woman stretching

Is it okay to take breaks from exercising?

Exercise breaks refer to an amount of time away from your exercise regime.  Whether you have been training for a lengthy period of time or you’re still a newbie, the effects of exercise breaks will differ. If you have been exercising for a long period of time, you should be able to maintain your muscle mass for approximately 3-4 weeks. However, if you are new to gym, after 3-4 weeks of no activity, your muscles will deplete much more and in some cases, even revert back to its original size before you started exercising.  

Why do you need exercise breaks? 

Once you get in the zone of a fitness routine, understandingly you may worry that you’ll lose your progress if you take some time off. However, let us put those worries to rest because depending on your goal, exercise breaks can do wonders for you.  

Importance of taking a break from exercise

Well, if your goal is to build muscle or tone up, you should take regular exercise breaks to allow your muscles to recover. Imagine this, your muscles are like knitting fiber, when you exercise you stretch that fiber, make it loose and damaged. Once the fiber is stretched and damaged, for it to grow better and stronger it needs to repair. Therefore, if you take an exercise break you will give your muscles a chance to recover and ‘sow’ themselves back together. If you exercise whilst your muscles are still recovering, you will place stress upon those semi-repaired muscle fibers 

That was the easiest metaphor we could come up with. But if you are looking for technicalities, here it goes. 

The technicalities

Muscles are very elastic and very adaptable, when you exercise, whether it is High Intensity Interval Training, weight training or a body sculpt program, your muscle fibers get damaged. Hence why you will experience muscle pain within 72 hours of that exercise session. The pain will usually peak at 48 hours.  

When your muscle fibers are injured like this, your body will repair those muscle fibers by getting them to join together to form muscle strands (Bubnis, 2017). Your body will do this by releasing inflammatory molecules and immune system cells that activate satellite cells. These add more nuclei to the muscle cells to form those new muscle strands. As this occurs, the repaired muscle strands will grow in strength and thickness (Levya, 2018). This is how your muscles repair and grow in size.  

When do muscles begin recovery?  

Muscles don’t begin recovery straight after exercise. They can’t because you are still using them throughout your day. Whether it is to walk, jog or even type on a keyboard. Your body will use certain muscles for a variety of tasks, even twitching.  

So when do they begin to recover?

Muscles begin to recover the moment that the rate of muscle protein synthesis is greater than the rate of muscle protein breakdown.  

  • Muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is a natural process where your body uses the consumed protein to repair and build muscle (Trommelen, 2016)MPS occurs up to 24 hours post-exercise but it is at its best within 45 minutes post-exercise.  
  • Whereas, muscle protein breakdown occurs when you exercise or using your muscles. The muscle proteins get broken down into amino-acids and recycled to create new muscle proteins (Trommelen, 2016).  It does not minimise your muscle’s ability to grow, it is an important component of muscle recovery and growth as it helps to recycle those muscle proteins to remodel your muscles and help them grow (Tipton et al, 2018) 

So, before your muscles can recover and rebuild, your body will break down your muscle proteins into amino acids. Once this process is completed, muscle protein synthesis will begin to use the consumed proteins as well as those broken down to recover, rebuild and remodel your muscles. Recovery can only fully occur when you rest eg. Sleep.  

How much fitness will you lose in one week?

Now that you understand why exercise breaks are important, taking breaks that are too long CAN deflate your muscle mass or reduce your cardio endurance.  

Cardio endurance gets lost after a few days whereas, muscle strength takes a little longer. Your muscles begin to deflate after 3-weeks of no activity. You may feel them being a little softer than normal sooner than that but you strength should roughly stay at its level for at least 3-weeks of no activity.   

There are some variables that can affect your muscle depletion rate, for example; how long have you been training for, how built or strong you already are, how athletic you are and your nutrition throughout your exercise break.  

What about athletes?

Athletes tend to lose less overall muscle strength compared to non-athletes. There was a study conducted by McMaster et al (2013) which examined the rate of depletion in strength and power in elite rugby players. The rugby players managed to maintain their muscle strength and power for the first 3-weeks of no training but the decrease in strength and power began from week 5. This study also found that you can gain most of your strength and power in the first 24-48 months. And then, your ability to gain muscle mass or strength reduces, and it will continue to reduce every year from then on. This suggests that new gym goers have a bigger advantage over those who have been training for a lengthier period of time.  

How long can I take for exercise break?

There was a study conducted by Pedlar et al (2018) which involved 21 runners. These runners participated in the 2016 Boston Marathon. So you can imagine the amount of work and effort they had to put into improving their cardio prior to the marathon. Each runner ran for 32 miles a week and then their running routine was reduced to 3-4 miles per week. After 4-weeks of running those 3-4 miles, the cardio levels dropped significantly. But thankfully, because they still ran for those few miles per week, they managed to maintain a level of fitness. This may be something to consider if you are an athlete going through an injury. If you can, consider doing some sort of exercise to maintain a level of fitness. But before you do, may be best to speak to your doctor.  

Will I lose fitness levels by shortening gym sessions?

There was another study conducted by Madsen et al (1993) which examined the effects of detraining on endurance and metabolic changes. This study included 9 trained athletes and took place over 4-weeks. During those 4-weeks, the participants reduced their time of exercise from 6-10 hours per week to 35-minute high intensity session. The study reported that there were no changes in their ability to obtain enough oxygen to continue the exercise but their cardio capacity reduced by 21%. This study discovered that although those athletes were able to uptake enough oxygen to keep going, their capacity to continue exercising depleted.  

It seems that 3-4 weeks is a threshold for both cardio and muscle endurance. There was another study conducted by Bosquet and Mujika (2012) to analyse the detriment of detraining (exercise break) on endurance. They found that endurance decreased by 25% during 3-4 weeks of no training. They also found that if the break exceeds 3-4 weeks, your body will begin to revert back to the pre-training state.  

How often should I take a break from exercise?

The best advice we can give you is to listen to your body. If you start to feel ran down just take a day or two for yourself. It will not do any harm but rather benefit your progress as that will be the moment your body will be telling you it needs time to recover. Generally speaking, taking 1-2 days a week is recommended.

High amount of protein during exercise break

Don’t get us wrong, protein is great for building muscle but unless muscle protein synthesis is triggered (within 24 hours post-exercise), any protein that you consume will simply just be calories. Proteins are used for plenty other bodily functions, protein synthesis simply triggers the consumed protein to be broken down into amino acids that help build muscle, so without triggering muscle protein synthesis there is no need for extra protein consumption during exercise breaks.  

Let’s look at a study

There was a study conducted by Hwang et al (2017) which examined how muscle mass was affected during a 2-week exercise break, one group of participants were given Whey protein shake and the other group didn’t. The study reported that both groups managed to maintain their muscle strength and muscle mass but no significant difference between the group who were supplemented with whey protein compared to the group who wasn’t.  

So, what can you take from this? Whether you consume more protein or not you will roughly lose or maintain the same amount of strength and muscle mass. It is recommended to eat an ordinary amount of protein during an exercise break, 1gram of protein per 1kg of bodyweight. Preferably try to stay within your diet during your inactivity as this may help you stay in shape for longer. 

Can age or sex affect the ability to maintain fitness levels? 

Unfortunately, age and sex can play a role in your ability to maintain fitness levels. Let’s take a look.  

One study conducted by Keller and Engelhardt (2013) analysed the link between age and strength and muscle mass loss. There were 26 participants divided into two groups. One group comprised of people over 40 years of age and the second group comprised of people under the age of 40.  This study found that muscle strength declines significantly after the age of 40 (-40.9%) to those before age of 40 (16.6%). It can be summarised that the process of strength decline begins around age 30.  

Not convinced?

Another study conducted by Lemmer (2000) looked into the age and gender responses to strength training and exercise breaks. All participants were divided into two groups; 1 group comprised of people aged 20-30 years old and the second group comprised of people aged 65-75. Both groups had their strength tested before and after a 9-week fitness program. After 9-weeks, both groups were placed on a 31-week exercise break.  The younger group were able to demonstrate greater strength compared to the older group but there were no significant differences between the two groups in strength increase after the 9-weeks fitness program. However, after exercise break, the study reported that the younger group experienced a much lower loss in strength compared to the older group. No significant differences were found between men and women. 

Can menopause affect fitness levels?

When women reach menopause, their estrogen levels reduce drastically. This reduction in estrogen can lead to: 

  • Increases in visceral fat (tummy fat) 
  • Decreases in bone density 
  • Decrease in muscle mass 
  • Decrease in strength 

All these factors mean that women in menopause are at a disadvantage as their bodies tend to gain weight easier, their ability to perform high intensity exercise may be reduced due to decrease in bone density which can also contribute to loss in muscle mass and strength (Maltais et al, 2009).  

How long does it take to regain your fitness levels? 

Fitness levels are easier regained than attained thanks to muscle memory. The muscles that you have trained for a while will remember the size and strength that you were at before you stopped training so when you return to exercising you will find your muscle size will come back much quicker. Of course, this will vary depending on how long you have trained and your diet but the muscle size and strength that you initially gained over 1 year could potentially be back within a space of 3-4 months if you work hard enough.  

Those who are new to training may struggle to regain muscle mass as quick as people who have trained for a while as their muscle memory won’t be as strong.  

Summary

In conclusion, all the studies seem to point into the direction of 3-4 weeks worth of exercise breaks being the threshold for muscle mass but cardio endurance seems to fade within just a few days. More studies should bring up a definite conclusion in time.

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References 

Bosquet, L. and Mujika, I. (2012). Detraining. [online] Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/236590070 [Accessed 21 Oct. 2019]. 

Bruusgaard, J., Johansen, I., Egner, i., Rana, Z. and Gundersen, K. (2010). Myonuclei acquired by overload exercise precede hypertrophy and are not lost on detraining. [online] 107(34). Available at: https://www.pnas.org/content/107/34/15111 [Accessed 20 Oct. 2019]. 

Bubnis, D. (2017). How Long Does It Take to Build Muscle?. [online] Healthline. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/how-long-does-it-take-to-build-muscle [Accessed 24 Oct. 2019]. 

Bubnis, D. (2018). How Long Does It Take to Lose Muscle Mass?. [online] Healthline. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/how-long-does-it-take-to-lose-muscle-mass#trained-athletes [Accessed 21 Oct. 2019]. 

Bubnis, D. (2019). How Long Does It Actually Take to Get Out of Shape?. [online] Greatist. Available at: https://greatist.com/fitness/how-long-lose-your-fitness#athletes [Accessed 24 Oct. 2019]. 

Hwang, p., Andre, t., McKinley-Bernard, S., Marroquín, F., Gann, J., Song, J. and Willoughby, D. (2017). Resistance Training–Induced Elevations in Muscular Strength in Trained Men Are Maintained After 2 Weeks of Detraining and Not Differentially Affected by Whey Protein Supplementation. [online] 31(4). Available at: https://insights.ovid.com/crossref?an=00124278-201704000-00001 [Accessed 24 Oct. 2019]. 

Keller, K. and Engelhardt, M. (2014). Strength and muscle mass loss with aging process. Age and strength loss. [online] 3(4). Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3940510/ [Accessed 23 Oct. 2019]. 

More references

Lemmer, J., Hurlbut, D., Martel, G., Tracy, B., Ivey, F., Metter, E., Fozard, J., Fleg, J. and Hurley, B. (2000). Age and gender responses to strength training and detraining.. [online] Semanticscholar.org. Available at: https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Age-and-gender-responses-to-strength-training-and-Lemmer-Hurlbut/231fcb74210e0afa667f4fad6c3a4aa72009264e [Accessed 24 Oct. 2019]. 

Madsen, K., Pedersen, M., Djurhuus, M. and Klitgaard, N. (1993). Effects of detraining on endurance capacity and metabolic changes during prolonged exhaustive exercise | Journal of Applied Physiology. [online] Physiology.org. Available at: https://www.physiology.org/doi/abs/10.1152/jappl.1993.75.4.1444 [Accessed 20 Oct. 2019]. 

Maltais, M., Desroches, j. and Dionne, I. (2019). Changes in muscle mass and strength after menopause. [ebook] Available at: http://www.ismni.org/jmni/pdf/38/02MALTAIS.pdf [Accessed 22 Oct. 2019]. 

McMaster, D. (2013). The Development, Retention and Decay Rates of Strength and Power in Elite Rugby Union, Rugby League and American Football. [online] 43(5). Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs40279-013-0031-3 [Accessed 24 Oct. 2019]. 

McMaster, D., Cronin, G. and McGuigan, M. (2013). The development, retention and decay rates of strength and power in elite rugby union, rugby league and American football: a systematic review. [online] 43(5). Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23529287 [Accessed 21 Oct. 2019]. 

Tipton, K., Hamilton, D. and Gallagher, I. (2018). Assessing the Role of Muscle Protein Breakdown in Response to Nutrition and Exercise in Humans. [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5790854/ [Accessed 24 Oct. 2019]. 

Trommelen, J. (2016). The Ultimate Guide to Muscle Protein Synthesis. [online] nutrition tactics. Available at: https://www.nutritiontactics.com/measure-muscle-protein-synthesis/ [Accessed 24 Oct. 2019]. 

White, C. (2017). How long does it take to lose your fitness?. [online] ABC News. Available at: https://www.abc.net.au/news/health/2017-04-09/how-long-does-it-take-to-lose-fitness/8426246 [Accessed 24 Oct. 2019]. 

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