How long does it take to actually lose your gains?? This question came up a few times in the past few days. Days that were spent out at sea with dolphins, snorkeling with sea turtles, eating at restaurants for every meal, taking down many a bottle of Martinique’s finest rum to the face (lol), and obviously not going to the gym.
First things first – it’s not only recommended to take time off from the gym every now and again but it’s important! Exercise puts a degree of stress on the body and any good workout program includes rest days which are beneficial to the body for recovery, especially if the exercise is intense. (Want to know more? Check out: The Dreaded Rest Day(s) and Do You Even Active Recovery?)
Now back to the topic at hand.
Sadly for all of us, the minute you stop training is the minute your body stops building muscle. How quickly your muscle mass and strength decline depends on a number of factors, but one thing is definitely for sure: You’ll always lose muscle in a much shorter time than it takes you to build them.
The technical term for muscle loss following a stop in training is “detraining” (the non-technical term is “loss of gains”). Your body, which was used to regular workouts is now suddenly left without them. During regular training, your body increases its production of enzymes that help build your muscles. When you stop training, your body no longer produces these enzymes and your muscles begin to atrophy. Your overall fitness level and how long you’ve been working out are two major factors that determine how quickly and severely your muscles will atrophy during detraining.
According to a study published in the Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine. Researchers at the University of Copenhagen asked 32 active men – 17 of which were in their twenties and 15 who were in their sixties and seventies – to wear a knee brace that immobilized one leg for a total of 2 weeks. After 2 weeks of inactivity, all the participants lost physical fitness and muscle mass. (Not a huge shocker.) But what’s interesting is that the younger men lost about 17 ounces of muscle mass and between 22-34% of their strength (in the immobilized leg) while the older men lost about 9 ounces of muscle mass and between 20-26% of their strength. Which tells us, the fitter and more muscular you are, the more likely you are to lose if you slack off.
The steep drop in strength may be sobering to some, but that wasn’t the worst of it. In order to try and restore strength, the men started 6 weeks of regular cycling – 3 times a week for 4 weeks and then 4 times a week for 2 additional weeks. They regained muscle mass after the 6 weeks of cycling, but their leg strength was still 5-10% lower than it was at the start of the study. Apparently it IS true… that if you don’t “use it” you do “lose it.”
Although the study involved only men, the results likely apply to women as well. Bottom line here: It’s important to stay active throughout your life. The results from this study don’t mean that you can’t skip the gym every once in a while or even while you’re on vacation – but they show how fast you lose muscle mass and strength fitness if you decrease your activity level down to nothing. Just remember, even if you can only make time to hit the gym for a half hour a few times a week, that’s better than nothing at all!