Taking a day off from exercise is essential to recovering from tough workouts. But when days off turn into weeks, you put yourself at risk of losing strength, muscle, and stamina. Gaining muscle is hard, even with improved diet and training. Months spent building strength can be lost quickly if training is interrupted, or if insufficient calories are eaten to support the new muscle you gain.
Muscle requires calories
Eating enough food, especially protein, helps the body repair damaged tissues caused by lifting heavy weights and build new muscle mass during days spent away from the gym. When calories are suddenly restricted, the body will use its caloric resources, including protein, for energy, which means your muscles are usually fed last because your body prioritizes fueling the brain and other vital organs for survival.
If you don’t use it, you will lose it
When strength training is paused for more than three to five days, the body will begin to adapt to the lack of stimulation (exercise) because it realizes that there is no need for muscle tissue to grow. Since the human body is such an intelligent organism, it adapts to things that are constantly being done (and in this case, not done). The first and most obvious loss will be in muscle size; This is due to a reduced need for muscles to store water and glycogen, which are both required when training muscles.
Muscle fibers tend to hold on to their size for a few weeks after you miss workouts, so even a week away from the gym won’t wipe out your gains. However, the longer you stay away from the gym, the more strength and size you will lose. When you add age to this equation, you lose strength and muscle size faster. Muscle tissue is lost about three to eight percent annually after the age of 30 if strength training is not used. This means that by the time someone reaches their 70s, they may be half or less as strong as they were in their 30s. Leukopenia, or unintentional loss of muscle, affects 50% of people by the age of 50.
However, due to its highly neurotrophic nature, the body will regain strength faster if someone trains for a longer period. Gains made by someone new to the gym are more easily lost because that strength wasn’t built into the central nervous system or powered by extra muscle tissue.
Cardiovascular endurance is lost at a much faster rate. Even a week or two away from cardio will leave you feeling even more breathless than before. Long, slow endurance activities such as running and cycling cause the most damage from a distance, while activities such as sprinting or high-intensity work do not do as much harm.
Short breaks are OK
It’s okay to take a break from the gym, especially for vacations, injuries, schedule conflicts, and family obligations, but these are usually short-lived. The goal should always be to get back into exercise as soon as possible because strength and endurance greatly affect our quality of life outside the gym. Older adults are at greater risk of decreased quality of life and health, which means maintaining an exercise routine is imperative.
Training of uninjured body parts
Even if an injury occurs, especially to an arm or leg, exercises can continue using uninjured body parts. You may have to make adjustments, but the training will move slightly into the affected area to prevent a complete loss of strength and muscle mass. This concept is called “reciprocal education”. Preservation of strength in the injured area can occur due to the neurological nature of strength training.
Whether you’re spending time away on a fun beach vacation or you’re just busy with life, you won’t lose strength and muscle quickly. But if that time away from the gym continues to grow, you’re jeopardizing all the gains you’ve worked so hard for. If you’ve been away from the gym for a while or need help finding ways to avoid long breaks, VASA has a team of certified personal trainers at each location that can help! Schedule a free personal training consultation to determine your current fitness level and receive a personalized plan to help you on your fitness journey.
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