Even the best workout habits can get derailed due to injury, illness, or too many nights spent on the couch, binge-watching Netflix. So what’s actually going on in your body when you take a break from the gym? Should you even bother trying to be healthy after two straight days of Homeland?
One day: No change
Unfortunately, it takes very little time to lose the benefits of exercise once you stop, Weiss says, even for people with longtime workout habits. The good news is that you won’t lose muscle mass or endurance after one, or even three, days away from the gym. This is the perfect reminder that rest days are an important part of a healthy workout routine. Just don’t take too many of them.
One week: The danger zone
According to Mrozek, once you start approaching a week off, it gets harder and harder to come back to the gym because the workout habit may have been broken. To make matters worse, your mood may take a dive due to a lack of endorphins, which isn’t exactly a motivating factor.
Two weeks: Physical performance is significantly reduced
This is when you start to see real losses. Weiss warns that within two to three weeks, you can expect to lose as much as two to three pounds of lean muscle mass, as well as 25% to 30% of your speed, endurance, and strength.
Backing up Weiss’s claim is a study in the Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine, which revealed that young men lose significant muscle strength when they stop working out, even if they were previously in good shape.
And it’s not as though you’re going to be a tiny bit weaker: “A young man who is immobilized for two weeks loses muscular strength in his leg equivalent to aging by 40 or 50 years," researcher Andreas Vigelsoe stated in a press release. Yikes!
The domino effect
You can’t have the muscle mass of a much older person without seeing declines in other bodily systems, creating a domino effect that pushes your body into further disrepair. When you have less muscle, your cardiac output is reduced. Because your cardiac output is reduced, your aerobic system is affected, so you have less energy. Blood pressure levels rise slightly. Your sense of balance isn’t as good, and even your brain doesn’t work as well.
“Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a major brain protein, is decreased, which may lead to an increased chance of depression,” Weiss says. “Dopamine levels drop, which may stimulate anxiety, depression and other mood/behavior shifts, as well as cause a sense of tiredness and fatigue that reduces the impetus to exercise.”
In other words, the less you exercise, the less you want to exercise. You’ll find it hard to motivate yourself to work out, and if you try, you’ll be more easily winded, and basic exercises will require more energy. That’s how two sedentary weeks turn into three or four, and your physical health really tumbles off a cliff.
Two months: Things are getting flabby
Now is when you’ll start looking like the “Before” picture in a diet supplement advertisement. “After six to eight weeks, the fat mass can get greater than lean mass, causing the waistline to get bigger,” according to Weiss. Only two months! “Men usually get the increase in fat in the abdomen, while women add more mass in the lower body.”
Within a month or two of inactivity, Mrozek says, all the gains you’ve achieved through a consistent exercise routine are lost. And just like that, you fall back in with the ranks of the physically unfit.
Getting back on the wagon
When you’re ready to resume your exercise habit (good for you!), proceed with caution, and don’t try to resume the level of physical activity you were accustomed to before the break. Doing so is a recipe for injury. Because you haven’t been exercising, your tissues haven’t been receiving as much oxygen, warns Mrozek. “If you put the same amount of weight on at the weight room, that will cause an injury to the tendons, ligaments and joints,” she says.
Both of our experts agreed that it can take three times as long to get back into shape as it did to fall out of shape. So if you stopped working out for two weeks, expect it to take six weeks before you return to your previous fitness level, which is a pretty good incentive not to go too long without exercise in the first place.
Thankfully, it’s possible to gradually recover the strength, balance, endurance, and recovery ability you’ve lost. Moving forward, remember Weiss’s maxim when it comes to fitness: “Use it or lose it.”
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Scared straight, Missy Wilkinson went for a bike ride immediately after writing this piece.