If you've ever taken a break from your regular workout routine, you know how difficult it can be to get back into it. When you re-enter the gym it can feel just like you are starting all over again from the beginning. The struggle is real! But just how much did this break derail your fitness goals? How long does your break need to be before you start to undo all of your hard work?
We all know that life gets in the way sometimes and skipping a workout is unavoidable. But just so you can keep everything in perspective, here is a breakdown of everything that happens to your body when you take a short (or long) break from the gym.
Skipping workouts for a few days won't do too much.
Actually, your body may even benefit from a little break. “For most people that are exercising regularly and have a moderate to solid conditioning level [you work out four to six times a week], a week off is an opportunity to take a break and refresh the mind and body,” says Cris Dobrosielski C.S.C.S., C.P.T., consultant and spokesperson for American Council on Exercise and founder of Monumental Results Inc. Unless these missed workouts turn into a real trend, you don't really have to worry about falling out of shape. The biggest threat to your fitness routine after a week long break comes in the mental department. “For the beginner, the routine of exercise is a huge key, and for this person getting motivated after a week off might be more difficult,” says Steve Ball, Ph.D., state specialist and associate professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri. “Some quit and never start again.” Remember, you've just hit the pause button-- you can get going again!
After a two week break, however, aerobic conditioning starts to take a serious nose dive.
When you do aerobic exercise, you are working your heart and lungs. “VO2 max basically measures a person’s capacity to take in, transport, and then use oxygen during exercise,” explains Tara Plusch, senior registered clinical exercise physiologist at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Rusk Rehabilitation. When you train often, your heart and lungs become incredible efficient at delivering blood and oxygen to your body during a workout, increasing your VO2 max.
When you stop training, your VO2 max, and your heart's ability to efficiently pump blood, starts to decline. The rate in which this happens varies from person to person but after around two weeks, you will start to notice a difference. “It’s been shown in endurance athletes that by four weeks [of inactivity] there’s a 20 percent decrease in VO2,” Plusch says. “There are studies that show even at the 12-day mark, there’s a seven percent decrease in VO2 max.”
For the average gym goer, the experts say you will start to notice these changes as early as 10 days after you last worked out.
Detraining isn't as noticeable in strength training.
There is plenty of research out there about losing muscle mass and most of it is contradictory. This is because your rates of loss will vary depending on your age, gender, and your beginning muscle mass. If you are a regular exerciser who lifts a few times a week, taking a break won't cause too much of a loss. “Strength and muscle mass change very little in a couple of weeks, so not a lot happens,” Dobrosielski says. “A person who has put on a significant amount of muscle mass can go anywhere from four to ten weeks and still might look good, and come back and perform reasonably well.” Muscle declines are less substantial than cardiovascular declines.
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But, if you feel weaker when you return to the gym, that is totally normal. Ease back into your lifting routine. Your mind and muscle have been confused by the break, if you feel less confident and out of step with what you normally do, be patient with yourself.
The fitter you are, the sooner you will see decline. BUT, the less likely you are to end up back at square one.
When you are fit, your body is used to a consistent high level of training and you will notice declines much faster than someone who works out irregularly. “The more highly trained runner will see some aerobic drop off in those first one to three weeks,” Dobrosielski says. But it isn't all bad news! The good news is that after that initial decline, the losses will be more gradual than they'd be for a beginner. In fact, these losses will likely plateau after 4-6 weeks. Factors like age and gender can impact the rate of your detraining. Studies have shown that older women, for example, lose muscle mass more quickly than other age groups.
It is better to fit in a few short, high-intensity workouts than to skip it completely.
If you can fit in a workout, even a short one, it is better than doing nothing. You may not be resetting yourself back to zero, but the losses can still be significant. An aerobically fit athlete can experience a 25% decline from their prime in just a matter of a few months, says Ball. “Typically the longer the break the greater the effect. Also it often takes longer to get it back than the time you took off," he says.
So instead of skipping your workouts completely for a few weeks or months, up the intensity on whatever you have time to do! “If you’re squeezed for time, just work a little harder on the days you’re able to go to the gym,” Dobrosielski suggests.
At the end of the day, you should be aiming for a workout routine that you can sustain over time. A workout routine that fits your life. If you need to adjust things now and again to make it work, that's fine. Just make sure you bounce back to your regular routine as soon as possible.
Have you noticed major changes in your body when you take a break from the gym? Share your story with us.