Fitness influencers make it seem like they never take a day off. Before you give yourself a hard time for skipping a few workouts, give yourself a break. It’s been a hell of a year: Your gym might still be closed, online workouts may not have been motivating enough or you simply didn’t have space or time to workout. Whatever the reason, first give yourself kudos for trying to get back into the swing of things. Next, take a breath: You’ll find from the pros that you don’t necessarily need to stress out if you’ve missed a few days of working out. Actually, it could even be a good thing. We’re here to help you figure it out:
Can I get out of shape when I skip a weekend workout?
Short answer: No—enjoy!
Let’s dig deeper: “The first three to five days after taking time off, often called tapering, is never a bad thing,” says Zachary K. Winkelmann Ph.D., SCAT, ATC, a clinical assistant professor of exercise science at the University of South Carolina.
Tapering is a very common practice for professional swimmers and marathon runners to train hard for weeks and months but then rest for a few days before a race. “The tapering period allows muscle damage from training to heal,” he says.
What’s happening to your muscles and body during the recovery process?
Short answer: They’re rebuilding proteins and tissue.
Let’s dig deeper: “Your body is attempting to recover from the stress that was just applied to be able to overcome that stress in the future. Exercise leads to an increase in endocrine response (growth hormone, insulin-like growth factor, cortisol, etc.) in order to help the body adapt and synthesize new protein within the tissue leading to muscle growth,” says Justin Goins, Ph.D., SCAT, ATC, CSCS, a clinical assistant professor of exercise science at the University of South Carolina. When you’re recovering from a workout, your body is replacing important resources like water, carbohydrates and electrolytes that were lost during your workout. “Without the recovery process, the available sources of energy are severely at risk, which makes you more vulnerable for future injury or illness,” says Winkelmann.
What is the maximum number of days or weeks you can take off before “losing” shape?
Short answer: Around two or three weeks.
Let’s dig deeper: It really depends on your age and your existing diet and fitness level. “As we get older, the aerobic capacity begins to dwindle throughout life,” says Winkelmann. But in general, “you will not notice a substantial aerobic fitness decline until around two to three weeks with declines continuing for up to three months. After this point, your abilities are back to their baseline without training. So, taking a few days off is good for you. After two weeks of rest, you will notice the changes.” Also, the more active you naturally are in your day to day, the longer it would take you to get out of shape. For instance, for most people who work desk jobs, those couple of weeks will make a fast difference. But, if you are constantly on your feet for your gig (like a technician), it can be a month before you see a significant decrease in your performance. It’s important to note that “detraining does appear to occur faster with aerobic capacity than it does for muscular strength. This is because even though you stop resistance training, you’re still using your muscles for everyday activities. While aerobic capacity does appear to decrease after approximately two weeks, strength seems to be more dependent on training status and ranges from four to six weeks,” says Goins.
Why is recovery from working out important?
Short answer: You’ll prevent injury and muscle fatigue, plus improve your endurance.
Let’s dig deeper: “Recovery from exercise and athletic activity has a two-fold benefit, including the physiological process of nutrition and hydration replacement, allowing the body to cool and recover, health benefits through reducing muscle soreness, while also providing a psychological benefit through relaxation and stress reduction,” says Winkelmann. “When exercising, you are applying a stress to the tissue/cells in order for them to adapt. It is necessary to provide an optimal environment for cells to recover from the stress applied. If the body can’t adapt, injury and or overtraining can occur,” adds Goin.
What’s the ideal number of days to take a rest between workouts?
Short answer: It depends on your age, how intense you’re training and what type of exercise you’re doing.
Let’s dig deeper: Obviously everyone’s workout routine and personal fitness levels are different. “You should get at least 150 minutes of exercise per week, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (anything that gets your heart rate up),” says Winkelmann. But that doesn’t mean you should spend hours a day working out just to take a couple of days off. “I would recommend activity daily in a comfortable range that totals around five to six hours per week. It will depend on the person how they wish to disperse that time.When you’re strength or resistance training, the general guidelines are to rest at least one day but no more than three days between sessions that work the same muscle(s). It is really important for the person to pay attention to how they feel and what their body is telling them,” says Goins.
Does taking time off mean you completely avoid working out?
Short answer: No, but it could be good for mental health.
Let’s dig deeper: How you decide to rest is completely up to how you feel and the type of workouts you’re doing. “If you are alternating between aerobic exercise and resistance training, or upper body and lower body exercises, etc., then you may not have a full ‘rest’ day, but just a different focus for the day,” says Goins. “At some points, we also must explore our mental health to see if we need a full day of relaxation and activity shutdown. The process of working out can become addictive to some, so we must be mindful if the drive for health and fitness is taking over our mental state,” says Winkelmann.
Can you simply pick back up where you left off after a fitness hiatus?
Short answer: It’s best to ease back into it to prevent injury.
Let’s dig deeper: We get that it can be a little disheartening to start back from the beginning, overworking your body with back-to-back fitness sessions after a long break won’t magically bring you back to where you were before.
Whether you’re building muscle or working on cardio endurance, “returning back to activity after a period of time off should always be gradual,” says Winkelmann. Strength training will involve “an appropriate level of progression with the following: stabilization endurance, muscular endurance, muscular hypertrophy, muscular strength, and power,” says Goins. This means, for example, “you want to make sure you can maintain joint/core stability before moving into more isotonic resistance training.”
When it comes to cardio, “I would suggest creating a five to seven day period to acclimate yourself back to workout,” says Winkelmann. That could look something like 15 minutes of running on day one, then building up to 20 minutes the next.
Plus, easing back into things means you decrease the chance of injuring yourself. Otherwise, “there is a risk of a condition called exertional rhabdomyolysis or ‘rhabdo,’ which is characterized by the breakdown of damaged skeletal muscle. When this happens, myoglobin is released into your blood which if the levels become too high can cause kidney failure. This condition is often linked back to high-intensity exercise at a very fast pace that involves repetitive motions or new exercises for people who are not conditioned or new to the workout,” says Winkelmann.
Does muscle turn into fat when you stop exercising?
Short answer: No, though it can seem that way!
Let’s dig deeper: When you stop working out, suddenly it might feel like some extra cushion has taken over all the areas you’ve lost muscle, but your muscles haven’t turned into fat. “Muscle typically atrophies (meaning, it gets smaller) with inactivity. There is often an increase in subcutaneous fat due to a change in activity level and an imbalance in the calories consumed versus the calories being used for energy. People may think muscle turns into fat because these events commonly occur together: The decrease in activity causes the muscle to atrophy and also your diet may not have changed so the extra energy is stored as fat,” says Goins.
With additional reporting by Lindsay Tigar.
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