I often get asked this question from people going on vacation, people who have been sick, and those who have gone off track or tending to some ongoing family emergency. The question is a good one, but the answer is complex.
Several factors play a role in your capacity to hang on to what you worked so hard to accomplish.
- Starting level of fitness – What shape were you in to begin with? The better your fitness level, the more time it will take to lose all those gains.
- Consistency – How long have you been exercising? If it’s been years, your muscle memory will slow your losses when you take a hiatus.
- Intensity – Ideally, your perceived level of exertion is at a 7-8, (strenuous to very strenuous) and your heart rate reaches 70-80% of its maximum- 120-150 bpm for most of us. If you’ve maintained a higher exertion level, your loss will be slower.
- Genetics- Do your relatives have good muscle mass? Consider yourself lucky if your family members naturally have good strength and cardio capacity, but your lifestyle has a much larger influence.
- Age—We lose 3-5% of muscle mass per decade after we turn 30. The older we are, the quicker we lose muscle mass – (you’ve probably figured that out)!
- Stress – Higher levels create a constant assault of cortisol on your system which interferes with cellular renewal.
- Sleep – Less than 7 hours a night on a regular basis negatively affects hormonal levels which relate to muscle growth.
- Metabolism – A higher metabolism rate will positively impact our muscle mass, and a lower one causes us to lose our muscle mass and cardio capacity more quickly.
- Caloric intake – If our intake remains the same, and we exercise less, we’ll gain fat sooner and lose muscle definition.
If you’ve been exercising for a while, and you’re consistent (5-7 days a week of physical exercise at least half of which involves exertion) then you’ll maintain your fitness for longer.
If you’re sick it will take 2-3 weeks to begin to lose strength. However, if you maintain some level of activity while ill, you’ll likely not see significant changes until 4-5 weeks of decreased exercise.
It’s important to note that muscle strength is more resilient than heart and lung capacity. We lose muscle mass at about half the rate it took to build it. For example, if you increase your arm strength by 50% over a 10 week period, it will take 10 weeks to lose 50% of that strength, and 20 weeks to revert to your beginning status.
Compare this to what happens to heart and lung capacity after a prolonged break from activity. Pete McCall, an expert in fitness at the American Council of Exercise reports that “One study of endurance cyclists found that four weeks of inactivity resulted in a 20 percent decrease of their VO2 max, which measures a person’s maximum capacity to take in, transport, and use oxygen during exercise.” Another showed a 7% decline after only 12 days of inactivity, which is consistent with the first study. Also, enzymes in the blood associated with endurance performance decreased by 50 percent. Learn more details at:
A general rule is that if you haven’t trained for more than 4 months, it’s a safe to assume that you’ll need to start slowly and may be building up from square one. It’s key to increase gradually so your muscles, tendons, ligaments, bone and soft tissue can adjust to the increased load. Otherwise, you may suffer from the “weekend warrior” effect, where soreness and even injury will prevent you from exercising consistently and to your optimum level.
We all periodically have to give up our normal exercise routines for a variety of reasons. However, if you’re able to get some walks in that bring your heart rate to the 120’s, you’ll stave off de-conditioning for longer. Another tip is that it’s OK to take your exercise down a level for a week to give your body a break from your typical routine. But it’s important to maintain some form of exercise, ideally pushing your heart rate into its target zone at least twice during that week.
So, what about that week or two off you’re planning to go to warmer climes? Just be sure to include some cardio, bring your bands, and resistance tubes and do some body weight training to maintain strength. When you return to your regular routine, you won’t feel like you’re starting from square one, and the transition will be much easier.