What Happens to Your Body When You Skip the Gym?
No matter how dedicated you are to fitness, sooner or later, it’s going to happen: You’re going to skip a workout… and another… and another. Maybe you can blame a vacation, a mile-high pile of paperwork at the office or just your run-of-the-mill funk. Whatever the reason, before you know it, you’re out of shape.
Neglecting the gym every once in a while is nothing to worry about — after all, sometimes your body needs to rest and recover. But, when you hit pause on your workouts for more than a week, you might actually be throwing your fitness level into rewind.
How Fast Will You Fall Out of Shape?
You worked hard to get fit, whether by logging regular runs, or striving for new personal bests in your bench press. When your workouts fall by the wayside, how fast you fall out of shape depends on more than just how much time you spent away from the gym. Your overall fitness and the type of workout you’re missing will also impact your losses.
As a general rule, the fitter you are, the longer it will take your muscles turn to flub. Your physique doesn’t like change; it’s constantly trying to achieve homeostasis. So the longer you have been exercising (and the fitter you are), the more time it will take for your body to say, “Well, I guess we don’t need to build muscle anymore.”
If it’s only been a week since you broke a sweat, don’t stress. Whatever your workout history, it’ll take more than seven days for your body to soften. But two weeks? You might not get away with that as easily. One Journal of Applied Physiology study suggests that easing up on your workouts for just 14 days can significantly reduce your cardiovascular fitness, lean muscle mass, and insulin sensitivity. Meanwhile, it can take two months or longer to see complete losses of your fitness gains.
Endurance vs. Strength: Which Will You Lose?
Your body will react differently depending on whether you’re skipping endurance exercise versus strength training.
That’s because your muscles contain both type I (slow-twitch) and type II (fast-twitch) muscle fibers. Type I fibers contribute to endurance performance. Type II fibers are more powerful, and their “fast-twitch” capabilities help you power through high-intensity exercise or strength training.
During your day-to-day activities (like walking, talking, sitting at a desk, etc.), your type I fibers are contributing to the bulk of your efforts. But you really have to work to get your type II fibers to switch into gear. So, when you take a break from exercise, your type I fibers are likely still being used, helping to prevent them from breaking down. But some of your type II, fast-twitch fibers may be rarely, if ever used, if you aren’t working out, she says.
“Taking a break from exercise doesn’t (and shouldn’t) equate to gluing your butt to the couch.”
That may explain why type II fibers tend to atrophy more quickly than type I fibers. In other words, your max bench press will suffer before your 10K time does when you’re slacking. If you’re taking a break from strength work or high-intensity intervals, you’ll notice a huge difference when you finally do go back to the gym.
Endurance athletes aren’t entirely out of the woods, though. When you perform regular cardio, your type II muscle fibers gradually change from type IIx to type IIa. Type IIa fibers are key to endurance performance: They are powerful, but don’t tucker out as quickly as IIx ones, meaning they can help power your long runs. When you take a break from your long runs and rides, this essentially reverses, and your percentage of type IIa fibers decreases, while your IIx fibers increases. So prepare to tire out way faster.
Breaks Aren’t All Bad
Days off can also improve your mental fitness. 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.
If you’re sore more than 72 hours after a workout, you’re feeling ill, or your fitness progress is stalling, it may be time to back off. How long should your break last? 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 one week without any significant detriment or loss in previous fitness gains.
Just remember that taking a break from exercise doesn’t (and shouldn’t) equate to gluing your butt to the couch and Netflix-binging. 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’.