Taking a Break From Exercise Without Losing Fitness

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While exercising consistently is important for building endurance, conditioning your body and losing weight, there almost always comes a time when you have to take a break.

It may be because you're tired, injured, extra busy, or maybe you're bored and desperately need a break. Or maybe you get sick, go on vacation or have some other life events happen that takes you away from your workout routine.

One of the biggest reasons you may need a break is overtraining. Doing too much exercise or too much high-intensity exercise can lead to depression, fatigue, restlessness and poor performance in your workouts.

Taking a break may be just what you need to rest, recover and rejuvenate, but how long before you start losing your fitness?

It's Okay to Take a Break

You may be surprised to learn that taking a few days or a full week off from training won't necessarily hurt the gains you've made.

Think about a marathon runner. He or she will typically peak during training about 2 weeks before the marathon, then start tapering down so he or she is fully rested for the race.

Sometimes it's good for an exerciser to take extra days off to get rid of every bit of fatigue in your body.

Many seasoned exercisers and athletes regularly schedule a week off every eight to 12 weeks.

The great news is, it takes a lot more than a week off to undo all your hard work, so don't be afraid to take a break if you're feeling tired and sore.

How Long Does It Take to Lose Fitness? 

The question is, whether you're taking a break by choice or because you have to, how long can you take a break before it affects your fitness?

Some basic statistics:

  • Aerobic power can decline about 5-10% in three weeks.
  • It takes about two months of inactivity to completely lose the gains you've made.
  • Extremely fit exercisers will experience a rapid drop in fitness during the first three weeks of inactivity before it tapers off.
  • Muscular strength and endurance last longer than aerobic fitness. Muscles retain a memory of exercises for weeks or even months.

There's no hard and fast rule about how many rest days to take or when to take them. The key is to listen to your body for signs of overtraining and to your mind for signs of boredom or exhaustion.​

It's also nice to get away from the usual routine when you're on vacation. Try doing other active things that work your body in a different way.

Things like playing paddle ball on the beach, taking long walks, snorkeling and other games are a fun way to keep moving without having to worry about doing long workouts.

And keep in mind that, even if you only take a few days off, you still may get sore when you come back to your workouts. How sore you get often depends on genetics, how long you were out, and how intense your workout is.

Signs You May Need a Break

  • Fatigue or physical exhaustion
  • Soreness that won't go away
  • Dreading your workouts
  • Poor performance
  • You're not able to progress in your workouts
  • You feel unmotivated or bored
  • An injury or illness
  • You can't stand the thought of exercising
  • You have a trip coming up and you know you won't have the time or motivation for full-blown workouts

Taking a few days or a week off may be just what you need to get back to your workouts with more energy and enthusiasm.

Remember, you don't have to be completely inactive and, in fact, this may be the perfect time to try activities you usually don't have time for. Leave the routine and the heart rate monitor at home and try:

  • Taking a long walk
  • Trying a yoga or Pilates class
  • Stretching
  • A long, easy bike ride
  • Tossing a football or frisbee
  • Leisurely working in the yard

Getting Back on Track

If you do find you've taken a longer break than you really wanted, it's important to ease into your workouts so you avoid injury and misery.

Yes, it may feel like you're starting over, but it won't take very long for your body to get right back to where it was before your break. Your body remembers how to exercise, it just needs a little time to get used to working out again.

Getting back on track is always possible, no matter how long it's been since you've worked out. It's tempting to want to make up for lost time and jump into an all-out workout routine, but that's the last thing you want to do.

Not only will you risk being very sore, but you may also even risk injury.

Tips for Getting Back to Your Workouts

  • Start simple - If you had a routine you followed before, try a lighter version, using lighter weights and less intensity.
  • Give your body time - It may take up to three weeks to get back to where you were, depending on how much you did before and how much time has passed. Use the first 2 weeks to get a feel for your body and your workouts.
  • Take extra rest days - Coming back to exercise means you're going to be sore to some degree. Plan extra recovery days so your body can heal and grow stronger.

Each week, gradually increase the intensity until you're back to your usual routine.

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Article Sources

  1. St-amand J, Yoshioka M, Nishida Y, Tobina T, Shono N, Tanaka H. Effects of mild-exercise training cessation in human skeletal muscle. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012;112(3):853-69. doi:10.1007/s00421-011-2036-7

  2. Joo CH. The effects of short term detraining and retraining on physical fitness in elite soccer players. PLoS ONE. 2018;13(5):e0196212. doi:doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0196212

Additional Reading

  • ACSM's Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2017.