If you work out regularly, going to the gym four, five or even six days a week, you’re clearly dedicated to maintaining the strength and fitness levels you’ve established, and it’s likely you’re looking to get stronger as well. But how about those times when you have to deviate from your workout regimen due to a vacation, an injury or busy season at work? If the concept of “use it or lose it” is true about the important muscles in the body, but just how long does it take to lose it?
First, the Good News...
The good news is that you have time, so long as you’re diligent about getting frequent exercise both before and after a break, so long as it doesn’t go on for too long. Muscles are resilient and it takes time for them to react to a smaller workload and atrophy, just as they take time to build up. A vacation free from visits to the gym that lasts a week or even two can actually provide needed rest for the body that you would have denied it otherwise.
“If you’re somebody who exercises five, six days a week, taking a little break is not going to make a big difference,” said Pete McCall, an expert exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise. “In fact, it actually might be good for your body, whereas if it’s an individual who only exercises sporadically a couple times a week or month, then it can have a greater effect and make it more difficult to restart.”
According to McCall, what many fitness junkies need to remember is that muscles get stronger during the recovery period following workouts, not during the workouts themselves. He often tells athletes who say they took a break for a week or two that what they really did was take some time to focus on their recovery. In that sense, if you’re truly focused on fitness on a daily basis, you may be better off relaxing at the beach on your next vacation rather than feeling the need to go for a run or check out the hotel gym. The extra food you tend to eat on vacation (or whatever period of time you decide to take a break for) can even provide a boost of energy for your return to regular exercise, while the rest rejuvenates muscles throughout the body, according to McCall.
But as productive as it can be to rest your body, McCall still doesn’t suggest doing it too often, saying that a full week break once or twice a year works best for a lot of fit people.
Another expert in the field, Shane Paulson, president of the American Society of Exercise Physiologists, agrees with McCall on many levels. He says a two-week break from exercise won’t cause any visual muscle loss, so those of you worried about the aesthetic value of that physique you worked so hard for have little to fear over the course of a brief vacation.
“Some detraining changes might occur in conditioned individuals that require a step back approach to their training intensity upon returning to it,” he says. “But there would normally be no noticeable decrease in muscle mass.”
What You Really Lose: Motivation
As mentioned before, people focused on maintaining a moderate level of fitness are actually at the most risk of losing their progress during breaks from working out, as it tends to be more difficult for them to get back into the habit. On the plus side, so long as someone like this is healthy during the break, hopefully he or she can still find time once or twice a week to maintain the level of fitness they’ve established.
If you’re a serial exerciser though, know that your body needs to take a nice break every so often. If you can, save that time off for your next vacation so you can be satisfied with the knowledge that you’ve earned your time off from both work and working out.