Fitness isn’t a one-and-done deal. Fitness is like a relationship. You can’t cheat on it and expect it to work. It requires constant work. However, life gets in the way, and most of us have moments when we can’t maintain our usual workout routine. But how long does it take to lose your fitness gains after stopping workouts? How quickly do we become unfit? It’s time to dig into the intricate enigma of detraining and understand its effects.
Just to brighten up your day a little: research continually shows that maintaining your fitness level requires less effort than getting there initially. That’s great news for those periods when life gets in the way—like holidays, exam weeks, work deadlines, and more—and you’re forced to tone down your workout routine a bit. However, don’t get too comfortable. Danish studies illustrate that merely after three weeks of reduced activity, individuals began experiencing lower insulin sensitivity and diminished fat-burning capabilities.
Paul Williams from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California announced an intriguing finding in the National Runners’ Health Study of 55,000 participants. He described a unique “asymmetric weight gain and loss” scenario where he discovered that the weight you gain when you cease exercising is significantly more than what you shed when you restart the same exercise routine. According to him, “You don’t get to pick up from where you left off”. Even a brief pause from your workout routine can add some undesired pounds. Williams found that women needed to run a minimum of 10 miles a week, and men double this, to start shedding weight gained during exercise breaks.
We all hit unavoidable scheduling roadblocks, which brings us to the important question: how much of a fitness break can you afford before you start noticing the impact? The decline in fitness, scientifically known as “detraining”, is a complex process as it affects your muscles, heart, and metabolism differently. As a general guideline, research indicates that our endurance limits linger around two weeks without training -but by week four, we’re back at square one. New exercise enthusiasts can expect a quicker decline, while long-time fitness buffs benefit from enduring changes like larger heart size and improved oxygen delivery to muscles, which can last months. This is because their bodies have adapted to a high level of physical activity and can maintain that level for a longer period without exercise.
Some measures can aid in maintaining fitness during periods of limited time. Studies conducted in the 1980s suggested that fewer and shorter workout sessions—provided you maintain or even enhance the intensity—can yield considerable fitness preservation. For example, individuals accustomed to training six times a week managed to maintain heart size and oxygen uptake by doing just two high-intensity workouts in a week. This approach mirrors the technique employed in high-intensity interval training.
Interestingly, research shows that taking a break from strength training can boost explosive power temporarily (for a few weeks) once your strengthened muscles get a chance to relax and the tendons lengthen. Be warned though: a study conducted by the University of Tokyo documented that muscle size returned to pre-training levels after one month’s break from an intense three-month strength training program despite neuromuscular strength benefits lingering on for another few months. As with aerobic exercise, holding on to strength gains is a lot simpler than starting from scratch, so aim to squeeze in a few abbreviated workouts, even when on a tight schedule.
The time it takes for you to become unfit is a unique concoction of various individual elements. Your current fitness status, age, typical everyday activities, and your unique genetic makeup all play crucial roles. It’s not uncommon to start seeing changes in as short as two to three weeks of inactivity. But don’t let this dishearten you.
You may indeed lose your hard-earned fitness level relatively quickly, but remember, regaining your prime condition is equally feasible. Like learning a forgotten language, your body remembers its fit state once you start exercising again. That’s muscle memory at play!
What’s most important in this fitness journey is not about never falling off the wagon. It’s about your determination to climb back on it. Fitness is a marathon, not a sprint. So even if a brief hiatus has led you off course, don’t despair. There’s always a path back to a fitter, healthier you. Keep your eyes on the prize and stay determined.
- R. C. Hickson, “Reduced training intensities and loss of aerobic power, endurance, and cardiac growth,” Journal of Applied Physiology, 1985, 58(2), 492–499.
- Keitaro Kubo et al., “Time course of changes in muscle and tendon properties during strength training and detraining,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2010, 24(2), 322–331.
- Iñigo Mujika and Sabino Padilla, “Cardiorespiratory and metabolic characteristics of detraining in humans,” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2001, 33(3), 413–421.
- Rasmus Olsen et al., “Metabolic responses to reduced daily steps in healthy nonexercising men,” Journal of the American Medical Association, 2008, 299, 1261–1263.
- Paul Williams, “Asymmetric weight gain and loss from increasing and decreasing exercise,” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2008, 40(2), 296–302.