If you are like me, it feels like it takes much longer to get in shape than it does to get out of it. How accurate is this feeling? Are we imagining it, or is it true that what we have worked so hard to build can be quickly lost? How long does it take to get out of shape?
The answer is actually not as straight forward as we might like it to be. It depends on a few factors. How long we have been working out, what kind of exercise we do, and even how old we are all are important factors regarding how quickly we lose our “fitness” level.
- How long have you been working out? If you are fairly new to fitness, it will likely not take that long to lose what you have started. If, however, you have been at it for a while (a year or longer), it might take longer than you think to lose your fitness level. “The period of detraining comes with a decrease in muscle capillary density, which in athletes can take place in 2-3 weeks. Muscle capillary density is the number of capillaries per unit cross-sectional area of muscle. Your Arterial-venous oxygen difference (how much oxygen is removed from the blood) would be unchanged after a short-term break but will decline if inactivity continues”, according to the website Azumio. The arterial- venous what? Basically it’s just the scientific way to say that, on average, we have about 2 and a half weeks before we begin to lose our fitness level when we take a break. Of course losing our total fitness would take a lot longer. Fortunately, like riding a bike, our bodies recall fitness easily and if we are consistent, can bounce back.
- What kind of exercise do you do? The type of exercise we do is also a factor in how long it takes us to get out of shape. If we do mainly cardio exercise, it will likely take a shorter period of time to lose fitness (about two weeks). While your cardio conditioning does fall faster than strength conditioning, it’s easier to regain, experts say. If you do more strength training, then it usually takes a longer time to lose fitness. This is because the body likes to hold onto strength for as long as it can. Some call it muscle memory, and it is one reason that a combination of cardio and strength, rather than just cardio, is a good idea. Someone who is used to regular strength and cardiovascular fitness can take a break up to two weeks before they start to lose the gains they have made in their fitness level.
- How old are you? Age is another contributing factor in our bounce back time. The older we are, the quicker our body loses its gains and the longer it takes to achieve them again. Sadly, this is just part of the natural aging process. When looking at 41 people who were either 20 to 30 years old or 65 to 75 years old, the older subjects in a recent study lost strength almost twice as fast as the younger subjects during a six-month “detraining” period. So as we get older, it might be better to try to maintain a fitness regimen that includes both cardio and strength, and is something that we can be consistent about.
We all take breaks from fitness. This is a good thing! (Check out this article from HuffPost about why serious athletes benefit from breaks). There are many reasons we might take a break. Things like illness or injury, a new baby, burn out, and even our schedules (or our children’s schedules) might cause us to take a break in our exercise routine. We should not worry if we have had to step away from fitness for a while. Keeping a positive attitude as we return to it is important. While we do lose fitness, we can be assured that it is not lost for good. It will return, and sometimes after a much needed break, it can return at an even higher level. .
What are some things we can try to do if we have to take a break?
- Try to do light cardio. Even a short walk every other day can maintain a low level of fitness. Try to get out when you can and do whatever small exercise you can.
- Incorporate light resistance training. If you have even small free weights (2-5 lbs.), you can do simple arm exercises to maintain a little strength. The internet is full of 3-7 minute workouts you can do for strength or cardio!
- Eat well. Sometimes when we take a break from exercise, we are more likely to eat better because we know we aren’t getting the fitness part. Eating a balanced diet with protein, low-fat (but good fat), and lots of fruits and veggies will go a long way to help us to feel good when we have to pause our fitness.
- Stay positive. This might sound trite, yet it is important. Find a good spiritual book to read and stay in contact with your workout buddies even if you aren’t working out with them. The worst thing we can do is let our minds become negatively affected. If we are used to regular exercise, it can sometimes cause us to feel badly about ourselves when we take a break, even if it is a much needed one. Remember that we are more than our physical bodies; we are body, mind, and spirit. If we tend to the mind and the spirit, and try to feed our bodies healthy food, we can rest assured that whatever reason we have had to take a break, we will be ok! Set some new goals and don’t dwell on the past. Think about all the things to be grateful for.