Fading Results - How How Quickly Do We Fall Out Of Shape?

In a few short weeks fitness facilities around the world will be buzzing with those seeking to improve their physical status. For some of us this is a lifelong journey of self-fulfillment, a commitment that has emblazoned exercise onto our lifestyle DNA not unlike eating and sleeping. Without it we wouldn’t quite feel our selves, well at least not our best self. For others it is a new endeavor full of hope and promise. Whether you are new to exercising or rather familiar you know what it takes to get into shape, to lose that weight or build that muscle. You know the effort or the commitment involved or at least you are starting to. What you may not know is what happens when you miss a few days maybe take a week or a month off, just how quickly can you lose the gains you worked for.  

Cardiovascular Detraining Effects

The short answer is a week. After just 1 week we begin to back slide. According to Dr. Edward Coyle (Director of Human Performance Lag University of Austin, Texas) in athletes tested after just 12 days off VO2 max (oxygen uptake) had already dropped 7%. Between days 21- 84 it dropped an additional 9%. In addition to the VO2 max drop blood volume also decreased as did mitochondrial density (cellular energy factories), lactic acid threshold, insulin sensitivity and even the ability to oxidize fat. The quickest drop off happened in elite or highly trained athletes which makes sense considering they have the farthest to fall. Those exercising for only a few months had a slower decline, but lost all gains within 4 weeks. Getting back into shape takes twice as long as losing fitness does. The reason for this is all those previously mentioned function capacities (blood volume, etc.) have to be rebuilt. 

Strength Detraining Effects

Fatigued woman - Ultimate Health Personal Trainer Los Angeles, CA 90068

Strength gains are not lost as quickly during time off as cardiovascular conditioning is. Generally this means about 4 weeks in you will begin to lose peak muscle strength and volume. Insufficient training stimulus leads to decreased capillary density, reduces oxidative enzyme activity which means less ATP production (muscle cell fuel), and less muscle nutrition (tone). Over time continued lack of training stimulus will result in thinner muscle fibers and eventually to loss of motor units (innervated muscle fibers).

Take heart that if you have been consistently training for more than a year even with the loss of condition during detraining you will still be significantly ahead of those who didn’t train at all. There is also a type of muscle memory that helps you regain what you lost faster than a newbie could achieve in the first place.  Remember the rule of thumb though; it takes twice as long to gain as it did to lose.

If you were new to exercise training and had to take a break studies show you will still retain a significant percentage of your gains. One such study showed that 6 months after stopping a 4 month training program up to 50% of strength gains were maintained. Again, it will be easier to regain those losses now than it was to achieve them in the first place. 

Other Considerations

Of course you have been around long enough to know that things aren’t always cut and dry. There are some variables worth noting. For instance let’s say you’ve been missing your exercise sessions due to illness or injury. In this case because of the additional physical stress on the body from your illness or injury your conditioning will dissipate sooner. Age also has an influence, some studies show that those over 60 lose strength twice as fast as those under 30. One of the more interesting finding was that where overall strength loss took months to lose specialized and sport specific muscle fibers start to degrade in as little as 2 weeks. It’s hard to be that weekend warrior when you keep taking breaks.

Retain Your Fitness

If you have worked hard or long enough to significantly raise your fitness it would be a shame to just let it go. You wouldn’t want all that time and effort to just go to waste would you? Fortunately there are things you can do to keep up your fitness even when time is tough or you’re nursing that injury. For instance, if you have been consistently training for a prolonged time or maybe training very intensely taking a few days to a week off would probably be in order anyway. This periodization is part of any good training routine. If an injury is keeping you out try training the other body parts. If you break your ankle for instance you should continue to do upper body and core exercises as well as work the good leg. You will get a crossover effect since hormonal levels would be protected from falling by the continued stimulation. This means no loss of motor units, less strength degradation and a faster rehab. If it’s an illness based break then this would strongly depend on the illness and its duration.

Consider the importance of proper nutrition this will go a long way on keeping the body healthy and weight in control. Try to stay active where you can. Take the stairs, walk a little more and if you have just a few free minutes a handful of push-ups and or squats could go a long way.     



Ncbi.nlm.gov – Muscular characteristics of detraining in humans

Ncbi.nlm.gov – Strength training and detraining in different populations: case studies

Yahoo.com/ health – How long does it actually take to get out of shape?

Ncbi.nlm.gov – Cardiorespiratory and metabolic characteristics of detraining in humans