Use It and Improve it!

By Dubuque Physical Therapy Team

June 30, 2021

Written by Anne Kruse, PT, DPT, Therapeutic Pain Specialist, Cert. MDT

As I reflect on my own physical fitness over the years I am amazed at how true what I learned years ago in school really is. One of the phrases I have heard and now use is:

“If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

I distinctly recall the first time I found this phrase applied to me. During my first year of PT school I had settled into a routine of little to no exercise. The following summer a friend asked me to run the Bix 7 Road Race with her. I thought, “Sure, I was on the track team in high school and ran some in college, this will be fun.”

Little did I realize how completely out of shape I had become and the seven mile race was absolutely brutal. I must confess I walked the majority of it. That was a wake up call and I began to make a concerted effort to exercise a few times a week; walking with friends after class, playing an occasional game of racquetball, lifting weights, etc.

Why Not Me?

Fast forward to the spring of 2018. As my husband and I sat in the stands of Drake stadium watching our sons compete in the Drake Relays, I had another awakening. I was amazed as I watched an elderly gentleman take to the track and compete in the Masters 800. While his time didn’t break any records, he was out there doing it and clearly having fun. Yet again I had become too busy in my own life to exercise regularly, and yet this is what I teach people every day. With the support of my family and friends, I returned to running, ugly as it was. I found it challenging to even run a half mile initially, but have grown to really appreciate running as a means of exercising, relaxing, and spending time with my family and friends.

Why do I share this tale?


Because we are all human and have times in our lives when our own wellness plans get derailed. But fortunately, as humans, we also have an amazing ability to improve our wellness. In recent years I have learned the phrase, “Use it and improve it” and this holds true with all of our bodily systems.

What Does the Research Say?

In 1966, the Dallas Bed Rest and Training Study was conducted in which five healthy 20 year old male volunteers were recruited to spend the summer in bed. The cardiovascular fitness levels of the participants was measured before beginning the study.

After just three weeks in bed, without any weight bearing activity, the participants were found to have had such significant declines in their cardiovascular fitness that the bed rest was stopped.

On average the participants had a:

  • 27% decline in their ability to absorb and use oxygen
  • 26% decline in the amount of blood their hearts could pump through their bodies in a minute
  • 35 point increase in heart rate during a submaximal workout

To complete the study, the participants were taken through an eight week workout program.

  • 45% increase in their ability to use oxygen
  • 40% increase in the amount of blood their hearts pumped through their bodies in a minute
  • 49 point decrease in heart rate with a submaximal workout
Hmm, working out improved their heart and vascular system function to better than they were before the study.

But wait, there is more!

The same five participants were studied 30 years later (1996). Only two had continued to exercise and all had gained weight and body fat. At baseline it was found they on average had only declined 12% in their ability to absorb and use oxygen.

Thus, three weeks of bed rest at age 20 was more detrimental to their cardiovascular fitness than 30 years of aging.


Compared to the original study, there was no bed rest, but a training program was begun. In 1996 the training was less intense and involved walking, jogging and cycling over a period of six months instead of eight weeks based on the age of the participants and to reduce the risk of injury. After the training program, the participants had improved their ability to absorb and use oxygen by 14% to similar levels attained in the 1966 study.

Wow! Ok, but why do I care?

So, the take home point is this: no matter where you find yourself in life, it is important to your health to move. Whatever you choose to do, be it walk, jog, bike, or swim, have fun and realize you are helping to reverse the effects of inactivity and aging and are improving your cardiovascular fitness. If you find yourself needing some guidance, consult your physician, PT or personal trainer.

Now get out there and “Use it and improve it!”