It’s a familiar story: you start a fitness regimen, see results, then life happens.
It could be a long summer vacation, an unexpected illness, or an influx of work – but how does our body react to these unplanned breaks?
And, most importantly, how do we bounce back and regain our hard-earned fitness after one without incurring an injury?
Our fitness level before a break determines how fast it will decline.
The first thing we lose is metabolic fitness, which affects how our bodies produce and use energy. There’s a lot involved in being metabolically healthy, from what our bodies do with food (metabolism rate) to how they deal with sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, and fat.
Cardiovascular fitnessnext. It generally starts to wane in as little as two weeks – with VO2 max, a measure of oxygen consumption during exercise, seeing a drastic decline within just a month of inactivity
Our blood volume, mitochondrial density, lactate threshold, and many other aspects crucial to our fitness journey also dip the longer we refrain from regular movement – whether that is due to injury, lifestyle changes, or a more sedentary job.
Our bodies operate on a use-it-or-lose-it basis and any adaptations that result from regular both endurance and resistance training will be reversed when training stops or the body is forced into prolonged bed rest and/or immobilization by casts.
Muscle strength and its resilience to periods of inactivity remain even when we haven’t trained for weeks. While cardiovascular capacities such as VO2 max decline quickly, our muscles possess impressive resilience. When training is interrupted, they can retain most of their strength for up to 3 weeks.
With just one intense session per week, it is also possible to maintain muscle strength during a longer break.
Those who take long-term breaks can still retain half of their muscle strength a year later if they remain moderately active, although there are muscle groups that decondition more quickly than others.
As a rule, muscles with more fast twitch muscle fibres de-condition faster than those with more slow muscle fibers – so your quads and arms will likely deteriorate faster than your calf muscles.
Prolonged Inactivity and Its Impact
The effects of prolonged inactivity, such as extended bed rest due to illness or injury, are comparable to what astronauts experience in zero-gravity space. Extended periods of inactivity result in major decreases in cardiorespiratory function, changes in metabolism leading to conditions like glucose intolerance, and notable reductions in muscle protein and even with time, bone mass.
For perspective, after just 10 days of bed rest, the body can experience a 15% decline in VO2 max, which will ramp up to 27% by the third week.
Bone density is the most tenacious of all – and while a month of bed rest might lead to a 10-20% reduction in muscle size, bone mineral density will probably only decrease by 0.3-3%.
The good news is that once regular activities are resumed, all these scary declines in cardio, metabolism, and muscle function usually recover fairly quickly (within a few days or weeks). However, bone density, which takes weeks or months to rebuild after loss, is the slowest to recover.
The Individual Variable
The speed at which we “lose physical fitness” differs from person to person. While some people might maintain fitness after a week or two without training, others might experience a decrease in their physical abilities within the same timeframe.
This variability is largely dependent on factors like a person’s current level of fitness, how long they’ve been training, and even their genetic makeup.
For those who have been in the fitness game for years or even decades, a short break might not be detrimental. They might witness a rapid initial decline, but they often don’t plummet to the same levels as newcomers to exercise.
This is because the body retains neural efficiency and cellular changes from previous training when exercising after a break, which allows the body to regain muscle more quickly due to “muscle memory.”
How to Regain Fitness After a Break
When we exercise consistently, our muscles adapt and improve in various ways. One such improvement is an increase in mitochondrial enzyme activity. Mitochondria are the “powerhouses” of our cells, producing energy required for cellular activity. Consistent exercise can increase the activity of mitochondrial enzymes, enhancing our overall fitness.
When you take a break from exercising, this enzyme activity starts to decline again, and in just 12 days without training the increased enzyme activity seen during peak fitness can be reduced by half.
For those who’ve taken a hiatus and are ready to dive back into the exercise, here are some sensible and actionable steps:
-Start Slowly: Don’t jump into your old routine immediately. Ease into it to prevent injury and burnout.
-Maintain Intensity: As mentioned earlier, keeping up the intensity can help in quicker recovery.
-Cross-train: Engage in various forms of exercise to challenge and prepare your body holistically.
-Stay Hydrated and Eat Right: Nutrition plays a significant role in recovery and regaining fitness.
-Be Consistent: It’s easy to get discouraged. Remember why you started and stick to it.
-Seek Support: Whether it’s a workout buddy or a trainer, having someone can motivate and guide you.
-Take Breaks: Rest breaks are essential for maintaining fitness and fatigue and improve concentration. They also give the body a chance to recover and rebuild allow time for byproducts to clear that could otherwise build up too fast and prevent you from continuing your workout.
Reignite Your Exercise Flame
Sometimes, we really have no choice but to take a bodies are incredibly adaptable, and with commitment, patience, and the right mindset, almost anyone can get back into shape and even surpass their previous fitness levels.