Exercise fear of loss: It's never a zero-sum equation

Of all the people you would expect to hear this from, why would I, a personal fitness trainer, ever talk about what happens when you take a break from working out without instilling abject fear into you? After all, it’s my job to help you get/stay fit, and to keep you consistent, right?


I wanted to talk about this not because of any fears I have, but because of the fears I hear from my clients — as if taking a vacation or a few weeks off from workouts will negate all the work we’ve done over the past 6 months or year together. I actually have had some clients stop coming in because their think once they stop their workouts, it’s a lose-lose proposition. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Workout breaks can be caused by the number of life issues that get in the way — fatigue, injury, overwhelmed by work or family — even boredom. The most common reasons are illness, vacation, or a life event that distracts you from your workout routine. An even bigger cause can be overdoing your fitness regimen outside our sessions together — too much high-intensity exercise that can lead to depression, fatigue, restlessness and poor performance in your workouts. Sure. I advise all of you to go to the gym or get on the treadmill to take care of your cardio/aerobic needs, but there is such a thing as overdoing it.

So how long is too long to take a break and not see a pattern of diminishing returns from all your hard-earned efforts? First, I want you to know it’s okay to take a break. Period. You may be surprised to learn that taking a few days or a full week off from training won't necessarily hurt the gains you've made. In fact, many serious exercisers and athletes regularly schedule a week off every 8-12 weeks. Marathon runners typically peak during training about 2 weeks before the marathon, then start tapering down so he or she is fully rested before a race. So it would occasionally be a good thing for the average exerciser to take extra days off to get rid of every bit of fatigue in their bodies.

Here are some basic stats about exercise:

  • Aerobic power can decline about 5-10% in three weeks.

  • It takes about 2 months of inactivity to completely lose the gains you've made.

  • Extremely fit exercisers will experience a rapid drop in fitness during the first three weeks of inactivity before it tapers off.

  • Muscular strength and endurance last longer than aerobic fitness. Muscles retain a memory of exercises for weeks or even months.

In other words, there is no hard, fast rule about how many rest days to take or when to take them. The key is to listen to your body for signs of overtraining and to your mind for signs of boredom or exhaustion. 

Of course, even if you take a break from your usual sessions with me or visits to the gym, it’s not a bad idea to change things up but keep active at the same time. Other active things that work your body in different ways include playing tennis or engaging in some paddle ball on the beach, taking long walks, and even snorkeling when there is interesting water around. If you want to do the minimum, you can take an exercise band with you and do a routine or two in your hotel room or lanai using a wealth of videos offered on YouTube.

I will NOT promise you that taking even a few days off will mean you won’t get sore when you come back to your workouts. How sore you get often depends on genetics, how long you were out, whether you are paying attention to protein ingestion and timing, and how intense your workout is.

If you do find you've taken a longer break than you really wanted, it's important to be kind to yourself when you start working out again to avoid injury as well as misery. It may feel as if you're starting over, but it won't take very long for you to get right back to where you were before your break. Your muscles have memory. They just need a little time to get used to being challenged again.

It is ALWAYS possible to get back on track, no matter how long it has been since you worked out. While it's tempting to want to make up for lost time and jump into an all-out workout routine, please don’t — that’s the last thing you want to do.

So start slow at first — use a lighter version of the workout you used to do by using lighter weights and using less intensity. Then give your body time. It may take up to three weeks to get back to where you were. Use the first few weeks to get a feel for your body again.

And don’t forget to take a few extra rest days, because I guarantee you’ll be sore. Recovery time helps your body heal and grow stronger. Each week, you’ll be able to gradually increase the intensity of your workouts until you're back to your usual fit self again.