When it comes to exercise, it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that “more is best.” Of course, we all know that being active is good for you. And sure — generally speaking, the more you are able to fit in, the better. However, this doesn’t mean you need to being going all-out, all the time.
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While the “use-it-or-lose-it” theory is certainly true over long periods of inactivity, losing your fitness level is not something that’s going to happen overnight, or even after a few weeks. Just as it takes time to get fit and build muscle memory, your body won’t suddenly revert back to the way it was before you started working out overnight. While muscle atrophy can happen only after a few days of inactivity, there aren’t usually noticeable differences until you’ve been inactive for two full weeks.
In truth, if you are generally a fit and active person, taking a break from fitness can be good for you. Muscles need time to recover and grow, so taking a few days off can help you get stronger and build more muscle, more quickly. If you are someone who works out often, taking a vacation without worrying about getting a workout in can also be beneficial, in the sense that once you return to training, you may feel stronger than ever.
Taking time off from our regular fitness regimes can be good for our mental health, too. Our brains need time to process experiences, emotions and make connections, which can help make us stronger athletes in the future. Sometimes, we train so hard that our regimens become a stressor. Taking a break allows you to clear your mind, focus on other things you enjoy, and press the reset button.
Indeed, it’s often easier to return to something when you’ve been able to step away for a bit and re-charge. We so often take care of our physical fitness, but our mental fitness is equally important. Time away from the gym can help us become mentally stronger and resilient, which in turn, can help us stay physically fit.
Taking a break from your regular training also gives you a chance to simply enjoy whatever movement naturally occurs or feels good. Working out can often feel like a chore; when that happens, it can be helpful to hit the brakes and remind yourself what feels good intuitively. It can also give your body a chance to crave the routine you are missing, making it enjoyable again once you’re back at it.
One study found that runners who just finished an 18-week marathon training cycle and took an eight-week break, where they exercised only two hours per week, did not see any major declines in their fitness. This study suggests that the “use-it-or-lose it” theory is overblown. However, it is important to note that the longer a training cycle is, the longer a rest period can be, and the runners in this study were running seven to eight hours a week.
The key when it comes to taking breaks, like most things, is moderation. Taking a week or two off is optimal if only done a few times a year. The trick is to not let your breaks drag on, as the longer you’ve been on hiatus, the more difficult it might be to get back into a regular routine.
If there are circumstances outside of your control, like an injury or prolonged illness, don’t sweat it. Stay positive and move as much as you are able to, even if that means small, seated workouts or very gentle yoga classes. Staying positive will help you get motivated to exercise in earnest again once you are able.
If your busy schedule has thrown your normal fitness routine out of whack, remind yourself that it’s only temporary, and you’ll be able to get back at it soon. An “all is lost” attitude can be defeating, and will make it that much harder to get back into the swing of things. Even small bursts of activity can help you maintain your fitness levels. Try short workouts or find ways to sneak in more activity.
So if you happen to get derailed here and there, or find that you are burning out and are in need a break, it may not be as bad of an idea as you once thought. Let go of the guilt and enjoy the potential rewards of some downtime. After all, muscle memory is a powerful thing, when you get back to it, you may find that it doesn’t take that long at all to see improvements and gains again.