Just because I run marathons doesn’t mean I’m not lazy.
Case in point: It’s been four weeks since my last race, and I’ve yet to get back into a regular workout schedule that feels good to me. What have I been doing instead of waking up every morning to run or workout? Sleeping. Eating. Meditating. Watching Netflix. Ad infinitum.
After the first few weeks, I really didn’t notice a change in my body at all—maybe my legs looked a little different, and my feet certainly hurt less, but that was pretty much it. Now, after nearly a month luxuriating in the couch potato life, it seems like any muscle definition my body once had has vanished forever. But I’m not even worried about that… Now, I’m just dreading getting back into the workout game.
On the one hand, I’m skeptical of how much fitness I could really lose after just four weeks—I mean, c’mon, I just ran a freaking marathon! But on the other hand, I walked up half a flight of stairs the other day and got winded. So, yeah, I’m a little worried that when I do finally get back into my workout routine, I’m gonna be a total mess.
I know I’m not the only one who’s ever fallen off the workout wagon and been terrified to jump back on for fear that I’ll never be able to get back into shape. And on the flip side, I know I’ve fallen prey to the belief that if I skip a day or two of exercise my body will instantly lose its fitness and athleticism. Here’s the truth: Both of those ideas are totally false. In fact, it actually takes quite a bit of time for your body to really lose its fitness, strength, and tone—and taking a week off from your workouts can actually help you see greater results in the long run.
Here’s what really happens to your body once you stop working out.
Maybe you finally caught that nasty office bug and are bedridden for a week, or your mother-in-law decided to extend her weekend visit by a few days, or your social calendar kind of exploded—whatever the case, you haven’t had the time to hit the gym in a week.
First, you’ll notice that it’s a little harder to concentrate at work. According to a 2012 study published in Neuroscience, regular exercise increases productivity and boosts mood. In fact, you’ll notice those results instantly, even if you do something as simple as taking a 20-minute walk before work.
You’ll also see a change in your blood pressure; after exercise, your body’s blood pressure drops to a lower level for about 24 hours because movement increases blood flow and circulation. But if you don’t exercise, your BP will remain at its baseline—and depending on your overall health and stress levels, that could be pretty high.
Exercise is also the best natural stress reliever on the planet, so you’ll likely feel more anxious or grumpy the day after you stop working out.
You’ve successfully avoided the gym for half a month—and you’re probably starting to see it in your figure. Although you won’t necessarily lose tons of tone after just two weeks, you might notice that your muscles look a little smaller or deflated. (Don’t worry, your muscles retain their overall strength for at least a month)
However, you’ll probably start to “feel” out of shape as your VO2 max declines. The VO2 max measures how efficiently your body carries oxygen to its muscles—the higher your VO2 max, the better endurance you have. Cyclists, marathoners, and cardio lovers usually have a much higher VO2 max than those who lift weights or engage in resistance training. Basically, you’ll lose your cardiovascular endurance by about 10 percent after 14 days of rest, and then by nearly 15 percent after a month off… Which explains why you feel like you need to take a break after walking up a flight of stairs or running to catch the train.
Once you hit the one-month mark, you’ll really begin to see changes in your bod. Surprisingly, it takes about four weeks to actually gain weight once you’ve stopped working out. As your muscle mass decreases from atrophy and lack of use, fat mass increases.
Skeletal muscle tissue also starts using fuel differently during this time, which adds to weight gain. Instead of using sugar (or glucose) to power movement and exercise, your muscles will begin to convert sugar to fat and store it in the body. Increased insulin resistance puts you at a greater risk for Type 2 diabetes and chronic inflammation, which leads to a whole host of diseases and ailments. Eek!
Here’s the thing—our bodies don’t change that much if we take time off from exercising. It won’t be as hard as you might imagine to get back into the gym… But if you continue to put it off, your body will definitely feel it. Bite the bullet, and get sweating!