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Does muscle turn into fat if I skip my exercise routine?

This question itself is untenable as these are two different kinds of tissues. But after the body is set to an exercise routine and primes itself up for it, a discontinuation triggers changes. The muscles shrink, lose mass and the fat piles up more, says Dr Rommel Tickoo, Director, Internal Medicine, Max Super Speciality Hospital, Saket, Delhi

body fat, exercise, indian expressThe excess calorie load easily gets converted to body fat. ( Photo source: Pexels)

Written by Dr Rommel Tickoo

We get a lot of questions in the consultation room about whether muscles turn into fat if you stop exercising midway. This question itself is untenable as these are two different kinds of tissues and there is no interchangeability that’s possible. But what does happen is that a discontinuation or a gap, after the body is set to an exercise routine and primes itself up for it, triggers changes. That means that the muscles shrink, lose mass and the fat piles up more. This proportional difference obviously makes you look plump and flaccid. But that doesn’t mean your muscle tissue has gone anywhere. The ratio of fat to muscle has changed. Without being worked up, the muscle atrophies, making room for other tissues to take its place.

Let me also clarify that the 5:2 formula, where you exercise at the same pace and rhythm for five days but take it easy for two days over the weekend (assuming you are not swinging too far out of your diet and lifestyle discipline), doesn’t do much harm. Muscles start reacting only after a 48-hour gap by which time you have already resumed your regime.

So why do you lose the toned look so easily? That’s because it is a cosmetic manifestation of your workouts. And when you stop doing that, either because of a change in lifestyle or work routine, or a physical condition or illness, your body composition begins to change. With little physical activity and prompting from exercise, your muscles will shrink and lose their ability to convert fat that much rapidly. And with less calories being burnt, fat cells will start to take over. This process is usually hastened by the fact that you do not adjust your calorie intake to a more inactive lifestyle but keep eating the same as before or even more without the discipline of routine. The excess calorie load easily gets converted to body fat. A gym routine keeps your metabolism intact and once that slows down, your calorie burns are also slowing down. Then there is sugar, which gets easily absorbed by muscles and other tissues in a person practising regular exercise. When you stop, any extra sugar in the blood will add to the caloric load.

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So what do you do to keep your muscle mass even when a certain situation in life makes it impossible for you to resume as active a regime? The good part is muscles have memory and can be retrained as borne out by many studies. But they have to be built up slowly and steadily. For example, when it comes to after-care fitness routines of COVID or any other disease survivor, I always recommend a graded action plan instead of hitting the gym immediately. Begin with walking, pushing up the time from 15 minutes, to 30 minutes, 45 minutes, then an hour. Then maybe move to jogging and running, depending on your individual capacity. Then once the body is primed and at ease with the daily rhythm, you can move to moderate exercises.

The first rule of internalising an exercise regime is to ensure that it doesn’t seem like an extreme external imposition but something that you like and goes with the flow of your own life. There should be a feel-good air about your routines. Most recommendations by experts say that 30 minutes of a walk and moderate exercise are good enough to keep your body well-oiled. Try to factor this half-hour early morning because you will find many reasons to procrastinate later in the day. Let’s say you find it hard to get 30 minutes at a stretch, then, for regularity’s sake, try out 15-minute sets to get your energy going and burning calories.

Also, some muscle loss happens when you age after 40. This is called sarcopenia. So an active routine becomes all the more necessary to prevent the muscle from wasting away.


(Dr Rommel Tickoo specialises in lifestyle diseases [Diabetes, Hypertension, Dyslipidemia] and Infectious Diseases. He was a member of a Health Ministry panel in 2019 to lay down national guidelines for screening, testing and isolation of H1N1 virus)

First published on: 01-12-2022 at 14:55 IST
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