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Here’s What Happens When You’re Inactive for a Long Time

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Physical inactivity affects every system in our body, inside and out. If we do not intentionally move our body for at least 20 to 30 minutes each day (not including walking around our workspace), we may be at risk for developing many disorders related to inactivity.

My Personal Experience with Prolonged Inactivity

I personally experienced all these effects this summer as I was unable to walk for almost four months. I was in a car accident and sustained a right tibial plateau fracture (broken into three pieces), which required surgical repair with two large rods and screws permanently placed in my lower leg. For those who are not aware, the tibial plateau is the area on the top of our large lower leg bone, where the femur (large bone in our upper leg) sits to create our knee joint. Because this was such a precarious fracture, I had strict non-weight bearing rules for three months. I couldn’t even use an exercise band to stretch the leg or foot. All I could do was range of motion exercises while seated or lying down. The unfortunate reality for the first 2 1/2 months was that anytime I was upright for more than an hour, my leg would swell up and become more painful. I found myself lying on the couch with my leg up in the air most of the time.

The bone and tissue needed time to heal entirely, so I knew I had a long road ahead of me. But, I was not fully prepared for the rest of the healing process to be so long and hard! I’m a nurse and understand well what happens to a body affected by trauma, and I consider any surgery a trauma. I was a star patient and did everything I was supposed to because I knew the consequences of not allowing the bone to heal fully and with good alignment. I wouldn’t be able to walk normally again! I had soldier-like focus on taking care of my leg and doing my exercises day after day for months, but somehow, I forgot about the rest of my body in the process. It wasn’t until I was able to little by little start putting weight on my leg and re-start my active life that had been basically “put on pause” for four months, that I realized how much my entire body and mind had been affected by this accident.

The human body is amazing and resilient and will heal almost any problem when given the right care, atmosphere, and time. A body that is actively healing is also constantly adjusting and trying to stabilize its current state. This process of stabilization can look very different for every person and every situation.

We are designed to move often and our bodies are equipped for this movement.  When we don’t move, our body begins to change in multiple ways. Being sedentary changes the shape of certain neurons in ways that greatly affect not only the brain, but the heart as well.  The heart is a large muscle and neurons and muscle cells have much in common — both are excitable and conduct electric impulses. With disuse, heart muscle can weaken and atrophy and the vessels attached to the heart become thicker and less flexible, while blood becomes “stickier.” This combination creates the perfect environment for a blood clot. Blood clots are not uncommon after surgery and in those recovering from trauma. In fact, hospitals use a variety of measures to help prevent the occurrence of blood clots.

When a body is inactive, the following begins to occur:

  • We burn fewer calories and are more prone to weight gain
  • Our metabolism decreases and our body has difficulty breaking down fats and sugars
  • We lose muscle strength and endurance due to atrophy and wasting
  • Bones become weak and lose mineral content
  • Our immune system weakens
  • Circulation throughout the body decreases
  • Increase in inflammation as the body senses something is not right
  • Hormones become unbalanced
  • Slowed mental processing
  • Difficulty with memory and concentration
  • Depression and anxiety

Physical inactivity, which can lead to disuse syndrome, has consistently been one of the most powerful, modifiable risk factors for all causes of death and disease, along with smoking and obesity. A study published in the Journal of Complete Neurology by scientists at Wayne State University School of Medicine states “exercise can remodel the brain by prompting the creation of new brain cells and inducing other changes. Now, it seems inactivity, too, can remodel the brain.”

Disuse can actually increase the risk of chronic pain syndrome developing or becoming worse. This can then lead to a variety of emotional changes that are associated with increased perception of pain. These emotional changes create increased stress response and hormonal changes, which lead to increased incidence of depression.

Each time I thought my body was ready to increase any form of movement and I found out it was in fact not ready, emotionally I spiraled into fear and despair thinking “this is never going to end.” The reality is that my body was shifting and re-stabilizing in its own way in response to the changes, not the way I thought it should. And each time this happened, my ego and I had to take a back seat and honor the process.

I was SO EXCITED the day the doctor told me I could start to gradually put weight on my leg. I felt like my brain and body were so ready to walk again, but once again, my body did not follow the plan. I would think I was standing up straight with my feet facing forward and look down to see my right foot jutting out to the right about 1 1/2 feet away. I would try to take a couple of steps on my own but I felt like Frankenstein because my foot seemed to forget how to plant and bend up. Instead, it flopped down on the floor with a thud.

This was not the vision of walking I had for myself and my frustration was heart wrenching as I began to realize that this process was going to be much longer than I anticipated. My body not doing the things I thought it could and should be doing, I also had no stamina. Getting in the car to go to a doctor visit was all I could handle some days. I was shocked to find myself sleeping a lot again, like I did in the weeks after the accident. My body was cycling through a whole new process and level of healing, yet I found myself feeling impatient with this. When our body sleeps, we are generating new cells, repairing tissue and fighting inflammation. I know this well, yet being in my own “fight or flight” mode made it difficult for me to have clear and reasonable thinking some days.

What I have learned in the last six months is that the body’s wisdom is more vast than I ever realized. I have observed and studied human bodies for many years and have always told my patients and clients to “listen to your body;” it will tell you what it needs. And “trust the process;” your body always knows what the priorities are on healing and repair. I know both of these statements to be true, yet it took experiencing my own healing crisis to fully understand the enormous network of communication going on within our bodies every minute of the day.

My ego and I knew that I needed to walk so I could get on with my busy life. The intelligence within (brain, nervous system and heart) knew the real priorities. In order for my physical body to begin to return to normal, my mental and emotional body needed to move through the healing process, too. After months of struggle and frustration, I sought counseling to help me process these aspects of the trauma I had experienced. I also realized that perhaps one of the biggest components of this healing process I was not honoring was to “listen” to my body, let go of ego, and to be patient with myself, sleep when I felt tired, and trust the process.

Our amazing bodies are designed to move, and we need to honor this. Movement does not have to be formal “exercise;” here are some activities to consider that don’t have to feel like a workout.

  • Play with your pets
  • Volunteer to walk shelter pets
  • Dance alone, with your partner or with your children
  • Get outside and walk or ride your bike
  • Stretch each morning when you wake
  • Swim
  • Lift weights or use resistance bands
  • Explore Tai Chi
  • My ultimate favorite form of movement: hatha yoga, which is a practice of connecting your breath and your mind – the body automatically follows.

I challenge you to make the commitment to yourself and your body to intentionally move for 20 to 30 minutes every day. Your life literally depends on it! Find something that resonates with you and make it part of your wellness routine. Your body will thank you for this.

This article was first published on ProHealth.com on December 20, 2018 and was updated on February 5, 2021.

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By Lisa Adams

Lisa Adams is nurse, Health and Wellness Coach and Certified Flowtrition Practitioner. She has combined over 25 years of experience as a registered nurse with training in Flowtrition and health education to provide her clients with the most comprehensive and holistic approach to preventive healthcare and wellness. Lisa believes that wellness starts from within and that if we trust in our body’s ability to heal as it is designed, amazing things happen. She also believes that optimal health is achieved in a multi-system approach that includes not only physical wellbeing, but also mental and emotional wellbeing. Lisa’s passion and objective in coaching is to increase awareness in individuals about the way their body functions and especially how it responds to stress.

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