Many of us this time of year are preparing to make our New Year’s resolutions, two of which always seems to be lose weight and get in shape. Which got me to thinking…How long does it actually take to get out of shape? Now many of us has skipped the occasional workout–you just need to be careful that two days don’t turn into four, then eight, then twelve, etc…Before you realize it, you’re thinking to yourself “hmmm…just how long does it take to lose my fitness?”
Now, one important thing to realize is that taking some time off every so often is not a bad thing–we know that exercise inflicts a degree of stress on the body and any decent workout program should include preplanned rest days, even more so if the exercise is extremely intense. And there’s a benefit to both complete rest and active recovery. But we still mainly go by the “use it or lose it” theory! Although exactly the amount of fitness you’ll “lose” depends on the length of your break as well as just how fit you were to begin with.
If you are relatively new to exercise
We know that consistency is key when it comes to getting fit. And if you’ve slacked off for whatever reason, it’s much easier to lose the progress that you had made.
As far as losing strength goes, it appears that we maintain our eccentric (lengthening the muscle or lowering the weight) strength longer than our concentric (shortening the muscle or raising the weight) strength.
Cardio appears a little more sensitive to time off. One research study on detraining on recently acquired fitness gains found that VO2 max gains that were made in the last two months were completely lost after four weeks of inactivity.
If you exercise regularly
If you exercise on a regular basis (several times a week for more than a year), then you should have good muscle memory. As a matter of fact, with that dedication, scientists are even willing to put you in the “athlete” category. Still, fitness can deteriorate at different rates depending on whether you’re looking at strength losses or cardiovascular losses.
Most people lose strength gains after two-and-a-half to three weeks of inactivity. This is especially true if you’re sick, because your body is overstressed. But if you’re not sick and you’re able to get in some movement and light exercise, you can probable take anywhere from 3-5 weeks without significant strength loss. And science seems to agree, as Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise looked at runners, rowers, and power athletes–and found that for each of these groups, muscular strength fibers do not appear to change, even after a month of inactivity. But here’s the interesting part–while general strength doesn’t change much during that timeframe, specialized, sport-specific muscle fibers do start to change in as little as two weeks without a workout. So in a nutshell, the body likes to hold onto strength for as long as it can, but skills that are very specialized for certain sports will decline at a much faster rate!
Well, we lose cardio conditioning a little quicker than we lose muscular strength. But on the plus side, it’s easier to regain.
What about other factors?
While your fitness level is primary to how quickly you get back to your fitness baseline, there are a few other factors that come into play. Number one is age–there have been numerous studies that show that people who were 65 to 75 years old lost strength almost twice as fast as individuals in the 20 to 30 age group. And number two? Why you are taking an exercise break is also a factor. Those individuals who suffered from the stress of trauma or illness displayed a 28% decrease in strength over 28 days, much higher than the average person.
So what can you do if you need to take a fitness break?
Luckily, you do have options on how to stay strong during downtime , whether you’re lying on the couch with a respiratory infection or taking a relaxing vacation.
1) Incorporate some resistance training–If for some reason you experience a localized injury, such as a sprained wrist or ankle, try not to use it as an excuse to stop exercising completely. If you can, try cross-training through injuries. Try some bodyweight exercises, or try some swimming if you are able. Performing light, dynamic warmups are a good way to help keep the body from getting too stiff and to slow the loss of mobility without placing too much additional stress on an overstressed body. However, if you have flu-like symptoms–fever, muscle aches, congestion–then the best thing is most likely rest!
2) Eat right–Make sure you eat lots of protein, low GI carbs, and healthy fats. Proper diet will prevent you from gaining weight, which certainly would make restarting fitness that much more challenging. Also for consideration is raw honey for its antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, as well as garlic to lessen the severity of cold symptoms if you’re under the weather.
3) Perform light cardio–Certainly training a little will help maintain your gains better than totally stopping, even if that simply means taking brisk walks. If you can work some short intervals in, even better!
4) Love yourself–Don’t be too hard on yourself–it serves no positive purpose if you lapse into self-loathing, just because you took a little time off. It’s fairly unlikely the gym will be going anywhere, so do what makes you happy. If you need to take a step back and see what life is like without exercising so much, then do it!
Do you or someone you know have questions on how to get started with a fitness program? Call my office at once at (302)691-9055 or visit my website at www.wildermanphysicaltherapy.com to schedule your FREE 30 minute consultation to see how Physical Therapy can help. Don’t delay–schedule now