What Happens When You Stop Working Out?

Sarah Cann Training

Ok, we’ve got to address this WAY TOO common issue many busy wives & mom’s have: Skipping workouts.

I bring this up today because I run into past clients frequently and often I hear, “I haven’t worked out in weeks/months, etc. and I feel so out of shape already!”


That’s what happens (among other things) when we stop working out.

I’m not trying to make you feel guilty.

I just want to present a real picture of what happens to our bodies when a rest day turns into a rest week, month, and so on.

Listen, I get it, believe me.  There are lots of reasons to take a break from your workout routine — family demands, vacation, non-stop rain, work obligations.  Even the most dedicated may be forced to stop for a while due to sore muscles, illness, or injury. Don’t push yourself to work out every day without a break because your body needs rest and recovery days to repair muscle fibers and strengthen itself between workouts.

Training recovery is a critical component of an exercise program, and for most people, this consists of one to three days of rest depending on intensity of the activity

However, if you go beyond a week without activity, you begin to experience the effects of “detraining” (also called deconditioning), a phenomenon in which you lose the beneficial effects of training.

Remember the human body (even a fit human body) is a very sensitive system—and physiological changes (muscle strength or a greater aerobic base) that develop through training will simply disappear if your training dwindles.  Since the demand of training isn’t present, your body has nothing to adapt to—and just slinks back toward baseline.

Today I am going to fill you in on understanding what’s really going on with your body after about 14 days of too much rest and what happens when we stop working out.  

My goal is to give you some immediate motivation to get moving again!

Here’s what happens to your body when you stop working out:

Visible Changes in Your Body Composition  

Many signs of deconditioning are not always physically visible to the naked eye—but you should expect a loss of muscle mass and size and the accumulation of body fat.  

A few factors can contribute to an increase in your body fat when you stop working out:
~First, your calorie requirement will decrease.  As you lose muscle mass, your metabolism slows down as your muscles lose some of their ability to burn fat.
~Secondly, you’re not burning the same amount of calories as you used to because you’re moving around and working out less, so if you don’t adjust your food intake accordingly, those additional calories will be stored as fat. Something you should be wary of is visceral fat aka belly fat.  

So, if you eat the same way you’ve been eating while you’re on a workout hiatus, your body won’t be burning the extra calories without an adjustment to your diet– and you will likely put on weight.

Muscle Loss 

A sizable decrease in muscle mass, capillary size, and density; bone density; flexibility; and overall blood flow and energy production are all side effects of constantly skipping workouts.  And while your body will hang onto strength gains longer than aerobic gains, throwing in the training towel will gradually lead to a loss of lean muscle mass, muscular strength, endurance, and your muscles simply won’t fire the same way they used to because of underuse.

What’s happening? As muscle fibers realize they don’t need to store energy, they will store less glycogen—which leads to something called atrophy (or the shrinking of muscle fibers). When muscle fibers shrink, they need more stimuli to contract.  So you’ll have to work harder to see results--yikes!

Your aerobic system can go down the toilet:  Aerobic and endurance fitness reduce a lot faster than muscle mass—it’s the performance factor that is reduced the fastest. Physiologically, the changes are stark, too.

Stroke volume (the amount of blood pumped out of the heart to the body) reduces, the size of mitochondria (the power plants within a cell, linked to fitness health) reduce by almost 50 percent, heart rate increases, cardiac output reduces, and your VO2 max—or the maximum volume of oxygen an athlete can use (a gold standard of physical fitness) decreases about one percent a day.

Another setback: Your lactate threshold—or how hard and long you can work out until your muscles tell you to stop—begins to drop.  This stinks because working out at or close to your lactate threshold is a great way to build fitness; if yours is low you won’t last very long, and thus you’ll reap fewer benefits from a gym session.  You begin to lose endurance capability as well as the ability to perform at higher intensities.

You may feel dumber. 

Your brain suffers when you don’t workout.  Sorry to be so blunt but ask anyone who regularly works out and they know what I’m talking about. Since exercise helps pump oxygen to the brain—one reason why you may feel sharp after a workout—you may feel a little cloudy or not as ‘on’ after weeks removed from your workout regime.

Why? One factor at play: Both aerobic and strength training boost the neurotransmitter brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps promote the growth of new brain cells and enhances connections between existing ones. Some research even links low levels of BDNF to depression. This makes exercise an important part of maintaining cognitive function.
Dopamine levels also drop as your days in the gym become a thing of the past, which may make you more anxious and fatigued. This feeds into motivation—if you’re tired and stressed you may avoid the gym, creating a vicious cycle.  The longer the time off, the more difficult a time people have starting up once again.

Your sleep sucks.

Because exercise places both metabolic (or energetic) and mechanical stress on your muscle tissue, it can help promote good sleep. After all, it’s in deep REM cycles of sleep that your body produces hormones (like growth hormone and testosterone) to repair muscle tissue damaged during exercise. A lack of exercise will lead to higher levels of energy in the body and reduce the need for deep sleep, which could lead to restless or insufficient sleep.

Now I don’t want to be all doom & gloom today!!

So what’s the best way to stop fitness loss?

Don’t abandon workout routine in the first place...duh.

But seriously though,

here are some tips to help minimize the negative impact of skipping your workout routine:

  • Crosstrain or try “light” activity that’s not part of your usual regimen, such as yoga, walking, or bike rides.  HUGE WIN for busy Moms who can follow behind their kids riding their bikes or playing on the playground!

  • Scale back your workout schedule if time is the issue.  Aim for 1-2 sessions per week, break your workout into several shorter sessions, or incorporate a few sessions of high-intensity interval training that can be done at home without any equipment.

  • Try working unaffected muscle groups if you’ve stopped exercising due to soreness or injury such as a broken bone or ruptured tendon. Legs sore--work upper body, shoulders sore--work legs, etc.

  • Keep your nutrition in check.  Maintain good nutrition while consuming adequate protein to minimize muscle loss.

One thing that will work in your favor: muscle memory.  

Essentially, your muscles have special cells in your muscle fibers that “remember” previous training movements so that when you get back to working out after an extended layoff, you are able regain lost muscle quicker.

Patience and persistence is key.  

Remember, not all is lost – you can always restart your training routine.

It’s just a small break but don’t unpack there.

If you need some quick workout ideas to jumpstart your routine, grab a copy of my free metcon guide.  It includes 5 of my favorite MetCons that all take less than 20 minutes and require minimal equipment! Download your copy here.  

Talk to you soon,