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Could you do with taking a break from exercise?

Could you do with taking a break from exercise?

Christmas can be a tricky time of year to maintain your usual exercise routine. Fortunately, there are a number of benefits to be gained by taking a break. Read on and cut yourself a little slack.

We encourage people to persevere with their usual fitness routine as much as possible even, and especially, during challenging times like Christmas. While there's much to be said for the self-discipline of sticking to your regular workout, what if that's just not possible? Or you simply fancy a break? Do you risk ruining all your hard work and having to start back at square one?

During the Christmas season, in particular, we are at a point in the year when our bodies are programmed by evolution to hibernate. Oh okay, not actually hibernate – we'll leave that to hedgehogs and the like – but certainly to slow down and shift down a gear or two. That biological instinct to conserve energy during the cold winter months when food is scarce translates into lethargy, a craving for sweet starchy foods and a generally less active lifestyle. Now, you could choose to fight biology all the way. And to some extent we have to, as our employers certainly aren't likely to be sympathetic to the plea that we need to work fewer hours just because it's winter. And then there's all the frantic bustle of Christmas preparations to deal with as well. Or you could decide to make certain allowances for the time of year and give yourself a bit of a break.


Fortunately for those of us who are contemplating some time off at Christmas, there are a number of benefits to be had from taking a break from your usual exercise routine. These include:


  • Improved fitness. Yes, really! Your body does not actually get stronger during a workout. That happens during the resting process afterwards. So if you don't give yourself enough chance to rest, you're effectively sabotaging your workout, and there are a lot of negative consequences to overdoing your time at the gym. A planned rest can be a particularly good way of addressing a fitness plateau, when you don't feel you're making progress in spite of putting in the hours.


  • Increased motivation. Taking a break from your usual slog at the gym can boost your motivation in a number of ways. Some people find that their motivation to exercise improves when they can look forward to a specific break. Others experience a change in perspective, a renewed sense of commitment, and an increased willingness to try out new things when they've had a bit of a rest from the usual routine.


Now before you go and camp on the sofa with a family-size tin of Quality Streets (other largely pointless Christmas chocolates are available), let us just put in a caveat or two. Taking a break from your usual fitness routine does not mean turning into a junk food-consuming couch potato for an unspecified length of time! In order to be of benefit to your overall health, rather than wrecking the results of your usual dedication and perseverance, a break from exercise needs to be carefully planned and managed. Here are the basic rules of having some time off:

  • Consider the timing. How does having a break from your exercise routine fit in with the rest of your life? It makes sense to save up a break for times when other factors in your life would get in the way of a workout anyway, so that you can resume healthy habits at other times.
  • Consider the length of your break. You want to balance your need for some time off with the risk of losing the gains you have made from exercise. In this context, there are some interesting facts to consider:
    • Many serious athletes and trainers regularly take a week off exercise every 2-3 months as a way of improving their performance levels.
    • Muscular strength and endurance take longer to wear off than aerobic fitness. Muscle “memory” for exercise can last for weeks and even months, whereas aerobic power can decline from 5-10% in three weeks.
    • If you're very fit, you'll experience the sharpest drop in fitness during the first three weeks of inactivity. It takes around 2 months of inactivity to lose all the gains of regular exercise.

With that information in mind, a week's break from your usual fitness routine shouldn't do you too much harm.

  • Don't go completely crazy with your diet. Yes, yes, it's Christmas and temptations lurk everywhere. But it stands to reason that a break from exercise coupled with unbridled indulgence in food and alcohol is not going to be without consequences for your overall health and well-being. If you're choosing not to go to the gym, it's probably wise to practice a little self-restraint in other areas of your life.
  • A change is as good as a rest. Remember that old adage? You can have the best of both worlds – the benefits of a break without the risks of complete inactivity – just by changing the way you usually exercise. Take a few long walks or go for a cycle ride rather than doing your usual session at the gym. If the weather is grim, you'll appreciate the normal cosy surroundings of your workout more than ever!