How Long Can You Break From Exercise Without Losing Progress?


Nothing can kill motivation like burnout.  Whether it’s from pushing through muscle soreness one too many times, trying to function on too little sleep, or just overall fatigue, taking an intentional break from working out is sometimes necessary. My biggest question, though, when I’m taking a break is how long can I break before I begin to lose muscle, momentum, and all that I have worked hard to gain. Basically, how long can I be lazy before it begins to show?

Cardiovascular fitness begins to diminish after about three weeks. Breaking for a month or longer can leave you playing catch up, and taking two months off will cause you to lose all progress and put you back at the beginning. It’s also important to note that the benefits of cardiovascular exercise on lowering blood sugar, reducing stress, and improvement on insulin sensitivity are short term, and cardiovascular exercises must be done daily to see benefits in these areas. If high intensity exercise is wearing on your body and your mood, continuing a light schedule of walking or another relaxing form of movement can help retain these benefits without putting stress on your body.

Muscle that isn’t being used will eventually atrophy (lose strength, shrink, diminish, etc.)  However, muscular strength takes longer to lose than cardiovascular fitness. It can take months to lose all progress, and even then your muscles will be able to remember lifting and you might not have to go back to the very beginning, depending on how fit you were when you began your break from exercise.

So, how long can you break, really? Taking a week to rest and recover every 8-10 weeks is healthy, and up to two weeks of rest can be mentally beneficial if you are struggling with burnout. The greatest secret of strength training is it only takes working out one time per week to maintain your current level of muscular fitness. So, if you are struggling with burnout or a busy schedule, simply cutting back to one day a week will keep you in maintenance mode until you are able to jump back into the workout game.

The Need for Strength Training

We steadily lose muscle as we age, and because we no longer need to do physically strenuous work to survive (carry water, hand wash clothes, etc.), we have to intentionally work our muscles to strengthen them. Approximately 3-5% of your muscle mass is lost every 10 years after the age of 30 if you are inactive, and unfortunately a small amount is lost even if you are active. This muscle loss causes your metabolism to slow down–a problem we are all aware of but don’t often have a solution for.

Metabolism is the rate that your body burns (or uses) the energy–fuel–food–calories– that you eat. As you get older and you steadily lose your muscle mass, your body becomes so efficient at burning your food/calories that you actually need less and less food to survive as you age.Think of a toddler getting a cup of water off a table. They awkwardly and inefficiently climb on a chair, using all four limbs grab the cup and awkwardly crawl back down. Now, an 8 year old might run to the table to get their drink, leave it and keep playing. However, as an adult we’ve learned the most efficient way to do everything, and we progress until we are able to accomplish the same task with as little movement as possible: I either carry my water around with me, chug an entire glass of water at once to avoid needing to go back to the kitchen or, I may ask one of my energetic kids to bring it to me! These natural tendencies to become more and more efficient as we age keep us from using our muscles, leading to muscle loss, causing us to need less food for fuel.

Instead of getting overwhelmed when picking a workout or exercise program to do, remember all of them work. It doesn’t matter what exercise program you choose, you will see results if you are doing the exercises properly and you stay consistent. Consistency is the key to progressing in anything. If you want to be a better athlete, artist, musician, or writer you must practice and work consistently. It is no different if you want to strengthen your muscles or lose weight or body fat. In the same way that one week does not make you an expert, one month does not mean you are done and can stop exercising. Results come slowly, and visible results come even slower. However, results come eventually and suddenly, you realize you have a little muscle definition. The best part about strength training is you don’t have to do it every day. As a matter of fact, studies show that just 2 days a week can make a difference if you have been inactive, and just 1 day per week of strength training can bring positive results for older adults. 

I would recommend beginning with 2-3 days each week, with at least 1 day of rest between strength workout days. If you’re looking for a simple workout and tips on where to begin, I’ve put together some of the most basic circuit workouts that you can download for free here. Stay consistent, and I promise, you will feel so successful that you persevered and were self-disciplined enough to continue even when the work was hard and results were slow to appear. Good luck!

Lessons From Children

Some of the most outstanding lessons in health I have learned are from watching my children.  They are incredibly inefficient movers, expending at least twice the amount of calories to complete the same tasks as an adult. Their joy for life causes them to bounce out of bed in the morning, excited to see what adventure might be on their schedule for the day. As I am still slowly waking up, they have already accomplished a morning workout and have enjoyed a morning snack and breakfast without self-criticism. I am daily in awe of their lack of fear, ability to forgive and forget, and their knowledge of what they want. Every moment of every day brings life and rich possibilities I never would have considered going about my normal adult day.

A vision of perfect happiness, lounging contentedly, my 3 year old’s rosy cheeks, flushed from his recent sprints around the room, are bursting with his smile. He sits awhile and off he goes again, nothing holding him back. His energy is unending; his emotions transparent; his eating habits sporadic. Okay, his eating habits may cause me great frustration, but I think we can even learn from their “bad” eating habits. Children are completely untainted and have not yet been affected by outside opinions, ideas, or expectations. They are hard to keep up with physically and emotionally, yet many of their habits are so raw and basic, they are worth studying and certain aspects are worth mimicking.  

Their emotions are transparent. They feel what they feel and they let you know what that feeling is. There is no pretense or hidden agenda. They don’t conceal certain aspects of their feelings because they fear we will not understand that specific part of their feelings. They share it all. It all comes out, it all gets dealt with, and eventually they are able to leave it all behind as happily as if those negative feelings never existed.

Their eating habits are left wanting…by adult standards. They sit down at the table, only to eat a few bites and tell us they are full. As adults, it drives us crazy as we push them to eat so that we can hold off on snack time at least a couple hours after each meal. However, they eat to a level of comfort, and always know when to quit. They don’t stuff their stomachs full because they aren’t yet addicted to food. They know they will be fed again the next time they are hungry, and they don’t yet realize sometimes you have to eat too much of your favorite food if you want to enjoy it before everyone else eats it first. They eat many small “meals” throughout the day, rarely eat meat, and are happy to survive on a small variety of foods. Their foods have few ingredients and almost all directly from the earth. We even feel the need to make homemade baby food to keep the processed ingredients out of their little bodies. They are healthy.

Their energy is unending. Because of their long nights of sleep that we require of them and the healthy foods and eating habits that we set before them, children have more energy and enthusiasm for life to fuel that energy than most adults can even attempt to follow. Beginning as babies, they squat to pick up things, bending at the knees in good form building strong, muscular thighs that eventually burn all their baby fat. Toddlers run in every direction seemingly at the same time, bouncing from one energetic movement to another, creating a dance out of their active motions. Panting and breathless, their excitement for their mere existence creates an energy that propels them in continuous rounds of jumps, springs, and army crawls. They give their all with huge bursts of energy expenditure until they can no longer give at all, resting until they do it again. They never stop.

They live in such a way that we should all stop and admire. If only we could share our feelings until we no longer felt their weight, eat only until we are 60% full, move like our energy is never-ending, and end our day with 11-12 hours of sleep. Perhaps then our faces would be bursting with smiles as well.