Summer Breaks Are Bad for the Body But Good for the Soul

Alex McMillan

Alex McMillan

Head Trainer, Mid Age Man

Vacations are a great time to take a mental break. But you can't just spend them ... ahem ... lion around.

Vacations are good for the spirit. We return recharged, ready for work, for life, for a new challenge. Our travels take us to places we’ve never been, test us in ways we’ve never seen.

But are vacations good for the body?

Probably not.

I headed to South Africa, the land of my father, for two weeks in the summer. Every year in my youth I went to the Kruger National Park, the country’s largest and oldest nature preserve. It’s the size of Wales, or Israel – a small nation.

It’s my favorite place in the world, and now I’m lucky enough to introduce my family to it, too.

To say you’re on safari is too glamorous a word. You drive yourself from rest camp to camp, plotting your own route on tar and sand roads, and witness some wonderful African wildlife. The “Big Five” that were the top trophies for hunters in bygone days (unless you’re a Cecil-killing Minnesotan dentist) are the headline acts: lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo.

But I love the birds, the wobble of a black bataleur eagle as it surveys the savannah on the wing. I love the impala, the most-abundant buck, with their dainty hooves. I love the regal kudu with its spiral horns. I love the cheeky yellow hornbills always looking to steal a slice of your lunch. I love the tiny ant lions that build little cone-shaped dents in the sand, waiting for errant ants to fall in and turn prey.

I love it all. Somehow getting back to life in its elemental form puts a lot of the rest of “life stuff” into perspective. “Safari is good for the soul,” a Facebook friend said. He’s right.

It wasn’t good for my exercise routine.

South AfricaH12 Leshiba Kruger National Park
The Kruger National Park promises beauty at every turn, and reduces life to its essence.

I took my trusty TRX, planning to use it regularly.  What could be better than pushing out a few chest presses and stretching for some lunges with a giraffe and an acacia tree in the background. Oh and showing that all off on Instagram (for work, of course!).

The problem with my plan was that catching the animals in action involves getting up soon after 5 a.m. to see them at dawn and the early morn before they settle down in the heat of the day. Temperatures in the lowveld drop as low as 6ºC at night only to soar as high as 35ºC in the heat of the day.

You have to be in the camps by dusk – there’s already a rising number of roadkills due to freight trucks and staff cars moving around irresponsibly at night. As night falls, it’s time to light the coals for the braai we had every evening, and cook meat, always meat, like cavemen.

By 9 p.m. you’re ready to call it a night. So ironically, on vacation, I found I had no time to work exercise into my schedule, whereas I make sure to get my daily dose when I’m back at work in Hong Kong.

The TRX stayed in its handy little travel bag. It was virtually the only piece of unused kit in my bags. My clothes were all suitably filthy when I returned.

I expected bad news when I stepped on the scale back at my home gym. To my surprise my weight hadn’t changed at all.

But this fit a pattern. The same no-change in weight had occurred the previous summer, when I spent five weeks in Britain and Finland. My European schedule wasn’t quite so dawn-to-dusk, and I made it to the gym, about once a week, but that was down from at least five times at home.

On my return from both vacations, the weight gain came only once I returned. But I knew I was out of shape as soon as I started to exercise. I felt flat, heavier, even if it didn’t show on the scale.

Fat had replaced muscle, imperceptibly, and my body had slowed down. Once I started to exercise again, I found it particularly hard to shift that extra weight. And what muscle I built back only added to my mass. Within a couple of weeks of returning from both trips, my weight was fluctuating between a gain of 5 lbs to 10 lbs.

I’m not alone. Two studies have concluded that even a brief period of inactivity is surprisingly bad for you.

South AfricaH12 Leshiba Kruger National Park
A male waterbuck halts his wanderings for for some wondering.

Essentially, and not surprisingly, it is harder and harder for you to recover from a period of inactivity as you get older. Early studies typically measured the response of young people to sitting around, and college kids full of hormones and cheap beer and god knows what else shook off brief vegetative states.

Two new studies question whether those findings apply more broadly, as The New York Times explains.

The participants in a study of 45 adult men and women led by researchers at the University of Liverpool started out pleasantly active, walking at least 10,000 steps on most days, according to monitors worn prior to the trial. They were healthy.

Then they stopped moving. They cut their daily paces to fewer than 2,000 steps and deliberately sat around an extra 3-1/2 hours every day. They vegged out for two weeks.

When the scientists inspected the wreckage wrought by their anti-exercise sabotage, they discovered what they dubbed “metabolic derangements” in almost all 45 volunteers. Blood sugar was up, cholesterol looked dodgy, they lost muscle in their legs and gained fat around the waist.

South AfricaH12 Leshiba Kruger National Park
A young kudu bull makes stately progress through the bush.

Most of the participants recovered eventually once they got active again. But a few of those enforced vegetables didn’t get back into their exercise routines. They did fewer minutes of vigorous exercise. They were still resisting insulin, even after two weeks back from their two-week exercise vacation.

In the other study, of folks over the age of 65, the results were even worse. This research looked at people who were already at risk of diabetes due to existing high blood sugar. But other than that, they exercised, logging around 7,500 steps per day.

Then they cut that footfall to just 1,000 or fewer paces per day for two weeks. After the inactivity, they were tracked for another two weeks moving around just like they did before.

The two-week break saw their blood sugar spike, while their muscle tissue showed signs of beginning to degrade. A few participants even had to be removed from the study because they already developed full-blown diabetes. Just from two weeks of laying around!

The two weeks back in action didn’t reverse all the changes. So the lesson from both studies is clear: any decent lapse into inactivity throws your hard-gained fitness out of whack. You get out of shape, quick. And takes longer to undo the damage than it did to do it.

The upshot? Take a vacation, sure. But don’t just lie on a deckchair. Climb hills! Walk city streets! Learn parkour!

The animals I was observing rest for brief pauses between otherwise constant movement. They don’t stand still. They need to show they’re strong and fit to stay clear of the jaws of the hyena, the fangs of the crocodile and the claws of the lion. You snooze, you’re lunch.

Next time I’m taking my TRX, and I’m damn sure gonna use it!

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About the author

Alex McMillan

Alex McMillan

Head trainer at Mid Age Man. Alex believes there are four pillars to being healthy: physical fitness, sensible nutrition, mental strength, and wellbeing for your body and soul.

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