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The Truth about Taking Time Off from Exercise


Taking a break from your exercise routine can aid in rest and recovery for your muscles. If you’re worried about losing muscle and progress from rest, Dr. James Ting, a sports medicine physician at Hoag Orthopedic Institute, participated in this Q&A to address all of your concerns.

1. What happens to your body when you take a break from the gym for a full week? (Assuming you aren’t sick).

Taking a full week break from the gym does not necessarily result in any detrimental or significant loss of previous fitness gains. In fact, it can take two months or longer of inactivity for the complete loss of these gains to occur.

2. How do hormone levels change, and what does that mean for your fitness?

The secretion of many hormones, such as Growth Hormone (GH) and testosterone, increases in response to exercise training. Similarly, detraining also results in alterations in hormone levels, but it appears that the overall magnitude of these changes is related to the duration of detraining as well as the prior training and fitness status of the individual. Reductions in muscle size and strength are likely impacted by these hormonal changes, but studies appear to show that significant hormonal changes are most likely to occur following detraining periods longer than eight weeks. A break of just one week, therefore, is not likely to result in a significant negative impact on your fitness.

3. How long does it take for protein degradation? Is that the same in type 1 and type 2 fibers?

Visible muscle loss should not occur with training breaks even as long as two weeks. Measurable reductions in muscle size have been documented in studies after detraining periods of four weeks, although the reduction in muscle size appears to occur faster than reductions in muscle strength and function. There is some evidence that type 2 fibers may atrophy more quickly than type 1 fibers with detraining in strength-trained individuals. For short-term detraining periods, however, the evidence is less clear.

4. How long does it take to see cardiovascular losses? Are the aerobic and anaerobic effects of workout breaks similar?

Measurable cardiovascular losses can be seen within 2-3 weeks of complete cessation of exercise. Decreases in muscle strength and power typically occur at a much slower rate. Strength and power may still be maintained for periods up to 4-6 weeks after training has stopped.

5. In what ways can taking a break be beneficial? How long should a “break” from exercise be? And what qualifies it as a “break?” (Assuming taking a break shouldn’t equate to gluing your butt to the couch 24/7).

A “break” can be beneficial from a physical, as well as a mental/emotional standpoint. Your body and mind both need time to recover for overall health and in order to achieve optimal performance. Failing to recognize this and training too hard, can lead to fatigue and ironically underperformance, the so-called Overtraining Syndrome.

There’s no hard and fast rule for how long a “break” from exercise should be. It may be as short as a few days, but it’s important to realize as well that it can also be up to 1-2 weeks without any significant detriment or loss in previous fitness gains. In determining how long of a break you might need or take, it’s important to listen to your body and to be aware of signs of overtraining.

A “break” does not necessarily mean completely stopping all physical activity. It may simply mean taking a break from your routine. Cross-training by taking up some light activity that isn’t part of your typical training regimen, such as yoga or even a long walk or leisurely bike ride, can all constitute a “break.”

6. What exactly is muscle memory, and how does it play into our ability to get back into a workout after a break?

Muscle memory is the observation that through prior repetition, motor-related tasks become easier to perform, even if those tasks have not been performed for some time. As it specifically relates to exercise and strength training, it is the notion that muscles have, in a sense, a “memory” of their prior strength. There is evidence to suggest that strength training results in long-term and perhaps even permanent structural changes in muscle, which allows athletes to rapidly regain their previous strength and muscle mass upon resumption of training, even after a prolonged period of inactivity.

7. What tips would you give people on how to get back into their workout after a week off? Can they pick up right where they left off? Will they need to adjust the intensity or workload at all?

Most trained and conditioned athletes returning from a week off should be able to return fairly quickly to their prior intensity and workload without too much difficulty. Even in conditioned individuals, however, some detraining changes, such as reduced cardio-respiratory capacity, can still potentially occur over a relatively short period of time. I think it’s therefore always wise to consider a stepwise and gradual return to exercise after a period of inactivity, in order to minimize the risk for injury or harm.

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