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Health & Fitness: Bouncing Back After a Break

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By Kim Duke, NETA & AAFA Certified Trainer

We’ve all taken a week (OK, maybe a month) off our workout routines every now and then. Life happens. But will your fitness hiatus completely sideline your progress or just be a little hiccup in an otherwise healthy body? Find out how long it takes for your fitness to go kaput — and how long it will take to get back into tip-top shape.

In fitness, you’re moving forward or you’re moving backward. Your body is constantly adapting to the load you put on it. After more than a few rest days for recovery’s sake, your body will slowly start to adapt, not to activity, but to inactivity. (Remember: Your body doesn’t become stronger during workouts, it becomes stronger after them.)

“You have to exercise to maintain fitness because after all, if you don’t start your car in a month, the battery dies. Your body is the same way,” says Los Angeles-based certified strength and conditioning specialist Mike Donavanik.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen quite as most of us would like. Research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology suggests that just two weeks of inactivity can negatively impact your cardiovascular fitness and muscle mass. What’s more, in a 2014 Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases study, when obese adults took a month off from training, they lost most of the aerobic gains they had made from working out the four months prior, and negated improvements in their insulin sensitivity and HDL cholesterol. When you aren’t constantly challenging your body, your muscles shorten, your heart can’t beat as fast or move as much blood per beat and your muscle cells lose some of their mitochondria, their internal power plants, explains Pete McCall, a San Diego-based certified strength and conditioning specialist.

Luckily, the fitter you are going into an exercise hiatus, the slower your fitness will decline, Donavanik says. But losses still happen. In one case study of an Olympic rower published in the Journal of Science in Medicine and Sport, eight weeks of detraining resulted in about a 20 percent drop in fitness.

Whatever your current fitness level is, minimize how far you backslide with these tips.

Move: Something is always better than nothing.  Even if you can’t hit the gym, stay active. Walk whenever you can. Take the stairs. Do squats while you brush your teeth and hit the floor for a set of 10 push-ups.

Miss endurance workouts: In a perfect world, you’d get in both your high-intensity and your endurance workouts. But for the sake of general fitness, if you have to miss one, miss the endurance workout.  It takes slightly longer to lose your endurance fitness compared to your strength and power, Donavanik says. Plus, when you’re tight on time, going all-out for 15 minutes is better at keeping your fitness up compared to 15 minutes of jogging, he says.

Track your workouts: Months off from the gym have a way of sneaking up on exercisers. But if you track both your workouts, and workouts missed, you have a slimmer chance of those few days turning into more, McCall says.

There’s no denying: It will take time to get back to your pre-break fitness level. For every week you take completely off, expect to spend about two weeks getting back to where you were, Donavanik says. But, luckily, that’s less time than it took to get fit in the first place.

“The brain’s connection with muscle is what tends to form first during training and be retained the longest,” Weeditz says. “Someone who’s had experience with a movement like riding a bike can go back to doing the same thing with relative ease compared to when they hadn’t done it before. This proves equally true with common movements like the bench press and a burpee. The form is there, strength and endurance just need to be redeveloped.”

The key to rebuilding is starting off slow. For instance, if you’ve taken four to six weeks off your strength workout, you’ll likely need to start off lifting about 10 to 20 percent less weight than you used to, McCall says. If you’ve taken that time off the treadmill or pool, try covering 50 to 70 percent of your usual distance during your first workout back. Based on how challenging the workouts feel, you can dial things up or down from there.

Be patient. Doing too much soon can increase your risk of injury and force you to take more time off from the gym. If you’ve skipped your workouts for more than a couple of months, it may even benefit you to start out with body weight work. But even after just a few workouts,  your body will be thanking you — and your fitness will follow.

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