By now your regular workouts are as second nature as breathing or wearing pants before you leave the house, but now something — an extended family holiday or an injury perhaps — has ripped away your routine from you. Not working out for a day already makes you antsy. Not working out for a week or more? Oh, no, panic!
Illustration by Sam Woolley/GMG.
Hey, everything is going to be OK. Really.
And that's coming from someone who used to revolve her life around the gym and a steady workout routine because she had a fully decked-out gym at work that allowed for training five days per week, no excuse. But that nice gym went away when I decided to vagabond around the world.
That's when the anxiety about losing my fitness latched on hard. It's funny how fitness has a way of both being a purveyor of confidence and its executioner. I had equated the gym with progress, and in my head, no gym meant no progress; or worse, going backward. The thought terrified me, especially when I imagined all of my hard work and progress just melting away.
Whether you're dealing with an injury, have a hectic schedule that keeps you out of the gym, or generally need to be some place where you're not able to resume your normal workout schedule, you're probably wondering: Will you really lose all of your progress?
You Don't Lose Fitness That Easily
The short of the good news is, you don't fall back to beginner level as quickly as you think. It can take between two and four weeks of inactivity for more noticeable strength losses to occur. If you're a runner, your aerobic capacity could drop as much as 20 per cent in four weeks of inactivity.
How much of a break can you take before you start falling 'out of shape'? The answer can vary, depending on how fit you were to start with and whether we're talking strength or endurance.
The saying "use it or lose it" definitely has some truth here. Your body is awesome at adapting to stresses from exercising (or lack thereof). It's partially why, when you're getting in shape, you need to continually push yourself and challenge your body to make sure your fitness keeps improving (hence, the dreaded plateau).
The process of getting out of shape depends on how fit you were to begin with, whether you do endurance or strength workouts, and how inactive you are or plan to be. By that I mean, are you making do with the best you have and taking walks, doing yoga, or going on easy bike rides, if those are possible? Or did you become an expert at couch-sitting?
Injuries are painful, debilitating, and have the potential to set you back weeks or months from your workout goals. A few injuries make up most of the exercise mishaps out there, and although nobody is truly immune to injury, there are at least some things you can do to reduce your risk.
You're much better off mentally by staying as active as you can in some manner. It's your chance to focus on other areas of your physical health and maybe even try something new! Plus, let's say you (hypothetically) did lose all of your progress and you later returned to working out. It may be frustrating at first to find that you might not be able to do the stuff you used to breeze through, but that's OK — you'll end up bouncing back and returning to your normal fitness levels a lot quicker.
The 'Should Mentality' Is Effing You Up
If you've been sidelined or are currently out of commission due to an injury, you might feel powerless by all the things you think you "should" be able to do. Our own Beth Skwarecki, science and health staff writer, told me that when she tore her ACL she thought she was going to go insane and just hated that she wasn't able to do more, saying:
I was in really good shape when I got injured, and the injury didn't seem that bad, so I really just wanted to get back to what I was doing. It was so frustrating to be knocked off that trajectory.
Here Skwarecki feels like she "should" be able to bounce back quickly and get back into her normal swing of things, which made her anxious. In an interview with Tim Ferriss, Dr Michael Gervais, a sports psychologist and adviser to Olympic athletes, said that, in reference to getting into a professional fighter's mindset, "we get overrun by external [stimuli] telling us how we should look, how we should think, how we should — and that 'shoulding' all over oneself creates shame and smallness." Basically, it's this quagmire of "should this" and "should that" that can make it harder for you to cut yourself some slack.
So don't think about what you should do. Focus on what you can do, as Skwarecki did:
I guess what helped me was finding a [physical therapist that] I trusted, focusing on what I could do and doing it as well as I could.
Gillian Mandich, a health and rehabilitation science PhD student at Western University, also adds:
Although we can't always control what happens to us, we can always control our response to what happens to us. Focus on other areas of your life that support your physical health. Prioritise your nutrition, hydration and sleep. This will help boost your overall health, improve your mood, and create the best possible environment for healing.
Expand Your Idea of 'Fitness'
When I couldn't regularly access the gym, I dealt with the initial fear of losing my strength gains by doing the next best thing: Bodyweight workouts. I was concerned whether bodyweight workouts were effective enough (they can be and they were). But the most valuable lesson I got out of this was that a workout isn't just limited to how many kilometers you can run, how many kilograms you can lift, or how many sets and reps you're able to bang out in an hour.
Fitness can be anything you make of it, and as long as you commit to doing something within your current abilities — whether that's doing physical therapy exercises, getting your yoga on, taking long walks on the beach, or doing bodyweight exercises, that's good enough. This "good enough" mindset empowers you to ditch this crazy idea of the "perfect" workout or fitness scenario that might otherwise lead you to completely abandon your fitness goals. No gym? No problem, you can still work out, even if it doesn't fit your previous perfect definition of a perfect workout.
Our brains and bodies like novelty, so use this time away from the gym to try activities that make you feel positive, energised and confident, Mandich said. Always wanted to get into crocheting? Do it! Maybe even sharpen up your cooking skills. You never know what might relieve your stress and frustration.
Two months ago, I was about to embark on a nomadic life, a suitcase and laptop in tow, knowing that I was also saying goodbye to a proper gym. But fitness is important to me, so I had to make do with the most important 'equipment' of all: My own body. I made it work, and you can too.
Find Your Tribe
When Skwarecki had to get through her own agonisingly long ACL recovery, she found solace in talking to others who've gone through the same injury. She said:
I asked their advice and just had them talk me through what their challenges were and what to expect. I heard from so many badass people who had made it through, and they told me how they were doing their exercises a million times a day right after surgery. So that was kind of inspiring and I thought, "OK, people have gotten through this before."
Not sure where to find people who might've had the same issue? You can start on Reddit, since you can find a thriving community of just about everything. You might also want to look into Facebook groups of your local running clubs, for example, and ask, "Hey, recovering from a <specific injury>. Any advice on coping?" You can even go on Instagram and find hashtags associated with your injury to find fellow injured folks.
Similarly, Mandich also recommends being that person who helps someone else go through the same thing, saying that when you focus on helping others it could help make you feel good and possibly reduce your own anxieties.
If you're not injured but just don't know what to do without the gym, I've written extensively about how I make do with my travel-friendly suspension trainers, a series of bodyweight workouts, and the attitude that nothing is unchanging — your fitness or lack thereof included. And real talk: It's actually a good thing to take time off now and again, so maybe enjoy that, too.