During the holidays, many of us go on an exercise hiatus due to the many parties, shopping trips and travel plans — or because we just need a break.
For some, taking a break from regular workouts comes as an inevitable part of the holidays. However, others often start to panic when the holidays approach, wondering if taking off just a few days from the gym will set their hard-earned fitness gains back.
But how long does it actually take to get out of shape?
First, it is important to remember that building a few rest days into your fitness routine is important for recovery and injury prevention.
Still, “use it or lose it” is a real thing when it comes to exercising. And how much fitness you’ll lose depends on the length of a break, your fitness level and whether you’re looking at cardiovascular or muscle strength losses.
If you are a recreational exerciser working out at a moderate intensity three times per week, it takes two to four weeks of complete inactivity to start noticing changes in your conditioning. And the fitter you are, the longer you will be able to retain your fitness.
If you are a beginner, do not wait too long to get back to your workout routine. A key to working out and getting in shape is consistency. If your body has not engaged in working out long enough, it will lose the gains that you have achieved through a regular exercise routine much quicker.
What goes first?
Your endurance level and aerobic fitness are the first things to slide. You will start noticing a difference in your cardiovascular performance in no more than two weeks. This is because your maximal oxygen uptake — the maximum amount of oxygen the body can use during exercise — declines after about two weeks of inactivity by about 20 percent.
Your next victim is muscle strength. It takes about four weeks for muscle fibers to start shrinking. And after four more weeks, your muscles will begin to atrophy and that change becomes noticeable. Your muscles feel less firm, and your abs and your biceps look softer.
If you are a serious athlete, and have been training consistently for many years, you will be able to hold on to your gains for a few weeks longer. However, sport-specific muscle fibers change in as little as two weeks. These are specific muscle groups that you’ve trained for specific sports (like quickly getting to your feet on your surfboard).
You burn fewer calories when you are not active, so you need to adjust your diet during your off-time to maintain your weight. Continue to eat a diet of lean proteins, fruits, vegetables and complex carbs but aim to reduce your caloric intake by 300 to 400 to compensate for the extra calories you won't be burning.
Stay on course
The best way to maintain your fitness is to not stop exercising completely. Even if your regular workout is out of the question, make an effort to remain as active as possible. Take brisk walks, park farther away from your destination, take the stairs when safe and do light strength-training exercises at home.
Easy body weight movements like planks, pushups and air squats will keep your muscles engaged and help decrease the loss of mobility (use caution if you are taking a break from working out due to an injury).
The bottom line
If you need to take off a week or two from your regular workout routine, don’t stress too much: You are not going to get out of shape in two weeks. Unless, of course, your two weeks off snowball into three or four weeks — and then into months.
And while a couple of weeks of inactivity does lead to some fitness losses and deconditioning, the good news is that with proper effort, it is all reversible — you can get back to your previous fitness levels soon after you start moving again.