Being unable to exercise can be a truly miserable circumstance. It usually happens for reasons which are themselves unpleasant (we’re sick, injured, had surgery, or life is just nuts with commitments and we’ve got no time to tend to our own needs). Additionally, it’s tougher to cope with these stresses when breaking a sweat is your normal stress-relief practice! If you then pile on the feeling of “I’m getting fatter and weaker by the day…” it’s pretty dismal.
But chin up, darling. You aren’t totally powerless here, and I’ll share with you some strategies which can help you get through that time while maintaining as much of your fit body as you can.
Tune into your appetite
You may have noticed your appetite increases when you boost your activity. Work out hard twice a day? You’ll be hungry! Spend the entire day hiking in the Rockies? You’ll be ready for some serious chow when dinnertime rolls around. That same mechanism also works in the opposite direction, only we don’t notice it as much because the absence of hunger is a lot less attention-grabbing than roaring hungries.
When you reduce activity, your appetite will ask for less food. It may not happen the first day, but within 2-3 days it definitely will have adjusted downward. If you continue to eat just like you always did (assuming that was maintenance), and are burning fewer calories now, that’s where you could see weight gain start to happen. So use your hunger to cue you. Start the day with breakfast, and then do your best to not eat again until you’re clearly hungry. Alternately, try planning out your meals in advance if that fits your schedule/life/control addiction and see if when you follow that plan if you are in fact hungry for each meal. If you aren’t, consider taking a bit of food out of the preceding meal.
If you are hungry for each meal, relax. You’re doing well. Just keep your awareness up and let your hunger lead the way.
Note: If you have no appetite because you are sick, eat 3 moderate sized meals a day and don’t worry about it. Hopefully your appetite will come back soon and a few days off will be no trouble at all. This skill is more crucial when someone is facing weeks or even months of decreased training.
Dial back on your carbohydrates
When you reduce activity, you don’t need as many carbohydrates. You don’t have to slash them all, (let’s not get drastic here, OK?) but try dialing back your normal portions of starchy foods to get that hungry-before-each-meal and keeping the same amount of other stuff. The vitamins and minerals in fruits and veggies are important for health, and as we’ll cover in a moment, you want plenty of protein. But you can have less rice, bread, oats, or pasta. Please don’t read that as “Georgie said to stop eating carbs.” That’s BS, you do not need to exercise to “earn” carbohydrate-rich foods. It is however a fact that you just need more of them when you are exercising regularly than when you aren’t. Even with zero activity (laying in bed), I still recommend my clients and patient have a couple servings a day of whole grains or starchy food like potatoes, beans, or squash. It helps keep your intestinal flora happy and varied, aids in gut motility, and provides variety to the diet.
Keep your protein intake high
Even if you aren’t lifting weights, a high protein intake can help you retain muscles during a period of inactivity (or less activity). How high? Aim for 2 grams of protein per kilogram bodyweight, or just under a gram per pound you weigh. The source is not important, so feel free to use eggs, meat, chicken, fish, yogurt, cottage cheese, protein powder, or chocolate chip cookie dough Quest bars. Whatever you like will work.
Sleep as much as you can
I know, I know, if you aren’t able to train because of a massive life implosion of catastrophic proportions, sleep ain’t going to happen much either. But if you’re recovering from ACL surgery or the flu, on vacation with no weights, or just have a busted shoulder and have been told to lay off, shuteye is totally doable, and will help with retaining your lean mass. How’s that? Well, we know sleep is a powerful agent in modifying our endocrine system and how our bodies respond to stress. Sleep helps regulate the levels and activity of testosterone, growth hormone, ghrelin and leptin. Reduced time sleeping is one factor that increases stress hormones, a situation which favors breaking down muscle tissue, less insulin sensitivity, and shuttling any excess calories around into visceral fat (belly fat). So it’s well-placed effort to take whatever steps you need to get your sleep. If you’re dealing with illness or injury your immune system and healing will benefit as well.
So there you have it, four things you absolutely can control which will help you keep as much muscle as possible and avoid gaining fat when you can’t train.
- Tune into your natural appetite decrease and use it as a guide to reduce your food intake.
- Shrink your portions of starchy carbohydrates to create the calorie reduction needed.
- Eat at least 2 grams of protein per kilogram bodyweight.
- Sleep a lot.
I hope these come in handy, please feel free to share this article with anyone you know who is headed for surgery, is injured, managing a health issue, or has gotten stuck on a lonely remote island with no access to a gym.