
In short, unless you’ve been rolling and stretching, you may have picked up a few niggles from your hours and hours of cardio.
As an example, one of our clients had developed knee pain during lockdown. His only activity had been cycling. With cycling, the leg never straightens. That means the thigh muscle on the inside – the vastus medialis – never really gets a proper workout. The dominance on the outer thigh had been causing imbalances that manifested in knee pain.
With exercise, as with food, variety is essential. It will keep your body balanced.
You’ll have lost leg strength
It’s a misconception that if you do running or cycling, your legs will stay strong. We’ll hear people say ‘I haven’t done any upper body work, but my legs should be pretty strong because I’ve been cycling a lot’. And then they’re surprised when they find their leg-based lifts are down compared to previously and they’re sore the next day.
Your legs may be stronger than if you were sedentary, but they will weaken compared to when you were doing gym exercises. That’s because cardio works the slow twitch endurance fibres and not the fast twitch fibres associated with strength. You’ll develop endurance, but not power.
You’ll have lost muscle
If your weight has stayed the same or you’ve lost weight, you’ll definitely have lost muscle. Holding on to muscle when you lose weight requires hard work with the weights. If you’re not doing any strength work, you’re going to waste a little.
How do we know this? Well, first of all, all the physiology books and scientific papers say that’s what’s going to happen. The same processes that help you lose fat also tend to help you lose muscle, unless you do something to counteract it, i.e., lift weights. Second, we have rather a swish body composition machine that tells us how much muscle and fat our clients have.
- Cardio only client 1: Lost 1.2kg fat, lost 1.6kg muscle in lockdown.
- Cardio only client 2: Lost 0.4kg fat, lost 1.8kg muscle in lockdown.
So they both lost more muscle than fat!
Even if you’ve gained weight while doing your cardio, you’ll probably have lost muscle because you simply won’t have been training the right muscle fibres to stimulate appreciable muscle synthesis. As our sedentary client example shows, without resistance training, you have to substantially overeat and put on a good deal of weight to gain just a little muscle. If you’ve gained a little weight while doing regular cardio, chances are you’ll have lost some muscle.
What’s happened to your body during lockdown if you’ve been doing at-home bodyweight workouts?
Online workouts have become popular. It started with the ‘Insanity’ videos and has continued, with many sites now available offering different exercise modalities. One thing that almost all of them have in common is that they use bodyweight as the resistance. I call them ‘jumpy-about’ workouts because most of them involve jumping about in your living room, with squats and lunges and push ups thrown in. I’m being a little facetious because there is a lot of variety even with bodyweight movements. But nowhere near as much variety as you’d get by going to a gym.
What’s good about bodyweight training?
Here are some of the benefits of this type of exercise.
Your heart and lungs will stay strong
Although not quite as good as steady cardio, these workouts are still pretty decent at exercising your heart and lungs.
You’ll stimulate lipolysis
While steady cardio makes you better at oxidising fat, jumpy-about workouts will help you generate adrenaline and growth hormone. These are both great hormones for helping you release fat from fat stores. If you can burn the stuff too, then these workouts will help you keep your fat levels down.
Your insulin sensitivity will improve
All types of panty exercise will improve insulin sensitivity, and jumpy about workouts are no exception.
You’ll have kept some muscles strong
It’s relatively easy to work your chest, triceps, core, thighs and glutes with jumpy-about and bodyweight exercises. You can maintain or build strength in your chest, triceps and core and develop power in your thighs and glutes.
But, as you might expect, it’s not all good.
What’s not so good about bodyweight training?
You may become imbalanced
While bodyweight work is excellent for some muscles, other muscles don’t get a look-in. Muscles that are inadequately trained with bodyweight are the back, biceps, side and rear shoulders and hamstrings.
That’s going to lead to imbalances and, as we saw with cardio-only training, imbalances lead to pain.
Also, note that there are a lot of postural muscles included in those neglected muscle groups. That means you may not just become imbalanced; you may develop poor posture.
You’ll lose muscle
What! But you’ve been doing strength work, you protest. Well, yes, sort of. Certainly for core, chest and triceps, the workout is challenging enough to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
But, in my view, the legs don’t get enough of a challenge. Bodyweight squats and lunges are ok, but if you’re used to gym work, that’s going to feel too easy. Jumping and leaping about can tire your legs quickly, and they do use your fast twitch fibres. But those types of movement are associated more with power development rather than strength and muscle growth. The stimulus may not be enough to help you stave off a loss of muscle. There are better ways to stimulate muscle protein synthesis than jumping and leaping. You need to use appreciable resistance and mostly use exercises that have both a concentric and eccentric contraction for optimal muscle protein synthesis.
And let’s remember that the back, biceps, hamstrings and rear and side shoulders are getting very little work. That’s a lot of muscle that has no stimulus for protein synthesis.
Again, we know this kind of workout isn’t sufficient to help you retain muscle, because we had two clients returning from lockdown having done bodyweight exercises:
- Bodyweight strength client 1: Gained 0.9kg fat, lost 1.1 kg muscle, lots of niggles.
- Bodyweight strength client 2: Lost 9.1 kg fat, lost 2.7kg muscle.
Note that client 2 did a lot of walking to lose weight and came back with no niggles! How come? Because we sent him bodyweight workouts that included an awful lot of postural stuff. Client 1, despite gaining weight, lost muscle.
Why do I keep talking about muscle?
Muscle is essential stuff!
For details, take a look at a previous blog of ours on the importance of muscle.
In summary, muscle
- Helps you burn calories.
- Provides a pool of glutamine to support the immune system.
- Provides a pool of protein to supply the body when dietary protein is missing.
- Helps maintain insulin sensitivity.
- Reduces the risk of osteoporosis.
- Helps maintain good posture.
- Maintains strength and functional capability.
- Reduces the risk of falls and bone breaks.
- Improves self-confidence.
- Makes you more attractive.
That’s a great list, and one that can help improve longevity and the quality of life.
Any exercise that makes you pant is going to keep you healthy.
But almost all lockdown exercise programmes are incomplete. Without equipment-based resistance training, you will lose muscle and may become imbalanced and develop poor posture and niggles.
Building or maintaining muscle has so many benefits. Now that lockdown is over, get back to the gym and lift weights. If you don’t fancy going back to the gym then get yourself some dumbbells and a bench for home. See our previous blog for more information on choosing home fitness equipment.
Another option, of course, is to find a private studio that is uncrowded and offers a complete exercise programme to keep you healthy and strong.