No matter how dedicated you are to fitness, sooner or later, it’s going to happen: You’re going to skip a workout… and another… and another. Maybe you can blame a vacation, a mile-high pile of paperwork at the office or just your run-of-the-mill funk. Whatever the reason, before you know it, you’re out of shape.
Neglecting the gym every once in a while is nothing to worry about — after all, sometimes your body needs to rest and recover. But, when you hit pause on your workouts for more than a week, you might actually be throwing your fitness level into rewind.
HOW FAST WILL YOU FALL OUT OF SHAPE?
You worked hard to get fit, whether by logging regular runs, or striving for new personal bests in your bench press. When your workouts fall by the wayside, how fast you fall out of shape depends on more than just how much time you spent away from the gym. Your overall fitness and the type of workout you’re missing will also impact your losses, says James Ting, M.D., a board-certified sports medicine physician with the Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, CA.
As a general rule, the fitter you are, the longer it will take your muscles turn to flub, he says. Your physique doesn’t like change; it’s constantly trying to achieve homeostasis. So the longer you have been exercising (and the fitter you are), the more time it will take for your body to say, “Well, I guess we don’t need to build muscle any more.”
If it’s only been a week since you broke a sweat, don’t stress. Whatever your workout history, it’ll take more than seven days for your body to soften. But two weeks? You might not get away with that as easily. One Journal of Applied Physiology study suggests that easing up on your workouts for just 14 days can significantly reduce your cardiovascular fitness, lean muscle mass, and insulin sensitivity. Meanwhile, it can take two months or longer to see complete losses of your fitness gains, according to Ting.
ENDURANCE VS. STRENGTH: WHICH WILL YOU LOSE?
Your body will react differently depending on whether you’re skipping endurance exercise versus strength training, says exercise physiologist and trainer Marta Montenegro, M.S., C.S.C.S.
That’s because your muscles contain both type I (slow-twitch) and type II (fast-twitch) muscle fibers. Type I fibers contribute to endurance performance. Type II fibers are more powerful, and their “fast-twitch” capabilities help you power through high-intensity exercise or strength training.During your day-to-day activities (like walking, talking, sitting at a desk, etc.), your type I fibers are contributing to the bulk of your efforts. But you really have to work to get your type II fibers to switch into gear. So, when you take a break from exercise, your type I fibers are likely still being used, helping to prevent them from breaking down. But some of your type II, fast-twitch fibers may be rarely, if ever used, if you aren’t working out, she says.That may explain why type II fibers tend to atrophy more quickly than type I fibers, she says. In other words, your max bench press will suffer before your 10K time does when you’re slacking. If you’re taking a break from strength work or high-intensity intervals, you’ll notice a huge difference when you finally do go back to the gym.
BREAKS AREN’T ALL BAD
Before we terrify you into heading to the gym right now, know that it’s actually good for you to skip workouts from time to time. In fact, if you train hard , taking a break can actually help improve your strength, muscle development and aerobic fitness.
Days off can also improve your mental fitness. “Your body and mind both need time to recover for overall health and in order to achieve optimal performance,” says Ting. “Failing to recognize this and training too hard can lead to fatigue and, ironically, underperformance, the so-called overtraining syndrome.”
HOW TO JUMP BACK INTO YOUR WORKOUTS
Depending on how long you took off — and lazy you were — you might not want to jump back into your workouts, but rather ease into them. If you’ve taken any more than a couple weeks off, you’ll probably notice some differences. After a month or more, you’ll definitely want to get started with a less-intense version of your regular workout, Ting says.
“The most important thing is to back off a little for the first week,” Schoenfeld says. “Choose a weight where you will be able to stop several reps short of failure on your sets. The following week you should be able to train at your previous level, assuming the reason for stopping wasn’t an illness or injury.” Meanwhile, if you’re getting back into running, start at a pace at which you can run comfortably and are able to speak in short sentences. After a week, try turning up the speed.
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