Bouncing back from time off*

Sunday, 12 July 2020, By Max Freeman

Ever managed to stick to a training program, achieve some amazing results and then something derails the plan and you find yourself fast slipping back into old habits? Chances are you have probably felt yourself both physically and emotionally becoming less energetic and perhaps stressed and irritated about the situation. The reason may be because you've lost motivation or chosen to focus other areas of your life.  In other situations, you have succumbed to an unlucky injury that has taken you out of the game for a while; your doctor has given the orders for a surgery or procedure, or even a pandemic that sees the world and gyms shut down for months on end! These situations are especially frustrating as the mind wants to move but we aren't allowed for whatever reason. So, what does the body do in these situations and what can we do in response…


This is more formally defined as "the loss of fitness due to physical inactivity" and explains the result of inadequate loading of metabolic and physiologic functions. The main rule here: Use it or lose it!. While the chronic effects of exercise are lasting, it is important to remember they are also transient and reversible! When we replace the gym for Netflix these are some of the trade-offs to expect:

  • Skeletal muscles get smaller! While we don't see a change in fibre type, fibre diameter and length reduce. There is a loss of protein synthesis, increased protein degradation and overall "atrophy" of muscle. Think of this as reduction in "muscle tone", but more importantly- 
    • This has the potential to drop our basal metabolic rate (BMR) and lead to an increase in fat storage (and the older we get increased risk of sarcopenic obesity). Some studies show a 4% decrease in BMR over just 7 days[1]
    • Strength losses are even faster~ just 2 weeks and you can lose up to 12% strength!*
  • Drop in fitness. Our VO2Max (maximal rate at which our body can update oxygen during exercise ) decreases by 15% an 84-day duration of detraining [1] i.e. we get "less fit". 
    • One of the mechanisms behind this is that when we stop exercising we get a drop in our blood plasma volumes, which means we need to work harder to get the same amount of blood to working muscles. 
    • You'll often feel this when just getting back from a break and your heart rate picks up and become out of breath a little too fast. Not fun!
  • Increased fat mass
    • 4% increases in fat mass over a minimum of 60days as well as 10% increases in LDL (bad cholesterol) [1] . This is purely from an exercise point of view, and doesn't factor in diet changes.
  • Metabolic health markers
    • Besides your cardiovascular health, the body's ability to clear blood glucose is significantly impacted. Insulin-mediated glucose uptake decreases up to 46% in just 2.5 days! These sorts of changes can be pretty scary and explains why sedentary behaviour is one of the biggest risk factors in development Type 2 Diabetes [1]

So how do we manage the balance between training for better results but also getting enough time for rest, holidays and whilst being ready for the unexpected?

  • Retraining. First step, get back moving again. 
    • Know that while it may take a bit of time we can easily regain both cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength with retraining. As a general rule of thumb, you're looking at a 1:2 ratio from pre and post levels of fitness i.e. for every 1 week off will take 2 weeks to get back to where you are[2]. While this may scare some, it reminds us about the importance of including exercise as part of your lifestyle as well as to setting SMART goals to get back safely without the risk of injury or reinjury.
  • Minimise time for detraining
    • If you are expecting time away from exercise due to planned holiday, busy period at work or even certain procedure then hone in on your goals and increase your training in the lead up! This is a super simple technique often use pre-surgery for knee reconstruction patients, whereby the increased training takes our physical condition to a higher level pre-empting the time off exercise and resulting in a higher "base" level of fitness.
  • Adapt your training
    • Whether it's for a holiday, injury or mass closure of gyms find new ways to move and stay active. Speak to a trainer about what you can and can't be do with any physical limitation, connect online for a session if you're travelling or in isolation, or engage in a trackable such as MyVision to get those extras in!



Max Freeman (B.Com; B.ExPhys)

Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP) ID No. 21140


[1] Mujika & Padilla (2003) Physiological and Performance Consequences of Training Cessation

[2] Wilmore and Costil

*Disclaimer: Individual results vary based on agreed goals. Click here for details.

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