The Case for Taking a Break from Working Out
During the years I lived in New York, I never had to really worry about staying relatively fit. Even when my gym time fell by the wayside for months at a time, I still walked close to two miles on a daily basis just during my commute alone, usually with heavy bags on hand. Carrying my groceries from Trader Joe's to my fourth floor walk-up certainly felt like strength training, and typical shopping excursions called for a trek around Brooklyn. Consequently, "out of shape" was always a relative phrase.
Fast forward to late last year, when I picked up my life, bought a car, and moved west. At the time, I actually had been making working out a priority—I had recently discovered boxing, and was in the best shape of my life when I arrived in Los Angeles; the fact that it's such a fitness-centric city only intensified its veneer in my mind. Then, while moving appliances into my new apartment barely a week after my arrival, I severely sprained my ankle.
During the couch-ridden weeks that followed, I didn't dream so much of hiking and exploring the yoga studios in my neighborhood so much as being able to walk without hobbling. For the first time, I wasn't just the NYC version of "out of shape," but actually and completely sedentary. I figured that once my ankle felt remotely okay, I would want to hit the ground sprinting. But when that moment finally arrived roughly two months later, I was surprised to realise that I actually felt pretty "meh" about getting back at it. Was it really so essential that I get back into shape, or was my body trying to tell me that it needed this time off—and then some?
Any expert will agree that periodic breaks are an integral part of a healthy fitness routine, to avoid burnout and injury. However, the general recommendation is peppering a workout schedule with rest days, not weeks or months. Still, while taking a longer siesta might not be the most popular opinion, I couldn't help but wonder if there was some way to validate my situation.
So I pored over exercise research and consulted with a few fitness pros. And as I probably expected deep down in my untoned gut, there's really not much evidence that supports taking extensive time off from working out (barring injury, of course—but I had lost that excuse at this point). "It's always important to give yourself permission to do things that make you happy and elevate you," says Heather Peterson, Senior VP of Programming at CorePower Yoga. "But in the long run, non-activity for sustained periods is not going to contribute to your wellness or well-being." Fair enough.
And honestly, I've come to that conclusion pretty organically over the past several weeks, as I've slowly and steadily begun upping my activity levels again—and feeling all the better for it, mentally and physically. Still, in spite of all of the evidence against it, I don't regret or feel guilty for taking my sweet time. As Peterson said herself, it's important to give yourself that permission to do whatever feels right—and I was plenty happy focusing my attention elsewhere during that time, until the hankering to get moving kicked in again (which it did).
But as I re-establish my routine, more questions keep surfacing. For example, how long of a break can we take before our bodies actually begin falling out of shape? Are there strategies to better face the challenge of becoming active again after taking time off? Two experts answer all below.
What are some good examples of when it might be time to take a breather?
Again, factoring in rest days should be a given to prevent injury. But if you have a workout scheduled and just aren't feeling it that day, then there's no harm in skipping it. "It’s important to listen to the signals your body sends out," says Michelle Kluz, CEO of Pure Barre. "Challenge yourself to “feel the burn,” but try not to burn out. Taking a day off can refresh your mind and body and help to maximise future workouts."
If you're injured, however, that break isn't optional. Take the time for TLC (compression, ice, and rest), and definitely consult with a doc if you think the damage might be serious. Wait until the pain subsides completely before hitting the gym again.
What about if I'm consistently just not in the mood?
In this case, it might be time to reassess your routine. Are the classes you're taking boring you or burning you out? Even if you're not 100% sure that's the issue, consider switching things up, says Kluz. Finding a new class or workout that you love might be all it takes to get motivated again.
How much time can I take off before my body gets out of shape?
Don't sweat that weeklong vacation (so to speak)—it usually takes roughly 14 days of inactivity before your fitness levels decline and you lose muscle mass, says Kluz. That being said, general consistency is key. "You lose muscles faster than you build them, unfortunately," she says.
How can I prevent this from happening without necessarily hitting the gym?
The reality is that you can't expect to maintain the same kind of muscle tone and strength if you dial down the intensity of your workouts. But if just staying in decent shape and feeling great is your goal, then look for alternative ways to stay active. "Trying walking outside in nature instead of logging hours inside the gym," suggests Peterson. "Or try a less strenuous routine like restorative yoga, or deep breathing. Staying mindful might be more important that just being active in the long run." Even taking a quick stroll during your lunch break is great.
Kluz also has a helpful rule of thumb: When considering lower-impact workouts like walking and biking, remember that one minute of vigorous activity has the same health benefits as two minutes of moderate activity.
I took some time off from working out. How do I get back into it?
If it's been a while, accept the fact that you might not be able to pick up where you left off—and that the first few days might be challenging. "Start slowly with something easy, perhaps just a short workout a few times a week," advises Kluz. "Build back up to a full workout schedule over the course of a few weeks." (She recommends aiming for two and a half hours per week as a minimum.)
Some other strategies for getting back in the game? Recruit a workout buddy to hold you accountable, and make sure you're taking the time to stretch out, rest, and reboot between workouts. (Foam rolling is always a dream, especially when you're feeling sore—plus, it helps prevent injury too.)
If your time off was due to injury, you'll need to take it especially slow. Consider booking a session with a trainer or physical therapist to learn some personalised strategies for safely working out again.
Need some more fitness inspiration? Check out our 6 favourite low-impact workouts.