How To Start Exercising Again After A Break Or Injury, And Stick To It!

Here's how to get back into working out.

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As an NSCA-certified personal trainer, I am often approached by individuals who want advice and guidance on how to start exercising again after a long break.

Between overuse injuries, physical or mental burnout, illnesses, a move or new job, or just a loss of motivation, it’s not all that uncommon to fall out of your strength training, cardio, or overall workout plan.

Before you know it, weeks turn into months without getting regular exercise and you suddenly notice that your current fitness level is nowhere near what it was when you were doing daily workouts or exercising consistently.

In this guide on how to start working out again, we will discuss how long it takes to get back into shape and provide tips for how to start exercising again to really stick with your new workout routine and healthy habits.

A person breathing heavily, hands on knees.

Do I Have To Start From Square One After Time Off From Exercising?

Most people who fall out of their workout routine due to injury, illness, or some other cause start to notice subtle changes in their body after several weeks of neglecting regular exercise.

For example, you may notice a loss of muscle definition, greater difficulty lifting heavy things, increased breathlessness climbing stairs, and changes in your body composition such as increased body fat and loss of muscle mass.

Depending on the reason why you have stopped exercising, the physical changes may be more apparent and drastic, especially if you also part from other healthy habits.

It’s not uncommon for everyday athletes to experience some depression with a running injury or long-term illness that prevents them from sticking with their exercise program.

This can be coupled with emotional eating, drinking too much alcohol, foregoing your healthy diet in favor of sugary foods, not getting enough sleep, etc.

Rather than chastising yourself for neglecting your fitness routine and healthy habits, I urge all of my clients to give themselves grace for whatever has happened in the past and allow themselves to have the opportunity to start a new workout plan with self-confidence and self-respect.

You may have questions such as:

  • How long will it take to get back in shape after an injury, illness, or a long break?
  • How long will it take to regain fitness after time off?

How long it will take you to regain fitness after time off from working out will depend on quite a number of factors.

Let’s look at each of these factors that affect how long it takes to get back in shape after time off:

A person on a track, hands on knees.

#1: How Long You Were Inactive

The longer you were not working out, the longer it will take to return to your prior fitness level.

For example, studies show that cardiovascular detraining, or loss of aerobic fitness, starts to set in after about two weeks of inactivity1Coyle, E. F., Martin, W. H., Sinacore, D. R., Joyner, M. J., Hagberg, J. M., & Holloszy, J. O. (1984). Time course of loss of adaptations after stopping prolonged intense endurance training. Journal of Applied Physiology57(6), 1857–1864. https://doi.org/10.1152/jappl.1984.57.6.1857 and continues to drop steadily over 8-12 weeks but then levels off.

An appreciable loss of muscular strength doesn’t really start to set in until at least three weeks of inactivity.2McMaster, D. T., Gill, N., Cronin, J., & McGuigan, M. (2013). The Development, Retention and Decay Rates of Strength and Power in Elite Rugby Union, Rugby League and American Football. Sports Medicine43(5), 367–384. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-013-0031-3

Therefore, if you’ve only been out of the gym for a few weeks or a month, your current fitness level may not be appreciably lower than your strength and cardiovascular fitness prior to your exercise break.

However, if you’ve been out of your exercise routine for several months, you should essentially proceed with the mindset that you’re starting fresh as if you are a beginner.

#2: The Reason You Stopped Working Out

The reason you stopped exercising can affect the time course for regaining fitness as well as the best training plan to get back in shape after time off.

If you had a bad illness, your body may not be weaker overall, so it will take longer to regain your fitness3Paddon-Jones, D., Sheffield-Moore, M., Cree, M. G., Hewlings, S. J., Aarsland, A., Wolfe, R. R., & Ferrando, A. A. (2006). Atrophy and Impaired Muscle Protein Synthesis during Prolonged Inactivity and Stress. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism91(12), 4836–4841. https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2006-0651 compared to someone who just got a new job and no longer had time to consistently work out.

Similarly, athletic injuries that have led to surgery, immobilization, or overall lack of physical activity in your everyday life can cause muscle imbalances on the injured side and more rapid loss of strength.

Therefore, the exercise plan for rebuilding muscle strength and aerobic fitness after an injury or illness needs to be more conservative and rehabilitative compared to returning to the gym or a workout routine after burnout or loss of motivation.

A person bent over, hands on knees.

#3: Your Previous Level of Fitness

Generally, the fitter you were before you stopped working out, the faster you will improve your current fitness level back to your prior fitness level.

#4: Your Experience Level

People who had been training consistently for years generally can build up faster after a long break than beginners who had only been following their fitness routine for a few months before stopping.

#4: Your Age

As we get older, gains in fitness and strength made through training are often lost more quickly,4Toraman, N. F. (2005). Short term and long term detraining: is there any difference between young-old and old people? British Journal of Sports Medicine39(8), 561–564. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.2004.015420 and regaining fitness can take longer.

How To start Exercising Again After A Long Break

Over the 15 years that I’ve been working as a certified personal trainer, I’ve amassed some tips for how to start working out again after a long break:

Three people doing a lunge.

#1: Set Realistic Goals 

Fitness goals can be a big motivator to stick with your workout plan, but it’s important to set realistic goals as you’re returning to an exercise routine.

It takes time to lose muscle mass, strength, and aerobic fitness when you stop exercising consistently, but it also takes time to build up your fitness level again. 

The following guidelines provide approximate estimates for how long it takes to get back in shape after time off. 

Note that the amount of time it will take to build up your current fitness level to your previous fitness level depends on various factors, such as your age, your previous fitness level, the type of exercise or workouts you are doing, and why you stopped working out.

Therefore, these guidelines can be seen as a general rule of thumb but won’t necessarily apply to every scenario:

  • If you were inactive for a month or less, getting back in shape would probably take 1-2 weeks.
  • If you were inactive for 1-2 months, it will take about 3-4 weeks to get back in shape.
  • If you were inactive for 2-3 months, it will probably take 6 weeks to get back in shape.

Beyond that, you should be prepared to essentially start to build up your strength and cardio fitness levels from square one.

A list of goals.

#2: Ease Back Into It

The single best tip for how to get back into working out after a long break is to ease back into your exercise routine slowly.

Don’t go gangbusters the first day back in the gym and try to lift your previous weights, and don’t lace up your running shoes and plan to run 5 miles (8 km).

Your current fitness level won’t be on par with your previous strength and endurance.

  • Start with bodyweight exercises like push-ups, squats, and lunges, or lift no more than 60-70% of your previous weights.
  • Cut your number of sets and reps down to about 60 to 70% of your previous training volume. 
  • Reduce the duration and intensity of your cardio workouts. It is best to start with low-intensity cardio with some intervals of moderate-intensity cardio. 
  • Save high-intensity interval training for a couple of weeks until you can get through 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise without significant soreness and breathlessness.
  • Start with run/walk intervals if you are returning to running after an injury, illness, or some other cause for a long break.
  • Do a thorough cardio warm up with dynamic stretching to increase heart rate and range of motion, and a cool down after each workout to prevent soreness and to guide your heart rate back down.

Gradually build up the frequency of training in your fitness routine as your body tolerates it. In other words, don’t jump back into daily workouts right away. 

  • For strength training workouts, start with no more than 2 to 3 weightlifting workouts per week, taking at least 48 hours before training the same muscle groups. Make sure to focus on proper form and technique. Use this time to re-establish the best weightlifting technique, particularly if you return from an injury.
  • For cardio exercise, start with exercising every other day. 

You can incorporate brisk walking, yoga, stretching, or other low intensity exercise on your “off“ days, especially if your current fitness level is still relatively good.

A person smiling doing a lunge.

#3: Motivate Yourself

Here are some fitness tips if you struggle with motivation to work out:

Deciding to get back into a fitness routine and return to your healthy habits is the first step to improving your physical health, mental health, and overall wellness again.

Although it takes time to build up your strength and cardiovascular fitness after a long break, with the proper training plan, commitment, and dedication, you can get back on track in your fitness journey.

Stay positive and give yourself grace when you return to working out after time off. You will get there…one day at a time.

If you are starting up running again, take a look at our Couch to 5k walk/run guide to begin today:

References

  • 1
    Coyle, E. F., Martin, W. H., Sinacore, D. R., Joyner, M. J., Hagberg, J. M., & Holloszy, J. O. (1984). Time course of loss of adaptations after stopping prolonged intense endurance training. Journal of Applied Physiology57(6), 1857–1864. https://doi.org/10.1152/jappl.1984.57.6.1857
  • 2
    McMaster, D. T., Gill, N., Cronin, J., & McGuigan, M. (2013). The Development, Retention and Decay Rates of Strength and Power in Elite Rugby Union, Rugby League and American Football. Sports Medicine43(5), 367–384. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-013-0031-3
  • 3
    Paddon-Jones, D., Sheffield-Moore, M., Cree, M. G., Hewlings, S. J., Aarsland, A., Wolfe, R. R., & Ferrando, A. A. (2006). Atrophy and Impaired Muscle Protein Synthesis during Prolonged Inactivity and Stress. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism91(12), 4836–4841. https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2006-0651
  • 4
    Toraman, N. F. (2005). Short term and long term detraining: is there any difference between young-old and old people? British Journal of Sports Medicine39(8), 561–564. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.2004.015420
  • 5
    Ruegsegger, G. N., & Booth, F. W. (2018). Health Benefits of Exercise. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine8(7). https://doi.org/10.1101/cshperspect.a029694
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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