Whatever your intentions may be, life sometimes simply gets in the way of your fitness plans. Fitness experts and physiologists all agree that two weeks is the longest time you should spend out of the gym if you want to maintain your fitness level.
Taking a few days off is normal and recommended for a good recovery of the muscle tissue, but if you skip the gym for more than two weeks, you will experience a reduction of gains you’ve struggled so hard to achieve.
How fast you’re going to get out of shape depends on your overall fitness level, your type of workout and the amount of time you’ve spent away from the gym.
But the unfortunate fact is that not working out at all for two to eight months will lead you right back to your original start, erasing all of the progress you ever had, according to the experts. Since your body isn’t getting overloaded anymore, it doesn’t get challenged to adapt to any changes and de-conditioning takes off.
This article will help you understand better what is going on inside the body after a few weeks without regular exercise – and hopefully motivate you to keep it up!
1. Loss of muscle mass and size
When you stop training, your body stops building muscles. It’s that simple. And it will take a lot less time to lose them than it took to build them in the first place. Your unused muscles react with atrophy to the reduction of regular workouts, since your body no longer needs to produce the muscle-maintaining enzymes, thus decreasing their size and definition.
But it gets worse than that – you don’t just lose muscle mass when you stop exercising, you also experience a conversion of the muscle fiber type!
Your muscles contain type 1 (slow-twitch) and type 2 (fast-twitch) muscle fibers. The first one contributes to endurance performance while the second powers your high-intensity exercises.
When you stop working out, the first type is still involved in your daily activities but the type 2 fibers become rarely used, so they atrophy more quickly. In other words, your body will start adapting to your new couch potato lifestyle in no time.
And after your muscle fibers have shrank and transformed, you will need to work even harder to bring them back to shape.
2. Fat gain
In a research done by Paul Arciero, an exercise science professor at Skidmore College, a 5-week exercise break made athletes increase body fat by 12%. Other studies have shown that within about a week your metabolism dramatically slows down and your muscles lose a big part of their fat-burning potential.
People who stop working out instantly lose the need for the extra calories their body required to power the muscle growth and maintain the muscle size so far. So if they don’t adjust their calorie intake to their new way of life by consuming much less food (which most won’t do), they will gain fat more quickly than people who never worked out at all.
3. Loss of overall performance and conditioning
Regardless of your type of workout, endurance is among the first things to go. Besides the loss of muscle mass and density, muscle underuse will lead to decrease of bone density, flexibility, blood flow and energy production. All of this will negatively influence your strength and speed.
According to Molly Galbraith, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, strength loss typically occurs within two and a half to three weeks of inactivity. Things are even worse for highly conditioned athletes, who will experience a much faster decline in overall performance compared to beginners.
When you stop working out, you begin to lose the aerobic gains you’ve made, too. A new study found out that highly conditioned athletes who had been training regularly for more than a year and then suddenly stopped lost half of their aerobic conditioning after only three months. Compared to them, beginners who have worked out for about 2 months and then stopped experienced a complete loss of their aerobic conditioning after two months of inactivity.
According to Scott Weiss, an exercise physiologist and personal trainer, with a sudden halt of physical activity there is a decrease of the amount of blood pumped out of the heart and a significant increase of heart rate and blood pressure.
Besides that, the size of mitochondria (the mini-factories within your muscle cells that convert oxygen into energy) decreases alongside with a steady loss of your VO2 max or the maximum volume of oxygen your working muscles are able to use, which directly affects your level of performance and overall cardiovascular fitness.
4. Changes in brain functioning
There are plenty of reasons why exercising is good for the brain. It increases the blood flow and feeds the brain with more oxygen, it aids the release of hormones and stimulates a process known as neurogenesis, i.e. the brain’s ability to grow new brain cells and adapt existing ones.
For example, exercising in the morning boosts brain activity and protects you from the following daily stresses. It improves the ability to concentrate, promotes good memory and maintains a stable mood. And you can forget about all of this if you decide to take a longer break away from the gym.
You can also expect to become anxious, fatigued and depressed. Exercise promotes mental health by normalizing insulin resistance and boosting the production of hormones and neurotransmitters associated with mood control, so when you stop working out, your levels of “feel good“ hormones like endorphin and dopamine will drop.
This will in turn affect your overall motivation and energy levels, so you might end up feeling increasingly low and agitated – starting up once again will require a great deal of willpower and patience.
A new study concluded that getting at least 150 minutes of exercise a week significantly improves the quality of sleep. According to one of the authors, “regular physical activity may serve as a non-pharmaceutical alternative for sleep disorders”. And when you quit your regular workouts, you will most likely suffer immediate changes in your sleeping pattern and the quality of sleep as well.
Stop rationalizing and think again before you decide it’s time to quit your gym sessions, because you might truly regret it later – only a few weeks later, actually!