Should you take a break from exercise?

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While exercising consistently is important for building endurance, conditioning your body and losing weight, there almost always comes a time when you have to take a break.
 
Taking a break may be just what you need to rest, recover and rejuvenate, but how long before you start losing your fitness?
 
The answer to this question depends on how fit you are and how hard and often you’re working out. In general, strength and power gains can last four to six weeks and cardiovascular gains begin to diminish in about two weeks. 
 
Many things that lead to poor health and aging are related to strength and conditioning, which are both trainable.
 
If you’re pretty fit, eat well and get good sleep, your ability to recover will be better. Taking off one to two days per week would be adequate for someone like this. However, you could exercise every day if you’re varying your exercises and the intensity of your workouts. Some people only work out two to three days per week, so they already have “built in” days off.
 
Signs it’s time to take a break
 
It might be time to take a few days off if you’re experiencing:
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of motivation to train
  • Prolonged soreness
Normally a few days of rest will take care of this, but if the signs aren’t recognized and you continue to try to “grind” through these feelings, you could end up with an injury or illness. 
 
Taking a few days off will actually do more to improve your fitness and training. Typically, I recommend that people take a few days off from exercising every six to eight weeks, assuming you work out at a good intensity and are consistent. This gives both your mind and body a chance to recover and adapt to the previous weeks of training. 
 
Prolonged exercise breaks
 
It’s not a good idea to take a prolonged break from exercise, as fitness can’t be stored. However, if you need to take an extended break from exercise, there are a few things you can do to keep your fitness levels up. Doing moderate- to high-intensity exercise one day a week can help maintain fitness gains during times when you may not be able to exercise as regularly. Walking is not intense enough for this purpose – sprints, push-ups, squats, lunges and stair climbing are great options that achieve this goal and don’t require any equipment. 
 
It’s important to not resume exercise at the same intensity and frequency as where you left off, despite the fact that you may be motivated to start again. If it took you five to 10 years to gain weight and get out of shape, don’t expect that you can undo this through exercise in just a few weeks. Exercising too aggressively after being off can lead to significant soreness and possible injury, which could impede your progress. Be patient and, most of all, be consistent. 
 
Chris Kolba is a physical therapist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
 

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