We all know that if you crash diet, you’re 99.9% likely to gain back all the weight and more when you get back to eating normally (and if you didn’t know that… surprise!).
BUT what happens if you go on an intense fitness blitz for a few weeks and then stop?
Do you lose all the fat you shed and muscle gained or are those results yours for life – so long as you don’t go too far in the other direction? And what about your new found Olympic ability? Does that stick around long term?
This post was inspired by a piece I recently came across on a well known health site. However, on noticing that the ‘experts’ they brought in on the debate were actually just promoting their own short or long term fitness programs (the one who said short term plans are a great idea unsurprisingly had a 28 day program of his own, while the one who said long term plans are better owned a fitness studio – not exactly sound, impartial advice!), I was left with an overwhelming urge to do my own research and see if that piece (which will remain nameless… for now) was as full of BS as I suspected.
So, what does science say?
Actually, forget science for a minute. Have you ever done a programme like Insanity, 21 Day Fix or similar? I have and guarantee you will drop some serious pounds if you do it every day as outlined. BUT what you need to know before signing up is that your results will be better if:
You follow the specific food plan these programmes usually come with
If you missed my last post on if exercise or diet matters more for weight loss, take a look at it here to discover why following the recommended meal plan is more vital for maximum weight loss on these programmes than the workouts themselves!
You aren’t a serious fitness pro on starting the programme
This is because as discussed in the aforementioned exercise versus diet post, the body acclimatises to exercise pretty quickly. Yep, human physiology and research, like this, suggests that while a new workout delivers great fat-burning results for the first couple of months, you’ll quickly hit a weight loss plateau even if you continue working out as hard. This means that while a lot of these programmes combine different styles of workout to keep your body challenged, if you’re already a workout pro, who has weight training, interval work, LISS and all the latest fitness strategies licked, you’re less likely to have the same metabolic and muscular jolt from these programmes as someone who usually exercises once a month.
So, will you lose weight from a short term fitness programme?
Yes, but how much depends on how much of a fitness and clean eating buff you are before starting the programme.
Now, onto what you really want to know: Will you keep your results when you stop exercising?
Sorry to keep going on about my previous post, but, you’ll recall that in it I explained how most bodies can use up 10-30% of their daily energy expenditure during exercise. That means if you stop exercising and continue to eat exactly as advocated while you were on the programme, you’ll lose the calorie deficit created by the exercise and most probably stop losing weight BUT not gain weight.
However, if you stop the fitness programme and go back to eating whatever you want, when you want, you’ll most likely create a surplus intake of calories daily, which will lead to a return to your old weight.
And the story is similarly sad for your fitness levels. According to the American Council on Exercise, if you build your fitness up to a high level (high, but not quite pro athlete level) and then stop working out, you can maintain that fitness level for up to 3 months, however it’ll drop after that time.
But, it turns out that if improving your fitness levels is a goal, an intense short-term programme is probably the worst way to go about achieving this goal.
That’s because studies, like this small one published in PLoS ONE journal in 2014, suggest it takes longer to see an improvement in your fitness levels after a short term intense fitness plan, compared with a consistent long term training program. Specifically, the researchers found that when a group of healthy men and women with similar fitness levels completed 24 high intensity training session, those that did so during a 3-week crash course showed no improvement in their fitness levels (measured as VO2max) during the training period. But those that did their 24 workouts spread out over 8 weeks showed significant improvement in their fitness levels.
And that’s not the last of the bad news.
If building lean muscle is your goal, science suggests you get more bang for your buck by going slow and steady. That’s because to build lean muscle you’ve got to damage your muscle – during a strength training session – then give it time to repair (48 hours at least – although this varies between individuals), which is when it heals bigger and stronger.
That’s why you’ll notice pro trainers and body builders never work the same muscle group two days in a row!
If you’re doing the same workout daily for 30 days in a row, you’re potentially undercutting the lean muscle gain you could get by stretching it out a 60 day programme performed every other day. That doesn’t mean you can’t gain noticeable muscle on these programmes, it just means you’ve got to check out the workout plan before you sign up. If it rotates its strength training in a way that allows sufficient rest periods between working out different muscle groups, you’re good to go. If it gives you 1 or 2 generic workouts to repeat over and over again, you’re unlikely to make significant lean muscle gains during that period.
The final downer to be aware of from these programmes is the obvious risk of overuse injury, which can then put you out of action for the next month… making you pile all the weight back on.
So, the verdict?
Despite the negativity, I don’t think these challenges are bad news at all. They allow you to drop significant amounts of weight and can be great for kick-starting a healthier lifestyle. Just be warned that the promises of dropping 20lbs in 20 days aren’t always true… especially if you’re already pretty active and health conscious.
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