It can be easy to feel like your fitness has gone straight back to square one after a break for a holiday or busy schedule. But how long does it really take to lose strength after some time away from training?
Over the past few months, we’ve been staycationing, attending countless weddings and making the most of those open pub gardens, which means our fitness routines have been a little stop-start.
Even if you keep active on your holidays, going back to the gym after a break always ends up feeling like a slog – both mentally and physically. But what is actually happening to your body when you skip your usual training for a few days (or weeks or months)?
How long does it take you to lose strength and fitness?
The good news is that not a lot really changes with a few days off, so a short break isn’t going to stunt your progress. “There’s no fixed time period and it will relate to how fit or strong you were at the start, how regularly you exercise, how long you take off, and your age,” says GP and exercise specialist Folusha Oluwajana.
“It will take around two to six weeks of not doing your usual lifting routine for you to notice a difference in strength,” she says. “Cardiovascular fitness tends to be lost quicker. So if you’re a regular runner, you will probably notice that you struggle to run as far or fast after even just a week, but probably around two weeks.”
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The reason is because “fitness is a ‘use it or lose it’ thing. If your body’s not being stimulated to utilise oxygen efficiently or recruit muscle fibres then it won’t until you tell it to do that again.”
It may not seem like it, but we very rarely take time off to lie on the sofa and do absolutely nothing. While you might not be sticking to your usual routines, by walking, swimming, dancing or even doing a hotel workout on holiday, you’re keeping your fitness levels up and extending the amount of time it takes to lose progress.
So how come we often feel totally incapable of working out when coming back from a week away if our muscles haven’t actually got weaker or smaller? There may be some physical reasons, such as slower neural pathways. “It’s like a dance – your body needs to remember the rhythm, and if you practise it everyday you can do it without thinking about it,” explains Dr Oluwajana. “Your muscle fibres are recruited by your neurological system to produce force. If you don’t do that for a while, your body has to remember how to recruit the same muscle fibres and you have to ‘turn on’ that activation process again. But it does get turned on very quickly.”
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Should you exercise on holiday?
However, a lot of the reason you struggle with post-break training is probably because of the pressure you put on yourself to get back to it. “There is probably a psychological element, so if you’re worried about losing strength or fitness and you’re nervous about going back after some time off, your mindset is going to impact your performance,” says Dr Oluwajana. “Then there are other things in your lifestyle that affect performance, like sleep quality, nutrition and hydration. If you’ve not been looking after yourself at your optimal in the preceding days or weeks, that might affect how you feel in your training.”
And don’t forget, getting back to the gym often coincides with a return to work and normal life. “These other stressors are going to impact your training because your body’s ability to produce energy and recover is completely entwined with your stress levels,” Dr Oluwajana adds.
How long does it take to get fit again after a break?
It’s easier to get your fitness levels back to where they were than it is to build them from scratch, says Dr Oluwajana. By that, she means three months of progress won’t take another three months to get back – phew. “If you were at a certain level of fitness or strength, then your body will already have those systems, genes and pathways there in their memory – they just need to be remembered,” she says.
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“I wouldn’t worry about taking a few days or weeks off for your strength gains, unless you’re an athlete. The hardest thing for you will just be getting back into a routine. If you’re trying to get back into cardiovascular exercise,you should feel like you’re back to where you were after two weeks or so.”
The hardest bit will probably be the mindset. Rather than kicking yourself for feeling tired or lacking the ability you once had, stick with your training through those uncomfortable few weeks and you’ll be back to where you were.
Is it OK to take time off of exercise?
Taking time off can actually be hugely beneficial. “A healthy lifestyle is one that includes rest and enjoyment,” says Dr Oluwajana. “Overtraining or not taking rest can actually limit your progress. People who train regularly, whether it’s cardio or strength training, do need weeks where they reduce their training load, volume or intensity so the body can reset before starting another phase of training. Often it’s a great idea to synchronise that with a week off of work or on holiday.”
Even if you’re not getting away but are just busy, tired or stressed, taking a few days off is normal and necessary. Even if you need longer off, say for an injury that requires a few weeks or months to heal, you shouldn’t feel guilty for what our body needs. You can also find other ways to be active and feel good so that going back to your training isn’t a complete shock to the system.
“If you’re worried about taking time off, you probably should look at why you’re exercising in the first place. A week off isn’t going to have a significant impact on the 52 weeks of work you put in, just as one week of working out won’t hugely impact how much you can lift or run,” reminds Dr Oluwajana.
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