Will One Week Off Kill My Body?

According to Monday’s Reuters Life! article on staying fit, vacations can have fitness enthusiasts “… torn between exercise and excess.” As you lounge listlessly by the pool, will you lose what you’ve worked hard to attain?

One Week Off Will Not Kill Your Body

Fortunately, if you are working out consistently (at least a few days per week), one week will not turn your body into “a formless blob.”  The article mentions how exercise-addicts can feel guilt-ridden during vacation.  For those poor unfortunate souls who can’t take a chill pill, view the week off as a blessing in disguise– a well-trained body requires ample rest to continue performing at peak.  On the other hand, one week off for the couch-potato-recently-turned-fitness-freak can be the beginnings of something called a “detraining effect.”

Detraining Effect

The detraining effect is the loss of any training benefit accrued during a consistent, well-planned exercise program.  Losses can occur at 10 days to two weeks after cessation of exercise and can happen for a number of reasons, such as voluntarily stopping, chronic illness or being bedridden.  Vacations that involve lots of walking but zero regular fitness activity (such as weight-lifting, running or elliptical) will not initiate the detraining effect.  Sedentary behaviors begin the effect, which includes muscle atrophy and aerobic (cardiovascular) losses.

Detraining Consequences: Unfit versus Fit

Unfit: For the beginner or sedentary individual, detraining can occur in as little as 1-2 weeks, according to my Exercise Physiology textbook (McArdle, 6th edition).  A Med Sci Sports Exerc study showed that beginners who took part in an eight-week aerobic training program made substantial cardiovascular improvements; however, once they quit the program after those eight weeks and remained sedentary for two months, they lost all of the cardiovascular benefits they had attained.

Fit: The Reuters article is correct about the fit athlete–she can be a languid piece of lard and enjoy the time off.  That said, those who are fitness-freaks-gone-couch-potato can lose half their aerobic conditioning after three months of exercise cessation.

The Upside

Luckily, if you work out at all, your muscle has a memory.  Your body can rebound from a sedentary stretch of time in as little as a few weeks to a few months.  This depends on how intense you exercise, how often and how long.

Tapering and Athletic Time-Off

When you decide that there may be a period of time where you are not training as hard (be it the winter solstice or your off-season, whatever that may be), do not quit from exercising entirely.  If you were at 3-4 days per week, you can drop down to 1-2 and remain at the same fitness level for a few weeks.

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