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Use it or lose it: why deconditioning matters

Use it or lose it: why deconditioning matters

Deconditioning is defined as the reversible changes in the body caused by physical inactivity and disuse. You’re likely to have heard it used by ESPN pundits discussing the condition of football players on the injured list. However, it is not a condition reserved just for professional athletes. Deconditioning can occur to you or me after just a short period of inactivity. We all know the feeling of trying to return to exercise after a period of inactivity. Your muscles complain, you find yourself short of breath, and you’re easily fatigued. This is deconditioning in a nutshell: a loss of muscle strength, energy, and fitness.

So why should we be concerned? While mild deconditioning can be nothing more than an inconvenience, left unchecked it can spell trouble for our physical and mental health. Loss of muscle mass and strength is one of the first, and ultimately, most important, changes that happen when we are inactive. This has consequences for our ability to perform everyday tasks such as walking, climbing the stairs, running errands, and going to work. A prolonged period of disuse can be enough to impact our independence.

Muscle weakness poses a further risk, especially for older people. Core strength and leg strength play an important role in balance and our ability to move around our homes safely. A reduction in muscle strength, balance, and flexibility is associated with an increased risk of falling. We know that movement is beneficial for a healthy lifestyle. But did you know that staying active is also good for your bones? Inactive adults are more susceptible to developing osteoporosis, a condition that makes your bones weaker and prone to fractures and breaks.

Another significant symptom of deconditioning is shortness of breath or a faster heartbeat with minor physical exertion. This is because the heart is a muscle and like other muscles, gets weaker with inactivity. A weaker heart will struggle to pump the necessary amount of blood and oxygen to our bodies, making us more easily fatigued.

You’re probably thinking that deconditioning is only something to worry about in older adults. This is not the case. Mild, moderate or even severe deconditioning can occur at any age. The causes can range from illnesses that cause fatigue and immobility; injuries or surgical procedures that cause pain and immobilization; periods of bed rest such as a lengthy hospitalization or illness. This is the primary reason why your medical team may be eager to get you up and moving, when safe, following a surgical procedure or hospital stay.

Depending on the severity of your condition, a simple aerobic exercise program may be enough to help you rebuild your fitness and function. Your health care provider can recommend specific exercises based on the cause of your inactivity such as surgery or a fall. In addition, strengthening exercises will be needed to improve balance, mobility, and reduce your risk of falls. A physical therapist can create a safe and effective exercise program designed specifically for you.

After a thorough assessment of your muscle strength, balance, and overall function, the physical therapist will create a program that targets your areas of weakness and concern. Listening to your physical therapist and following through with their recommendations, you will see improvements in your quality of life and get back to doing daily activities and things you enjoy doing. It may not be easy as you start, but over time you’ll gradually notice things that were once difficult may start to become easier and your overall health will improve. Don’t delay seeking a physical therapist for help. The longer you remain immobile and inactive, the longer it will take to regain what you’ve lost!

Jennifer Lutkowski PT, DPT, is Director of Rehabilitation at Allied Services Wilkes-Barre Rehab Hospital.

To find a physical therapist who can help, find an Outpatient Rehab Center near you or call 570-348-1360.