Been On an Exercise Hiatus? Here’s the Skinny On What It Means

We’ve all been there.  Victimized by illness, surgery, injury, work, travel or personal crisis or sidelined by our own demons known as inertia and lack of motivation – no matter the reason, it’s depressing to face the loss of hard-earned fitness gains and intimidating to get back on that horse.

Injury

It’s important to understand that we tend to overestimate losses from a hiatus and underestimate our abilities to erase those losses.  This leads to feelings of hopelessness, making us more likely to continue the lapse.  The truth is, a relatively short break does very little damage and whatever losses have taken place can quickly be regained.  However, if one allows her short break to turn into months away from exercise, the snowball-rolling-down-the-hill affect is real and much harder to turn around.

So, let’s dispense with the incorrect assumptions we make about time off from exercise and learn the truth about what it means, what it does to our bodies, how to limit the damage and what we need to do to get back on track.

How Long is Too Long?

A couple of weeks away from a structured fitness routine is nothing to worry about.  Beyond that, it depends on several factors such as overall fitness level, age, what you are/aren’t doing during the break and whether we’re talking about cardiovascular or strength losses.

Fitness Level: If you workout four or more times a week and you’ve been doing this consistently for a year or more, you can afford more time off before seeing significant losses in cardiovascular fitness and strength.  However, if your fitness regimen is more sporadic, less consistent or relatively new, your gains are comparatively smaller meaning modest losses represent more of a setback.

Age: Not surprising, studies show the older we are the quicker we rack up fitness losses during a hiatus.  One particular study showed seniors’ losses were realized two times faster than individuals who were 40 years their junior.

The Nature of the Break: Very few people are completely sedentary during their breaks.  If one has been bedridden due to a catastrophic accident or serious medical condition, then muscle atrophy and cardiovascular regression happen very quickly.  But, that doesn’t describe most of our fitness lapses.  Chances are, even if you’ve been away from fitness-centric activities, you probably haven’t been away from all activity.  Any activity done during an exercise break can help to slow losses.

Cardiovascular Losses: In exercise studies, cardiovascular gains and losses are measured by studying an individual’s VO2 max.  What that means is scientists measure how much oxygen the person takes in and how efficiently the person’s body uses the oxygen while she is exercising. For the regular exerciser, two to four weeks away from cardio workouts translates to significant losses (40-50% in two studies) in VO2 max.  For the novice exerciser, gains made in the last two months of regular cardio can be erased in four weeks away from a heart pumping workout.

Strength Losses: Strength training breaks are much more forgiving.  In fact, for the regular strength trainer who isn’t bedridden, one can take up to five weeks off from pumping iron before significant muscle strength is lost.  The news is good too for the novice strength trainer.  While some types of strength gains deteriorated after 13 weeks off in a study of new exercisers, other measures of muscle strength went unchanged in that same 13 week break.

Turning the Ship Around

Now you know where you stand in terms of possible losses.  Is it going to take twice as long to gain back what you’ve lost?  Not even close.

While cardiovascular losses happen quickly, the flipside is also true.  Gains are made very quickly.  Depending upon how often and how vigorous your new workouts are, you can gain back all losses in equal to or less than the length of time of the break.

As for strength training, it does take regular, consistent doses of strength training to realize measurable gains in muscle strength and toning.  But, as stated above, it takes a while to lose what you’ve gained as long as you’re doing some activity during your lapses.

Mitigating Damage from Future Hiatuses

Some exercise breaks are sudden and beyond our control.  Others are predictable or can be mitigated once we have to face them.  If you know you have surgery upcoming or you find yourself dealing with a nagging injury, knowledge and a little creativity is all you need to stave off the worst of fitness setbacks.

First, find out from your physician what you can and cannot do during recovery.  Maybe you can’t run but perhaps you can walk, swim or bike.  Your orthopedist may nix squats and lunges but that doesn’t prohibit you from doing seated upper body strength exercises or core specific workouts.

Second, be especially vigilant with your diet.  It’s discouraging enough to face fitness losses from forced inactivity, don’t add to your woes by gaining weight too.  Load up on whole fruits, vegetables and grains, lean proteins and healthy fats and shun highly processed foods.  Focusing on a variety of quality, whole foods ensures you’re getting enough of the nutrients that help you heal and keep infections at bay.  Even when eating very healthy foods, keep a careful eye on portions to avoid taking in more calories than your body needs.

Lastly, get plenty of sleep.  Sleep is crucial to the healing process and to keep hormones that control hunger and satiety in check.

If you find yourself on a two week break from your regular workout routine, don’t sweat it.  If this post has taught you anything, I hope it’s that the stress of agonizing over a short-term break is worse than the break itself.  If, however, you find yourself on a longer hiatus, I hope this post helps you put it into better perspective.  Keep the break as short as possible, do your best to limit the damage and get back on that horse.

{Information on and links to studies referenced in this blog post can be viewed in this article from Greatist.}

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