Entropy, the Gym, and You

Let’s say you’ve been taking some time off from the gym. Maybe you reached the end of your 12-week training cycle and you’re taking a week off. It’s possible that one week turns into two or even three or four weeks. Life happens, you need to attend to some pressing matters, and going to the gym starts to take a back seat. Before you know it, two or three months have passed by. Suddenly, you’re no longer a person who goes to the gym, but a person who needs to figure out a way to get back to the gym on a regular basis. “What happened to me?” you wonder. “Where did the time go?” Now you have to actually exert effort to fit “workout time” into your schedule. You scratch your head and ponder. “I thought I had this all covered,” you think, not for the first time.

What happened to you and your well-made plans was entropy, that insidious force in the universe that turns order into disorder. The basic rule is that any organized system, left unattended, will immediately begin to break down. As a mundane example, those piles of papers on your desk keep reaccumulating as a result of entropy. The weeds in your garden? Entropy. The dust bunnies in your attic and basement? Entropy. The collapse of your plan for doing regular workouts? Entropy.

What’s worse, entropy takes a serious toll on your physical fitness.1,2 If you miss enough time from the gym, all your fitness gains begin to melt away. First, your muscles begin to lose their stores of energy. Glycogen, the complex sugar that supplies energy for muscle work, is broken down for use elsewhere. Arterioles and capillaries, small blood vessels that were needed to supply nutrients to your growing muscles, are no longer required and rapidly disappear. Muscle fibers that were continually added to support your exercise activities are cannibalized, so that their constituent parts may be used for other physiological processes. Entropy launches a process of randomization that breaks down your carefully built-up muscular structure. Your body, being very smart, metaphorically swoops in and moves all those metabolic components to other structures and systems for more efficient use.

The superficial result is loss of muscle definition. The deeper result is loss of muscle tone.3 Your cardiorespiratory system (heart and lungs), digestive system, and metabolism are all affected, as these physiologic systems are no longer required to be functioning at peak to support a regular vigorous exercise program. Entropy sets in to all these systems, as well. The overall result is a profound impact on your health and well-being.

The good news is we can help keep entropy at bay. But doing so requires attention and determination. We want to attend to our bodies as carefully and regularly as we attend to the environment of our home, office, and garden. Just as our cars, motorcycles, and bicycles require periodic maintenance, our bodies require much more frequent care, care on a daily and weekly basis. It’s fine to occasionally skip a week or two, or even a month if needed, of exercise. But we must make sure we get right back on schedule to ensure benefits to our short-term and long-term health.

1Barwais FA, et al: Physical activity, sedentary behavior and total wellness changes among sedentary adults: a 4-week randomized controlled trial. Health Qual Life Outcomes 2013 Oct 29;11:183. doi: 10.1186/1477-7525-11-183

2Loprinzi PD, Lee H: Rationale for promoting physical activity among cancer survivors: literature review and epidemiologic examination. Oncol Nurs Forum 2014 Mar 1;41(2):117-25. doi: 10.1188/14.ONF.117-125.

3Ricci-VItor AL, et al: Influence of the resistance training on heart rate variability, functional capacity and muscle strength in the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Eur J Phys Rehabil Med 49(6):793-801, 2013

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