Typically most workout articles or fitness posts on Facebook I read are about pushing yourself, working out hard, and making sure you’re consistent about doing so. Those are all legit and all great points. But I’m going to discuss something you don’t hear very often: It’s OK to take a break. Not only is it OK, it’s actually really good for you.
If you’ve been hitting it hard and working out consistently (by which I mean you’re only taking one to two days off from working out each week), at some point you’ve likely found yourself losing motivation, feeling weak and exhausted, and actually accomplishing less during your workouts. This was the case for me last month and I knew a break was in order. Enter: Family vacation and total workout strike. Not to say we didn’t walk a lot on the beach, which was definitely the case. And I did go for a short run and do some pushups and triceps dips one day. But there was no strength training, no HIIT, no power yoga or kickboxing. I ate what I wanted, which ended up being mostly healthy things after the second day since my gut couldn’t keep up with the inner fat girl trying to come out. But for the most part I just did what I wanted to do – which was relax.
All that relaxing and regrouping was what I needed physically and mentally to get motivated again when I returned home. And the funny thing? I actually feel stronger now that I’m back to my workouts. I’m sure my clients were super-thrilled with me on Monday morning when I was back to being that trainer who was more excited about their workouts than they were. “Oh great, spaz here went on vacation and she thinks I care how motivated she is.”
So I know what you’re thinking – you’re thinking you’ll gain a bunch of weight, lose all the muscle you’ve worked so hard for, and fall completely out of shape. Well, you won’t. It just isn’t gonna happen in one week. It takes about 4 weeks for your muscles to atrophy and start breaking down, even if you feel like it happens sooner. The thing is, most people forget that recovery is a crucial part of making progress. After 8-10 weeks of consistent workouts and fitness gains, you really should take a week off to let your body repair everything you’ve done and work its magic. Another plus – that change your metabolism will undergo because you’ve switched up your activity level will only do you favors once you surprise it again the following week.
So about that diet during this week of freedom. You still need to eat mostly healthy, but a cheat meal or two won’t hurt because again, it will change your body’s metabolism temporarily. And since our intention is to begin working out hard again the following week, that change is a good thing. But don’t fall off the wagon completely, although if you try to I can almost guarantee that your body will rebel the way mine did. One of the things about having a healthy lifestyle is that once you try to go back to poor eating habits it makes you physically sick. (This does not work with wine, however. I could take a break and go back to it very easily, but I digress.)
Will you gain weight? Probably. But it’s not as bad as you think. You will likely gain a few pounds because of fluid retention. Plus, all that extra energy (aka: glycogen) your body is holding onto will be accounted for in that slightly elevated number on the scale. But you’ll lose it within the first week of getting back into routine. I gained 4 pounds on our trip to the coast. Did I feel disgusting? Yep. Little did I know that by the Monday morning following our return I would be back to normal and feeling energized and strong. Okay so the trainer in me DID know that would be the case, but the self-critic in me was still a little manic about it.
You see, there’s a big fat elephant in the room named Burnout. We all know the definition of insanity by now, right? Apply that same principle to your body. If you keep giving it the same thing over and over, nothing will change. Remember how when you first started working out you saw the best results and felt better than ever? A total break from fitness will give your body that same advantage when you start back up. Eventually you’ll plateau again and you’ll recognize this by feeling mentally underwhelmed, physically exhausted and neurologically frazzled. That’s when you take a week off. Huffington Post actually published a great article about the benefits of taking time off from exercise. While they were focusing more on athletes and recommended a longer break (which is your prerogative, but unless you’re in the athletic zone I don’t recommend taking more than 2 weeks off), they really break down the science of why it works. You can check that out here:
“What we really do in hard workouts is apply a stimulus that elevates our heart rate, breaks down muscle fibers, causes the adrenal glands to secrete the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol and generally tells our body that the status quo won’t cut it anymore. The ‘getting fitter’ part – the body’s response to that stimulus – comes afterward.” – Huffington Post
And again, I know what you’re thinking (because I AM that girl): “If I take a week off I’ll never start back up.” My answer for that is, you’re overthinking it. I’m saying take a week off from weights, from cardio, from whatever fitness train you’ve been on. I’m not saying take a week off from thinking about it or setting new goals for yourself. I couldn’t wait to get back to working out again because I had all these new goals in my head, as well as new approaches to achieve those goals, which I had the time and energy to think about. I had time to figure out what I wanted to get out of my workouts and why it mattered to me. That’s what counts – as Jillian Michaels would say – figuring out your “why”. Love her or hate her, that woman has some good points about fitness and the human condition. During your one week off you won’t have to try to remember why you workout, your body will remind you.
One last point worth mentioning: I can attest to not always feeling stronger after a week off – there are times I’ve felt weaker and you may experience that. That’s OK too. Because even if you have to do fewer reps or shorter cardio sessions when you hit it again, your body has to respond to that stimulus and it WILL respond, faster this time and with renewed vigor.
So tell me, have you ever tried this break thing and how did it work for you?