Ask an Expert: Bouncing back after time off from exercise

Q: How long does it take to get out of shape? I couldn’t exercise for a while in December, and am wondering how much my fitness level may have declined. When I get back to the gym, how long would it take to get back in shape?

Answer provided by Mike Boggs, BS, MBA, CSCS (certified strength-conditioning specialist), fitness specialist, Providence Fitness Services:  

I'd like to give you a precise answer, but lots of factors play into this. However, here are some general rules:

When a fairly active person stops absolutely all activity, muscle will begin to atrophy in about 10 to 14 days. If you returned to exercise after a two-week hiatus, your normal routine likely would seem a little harder.

The rate at which any of us fall out of shape depends on the individual. The longer you've been away from activity, the longer it will take to regain your old fitness level. But there's a lot of variation in inactivity. Were you lying flat on your back after a car wreck? Were you hit with the flu? Had you injured your knee and were still able to hobble around? Or were you just too busy to fit in your usual exercise – but went to work or class, did chores around the house, made it to the grocery store? In that last case – a jammed schedule – you would hang on to your fitness level longer than if you had been completely laid up. And when you had time to get back to exercising, it would go more easily than if you were returning from a bad tangle with the flu.

Age is another factor. Adults start losing muscle at age 30. We can gain muscle at any age; it's just becomes harder to do.

Aerobic capacity – which has a large genetic component – withstands the aging process better than brute strength does.

So, depending on your situation, you could bounce back after one, two or three workouts. But don't push it. You'll help avoid injury if you slowly reacquaint your body with activity. Give yourself a week or two, especially if you're coming off an illness. A recovering body needs its energy for normal operations and can't siphon off too much for exercise. It's important that you pay attention to your body's signals during this time. If it's protesting, start with moderate-paced walking and stretching. Be reassured: You will get back in shape. Your body will remember the old days, and you'll get back to your old self more easily than if you were starting from scratch.

January 2004