Taking time off from working out can be a slippery slope. While adding a recovery day to your routine is generally a good practice, too much time between workouts could lead to potential setbacks. According to a small new study, it’s actually much better for your body at the genetic level to not fall off the fitness wagon in the first place.
It’s no secret that heading to the gym after some time off is difficult. You might notice that you’ve lost some of the gains you worked so hard for or that your regular number of reps is suddenly super challenging. According to researchers from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, that struggle goes to the genetic level — taking time off in favor of travel, work and holiday festivities can actually impact your genes and make it harder to get back on the horse. Published in the journal PLOS Genetics, the study looked at muscle biopsies of 23 participants while they trained only one leg for three months. They found that while the participants were working on their fitness with a strength-training routine, their genes actually started to change. In total, more than 3,000 genes were positively altered by the exercise.
HOW MUCH TIME OFF IS TOO MUCH?
The researchers then had the participants take nine months off the exercise program. After their hiatus, the researchers could find none of those changes in their genes — it was as though the exercising had never happened. The scary part is the majority of the gene-enhancing effects were lost after just a month or two of not training, according to the study’s authors. In other words, checking out of your gym routine for even just a few weeks has the potential to erase all the progress you’ve made at a cellular level. Yikes.
DOES IT HELP IF YOU’RE NORMALLY ALWAYS FIT?
You might assume that if you’d been regularly working out, it would be easier to get back on the horse than if you’d never taken up a gym routine at all. But that’s not the case, according to the study. After the time off, the researchers had the participants get back on the exercise program, this time training both legs. After performing another set of muscle biopsies, they found no difference between the leg that had been trained before and the leg that was just getting into the training routine. In other words, the previously fit leg didn’t retain any muscle memory — it was like starting from scratch.
A PRACTICAL APPLICATION: THE HOLIDAY SEASON
The results make a super-compelling point as we head into the holidays: Rather than fall off the wagon and lose all your progress, get out in front of your New Year’s resolutions so you can stay on track. There’s nothing like starting off with a little muscle-memory momentum as you hit the gym for Day One of your resolution.