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Sometimes, we have to take a break from exercise. Maybe there’s a mad period at work, and motivation fades. Or perhaps a global pandemic hits, and all the gyms have to close. As we all know now, anything can happen.

Whatever the reason, fitness can easily get pushed out of the plan, and we end up not working out as intensely or as often as we have previously.
When this happens, we might think about how long it will take to undo all our hard work. Does fitness disappear overnight? Or is there a gradual reduction in our levels? And will it be as easy to regain once we’re able to get started again?

Let’s dig into exactly what happens when we stop and start exercising.


Why do we lose fitness?

The answer to this lies in understanding how you get fitter.

Chronic adaptations to exercise mean changes that happen to the body when you start working out often for longer periods. Unlike short-term changes like increased heart rate and blood flow that come and go when exercising, these changes are the ones that stick around.

The body makes changes to respond better to exercise. That means it adapts to the stress you’re putting it under and changes in a way that will make you better able to deal with that same stress in future.

These changes are pretty profound. It depends on the exact type of exercise you’re doing and can include increased muscle mass, increased strength due to nervous inhibition, improved balance, improved coordination, reduced body fat, lower blood pressure, increased lung capacity, and more efficient energy usage. The list goes on. And all of these things are components of fitness.

One of the fundamental principles of fitness training is that what is not used is lost. Fitness is very much reversible. If the body doesn’t need to maintain the changes it made because the demands are no longer there, the changes will be reversed. Muscle mass will be reduced, strength will be lost, lung capacity will decrease, and your body won’t use energy efficiently.

The ultra-efficient human body doesn’t waste effort providing for needs that aren’t there.


How long before fitness drops away?

It’s an annoying answer that you’re not going to like. It depends. As with everything regarding fitness, there is no one size fits all. But studies do show that fitter people hold on to fitness gains for longer. And, of course, it all depends on what level you were at or want to be.

For most people, fitness will start to drop away after a couple of weeks. The exact time can range from one to two weeks for aerobic fitness and about three weeks for muscle size and mass.


Does all fitness fade at the same rate?

Interestingly, no.

Cardiovascular fitness can increase and decrease at a quicker rate than muscle mass growth and loss. Studies put this in a range of about one to two weeks. But it’s not a case of all or nothing. When training for a marathon, most runners leave three weeks between their last long run and the race itself to ensure they’re rested enough. So, don’t fret. Your one week off won’t mean you can no longer run the same distances.

In terms of muscular strength and endurance, you’ll start to lose peak fitness after about two weeks. Again, this won’t be a sudden drop that renders you incapable of going to the gym. It’s a slow reduction. If you’re a regular gym-goer, it will take about three months of no exercise to lose the majority of your fitness.


If you change the type of exercise, does fitness stay the same?

By definition, fitness means being fit for something. Being fit-for-purpose. So, it depends on what you’re exercising to be fit for. Different types of exercise will make you fit in different ways. There are lots of things you can be fit for.

Cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility are different types of training that will result in different kinds of fitness. But it gets even more granular than that.

A sprinter wouldn’t be expected to perform a long-distance swim, despite being classed as having high cardiovascular fitness. A powerlifter might not be great in a HIIT class despite having high amounts of muscle. Each type of training will bring about a unique set of changes. There will be some overlap, but the effects of exercise on the body are specific to the type of exercise.


Is fitness regained quicker than it was originally gained?

The answer to this depends on the amount of time exercise was reduced and the baseline level of fitness kept.

If someone went a year without any exercise, they wouldn’t regain their peak fitness level as fast as someone who generally stayed active during a three-month break.

Also, you’re no longer a novice. Unlike the very first time around, you’re not finding your feet when it comes to running, resistance training, or whatever it is you’re training for. That means you get back into the swing of your routine much easier and start exercising effectively.

The second part of this question is whether the body can regain fitness rather than develop it for the first time. The truth is, research still isn’t quite sure. But, there is some evidence to suggest it happens a little faster.

For example, some research has shown that many nuclei cells may remain when muscle mass decreases from high levels. Meaning they’re ready to stimulate muscle protein synthesis when the exercise starts again.
Whatever the reason, the best thing to focus on is getting back into a sustainable routine that you can manage and enjoy. The rest will follow.


How can you keep fitness up?

Unfortunately, there’s no escape from the ‘use it or lose it’ rule that applies to any type of fitness. We’re all human. Fluctuations are a part of life. Taking short periods off may just mean a little bit of work to get back to where you were.

Don’t forget that even if you’re not spending five days a week in the gym, it’s likely you will still maintain a certain level of fitness. Walking, taking the stairs, carrying shopping, doing chores, and perhaps even the odd home workout requires a certain fitness level. Being generally active in a sustainable way is the best way to keep a healthy level of fitness at all times. The best rule is to make time for movement.

If it’s an injury setting you back, don’t push it. You may risk making things worse in the long term. But, you can look to adapt your training. For example, strains and sprains from running should still allow you to swim or cycle.

Don’t be afraid of periods away from the gym. It’s essential to put the needs of your body first. You can always gain fitness after losing a bit of it. And when you’re ready to get back to it, Hussle is here to make that as easy as possible.