What Happens To Your Body When You Take a Break?

Spoiler: it could go both ways.
icon 4 min
Esercizi di attivazione muscolare ©foodspring

Maybe you’ve been sticking to your 3-month training plan, integrated healthy eating, and could finally see some progress. Or you’ve been a diet-and-exercise devotee for a long time (we see you, 60-km-Saturday-cyclists). No matter where you’re at, life is always ready to toss you the unexpected. A few days of bad weather, a 10-day holiday in Spain, an unfortunate hamstring tweak—these things happen and feel like they’re holding you back.

And when you’re ready to get back into the game, things feel a little…harder. Whether you have to lower your pace when running or are reaching for lighter weights, it can all feel very frustrating. Exercise physiologists call this detraining, and it eventually occurs with any significant reduction in training stress. Eventually, all that time away can undo the gains you’ve made, as your body goes back to its pre-trained state. Partial detraining is an essential part of recovery—those days off between heavy lifting is when muscles heal and grow—but complete loss of fitness can feel like a major setback.

But how long does it actually take for detraining to take place? And what are the effects on your body? The good news is: unless you hang up your sneakers forever, there’s no such thing as complete detraining. And a little bit is better than nothing.

1-7 days

If you take a break for one week or less, you won’t see major changes. On the contrary, there are benefits you could experience from this short break. Your body has more time to recover, which will protect you against an overtraining injury – something that can set you back weeks or months. On the plus side, the rest time will help your muscles to recover more efficiently. It could even clear your head – tunnel vision about your gains is a thing – and you might have time for some other activities that you never seemed to fit into your schedule.

Read more: How Do You Know If You’re In A Sporting Rut?

7 days to 4 weeks

Things start to change if you’re on hiatus for longer than a week. Whether your break is a choice or forced, this is the start of detraining. Researchers in Australia and New Zealand looked at the detraining rate for a group of elite rugby players and American footballers to learn how long their strength stuck around. In their review of research, they found that your body is able to maintain its strength levels for up to 3 weeks before detraining starts to happen. After that, decay rates go up. However, that same review found that as few as two resistance training sessions per muscle group each week can help maintain upper-and lower body strength and power. Meaning even if you’re in Mallorca, get in some sets of push-ups and some eccentric squats to keep your muscles firing.

Your VO2max (capacity of your body to take in, transport, and then use oxygen whilst exercising) and the heart’s ability to pump blood efficiently) will decline. The VO2max is one of the most important metrics for evaluating cardiorespiratory fitness, and improves or diminishes based on your training schedule.

A review of research, aimed at assessing the effect of short- and long-term detraining on athletes found that the average V̇O2max decreased by 3.93% during a period shorter than 4 weeks, without alternative training. If you’re not an elite athlete, you’ll feel this difference a bit but it won’t be life-altering, and as long as you get back to a consistent schedule, you’ll be able to make up for lost time. But don’t be surprised if you’re riding the struggle bus during those first few endurance workouts back.

Are you injured? Try to think outside of the box! An alternative training can avoid or limit detraining. Both deep water running and one leg cycling have both been proven to be effective for this purpose. And if your lower body is out of the game, do upper body-only cardio, like standing in front of a conditioning bike and just using the arms. (It’s a real workout, we promise.)

More than a month

We put so much emphasis on VO2max, as it’s the most important metric of cardiorespiratory fitness—which basically translates to how long you can go without feeling like you’re sucking air. And you’ll see a difference in your VO2max if you’re out for a long time—like 90 days. During this long break, the average VO2max decrease is 9.43% . But the researchers found that you can buffer some of the effects of detraining by doing some movement.

Therefore, the next question is, what are you able to do? Can you cycle to your office job? Do you take movement breaks throughout the day? A meta-analysis including 21 studies, published in the journal BioMed Research International, showed that even without actual physical training, daily essential physical activity can also maintain normal physiological function and sustain cardiovascular fitness.

It’s not all bad news. A review paper focusing on maintaining physical performance, showed that you can maintain your endurance performance for up to 15 weeks when reducing your training frequency to only 2 sessions per week—which equates to just 33 to 66% of your normal exercise volume. That means sweating it out for 13 to 26 minutes can help maintain your fitness, as long as you’re getting your heart rate going.

Strength and muscle size (at least in younger populations) can be maintained for up to 32 weeks with as little as 1 session of strength training per week and 1 set per exercise, as long as it feels intense for you. For older people, maintaining muscle size may require up to 2 sessions per week and 2-3 sets per exercise, while maintaining exercise intensity.

So yes, the adage “move it or lose it” is probably accurate. But even if you do lose it, you can get it back.

Other articles from foodspring that you might be interested in:

Sources for this article

We at foodspring use only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.