It's not always easy to stick to a regular workout schedule--practically everyone has skipped out on a training session from time to time. Life happens, so don't beat yourself up about it. The problem comes when you start skipping several days in a row, and then maybe an entire week, and then the next thing you know, you can't even remember the last time you broke a sweat. It all happened so fast!
While you can always recover and get back into the swing of things, you might notice that your first session back in the gym will be ridiculously tough. What in the world happened to your body while you were gone? Well, if the old adage of "use it or lose it" holds any merit--and it does--then your body will definitely lose some of its strength, agility, and resilience during a break. So how quickly after you stop working out does it take for you to get out of shape? Read on to find out.
The Effects of Inactivity on Your Body
If you were pretty consistent with your workouts (e.g., 3-5 times per week) before you fell off the wagon, you'll definitely begin feeling a difference in your body within about a week of being inactive, but you're probably still in better shape than you might feel. The real changes begin to come about 2 to 3 weeks into the "detraining" period, because that's when the capillaries (i.e., very thin, almost hairlike blood vessels) in your muscles begin to decrease in density.
Without these extra capillaries there (they increase and decrease based on physical activity levels) to help carry more oxygen to your muscles, you won't have the same strength or power to perform your workouts, and you'll get tired quicker as well. This holds especially true when it comes to cardio exercises--if you go 4 weeks or more without being active, your VO2 max (your maximum ability to take in and use oxygen during workouts) will decrease by up to 20 percent. This means that you'll get winded a lot quicker when it's time to crank up the cardio again.
Does Age Play a Role?
Be aware that the older you are, the quicker and easier it is for your physical fitness to decline during a hiatus, and the longer it will take for you to regain your previous fitness level when you become active again.
In addition, the reason for taking the break--e.g., trauma, illness, etc.--may have a dampening effect on your ability to bounce back as well. While it's far from an impossible task, it will require some solid commitment in order to get back on track.
The body is a mind-bogglingly complex machine, so the factors that contribute to how fast your fitness declines after a long break are not always cut-and-dried. Factors such as stress levels, sleep habits, and metabolism can all come into play, and may slow down or speed up the process.
When building up after a period of detraining, try to put the odds in your favor as much as possible by minimizing your stress levels and getting enough sleep at night--which, by the way, are good things to put into practice whether you're physically fit or not.
How to Bounce Back the Right Way
When you're first returning to a regular workout schedule, wisdom says to avoid going all-out, as this will probably end in tears and regret. Instead, ease into your new routine by spending a few sessions keeping your heart rate around the 120 bpm level for your first couple of go-rounds. Then, work your way into some light resistance training, focusing first on large muscle groups with exercises such as squats and bench presses; this will help to improve mobility and strength in your muscles.
Once you get your body used to the feeling of exercising again, you can step up the intensity with more demanding workouts. The important thing to remember is that you don't need to be too harsh on yourself, or beat yourself up when you're first returning from a hiatus. Take your time, be patient with yourself, and after a little while, you'll be back into form like you never missed a beat!