It happens to the best of us: You went on a two-week beach vacation and barely got up off your beach chair the entire time. Or, you wound up with a bad knee injury and were sidelined from the gym for a month.
In a perfect world, we’d all exercise 365 days out of the year, but the truth is, we’re human. Life sometimes gets in the way of our workout plans, and you know what? That’s totally okay.
It’s safe to say that losing hard-earned muscle mass is every fitness devotee’s worst nightmare. So how long does it truly take until you fall out of shape? The answer to that question depends on a number of factors, including how long you’ve been training, your level of fitness, and how long you take off. In general, though, detraining (which is a fancy way of saying “getting out of shape”) typically takes longer than you might think, so don’t stress too much about skipping the gym every now and then.
If you’ve logged more time on the couch than you have in the gym lately, how much damage will it really do? How long before you’re (gulp) back where you started? We’re here to set the record straight.
After one week off…
Heading to the Caribbean for a week? Don’t sweat it. Taking a week off from the gym is highly unlikely to affect physical performance, experts say. In fact, it may just make you fitter. Many bodybuilders strategically schedule recovery weeks in order to propel muscle-building gains; they call it “deloading.” As we’ve discussed before, ample recovery time is crucial to seeing progress—downtime can repair tissue damage, erase muscle fatigue, and strengthen the heart and other muscles. So embrace your week of laziness, and when you get back to the gym, you’ll be raring to go
After two weeks off….
Good news for body builders, bad news for runners: Aerobic fitness tends to slide faster than muscular strength. This is because your maximal oxygen uptake, or VO2 max, the prime measure of your aerobic fitness, declines after about two weeks of inactivity by about twenty percent. Muscles, on the other hand, are resilient, so they won’t atrophy as quickly. So after two weeks off, you might notice that your usual four-mile run seems more grueling and challenging than before, but you can still lift with the same intensity.
In general, though, a two-week break shouldn’t sabotage your progress too much. In fact, taking a brief hiatus might just be what the doctor ordered. Remember, muscles grow stronger after you workout, not during, so a recovery period might give fatigued muscles and tendons a chance to grow and repair.
After more than two weeks off…
Not to be the bearer of bad news, but taking more than two weeks off will begin to chip away at your progress, research shows. At this point, cardiovascular endurance levels will continue to plummet, and muscular strength will start to decline, too. A study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that muscular fiber strength doesn’t decrease too much, even after a month of inactivity. The catch? Specialized muscle fibers—a.k.a. fast-twitch or slow-twitch muscle fibers—begin to change after two weeks of inactivity, so you will be less efficient at sprinting or endurance runs.
When you do return to the gym, you’ll have to scale back the intensity and ease your way back into your normal workout routine. But keep your chin up: If you were in good shape to begin with, you should be able to return to baseline fitness levels at a faster rate than someone who’s just starting out.
Bottom line? If you need to take a week or two off from your workout routine, don’t stress too much. If you’ve been working out hardcore for months, even years, you probably deserve a little training vacay. And remember, don’t have an “all or nothing” mentality! Even if you’re in a position where you can’t do your normal workout routine, seize the small, everyday opportunities to move more. Take the stairs, go on a leisurely walk, or even fidget more while sitting. After all, some exercise is better than nothing. When you finally do get back to your normal routine, hop back on that horse, cowboy!