How to Return to Exercise After a Long Break

Estimated Reading Time: 10 Minutes 

As a personal trainer, I often meet people who have gone through many cycles of activity vs complete inactivity.


This could be due to any number of reasons that are outside your control, from logistical challenges to an illness or injury, but either way, this can be a major problem.


The human body isn’t the kind of asset where you can store it away and come back to it later to find it in the same condition you left it.


For example, if you bought a classic car or a piece of art, you could lock it up in a garage or a vault for a year, come back to it and it’ll be in the same physical condition and might even have increased in value.


Unfortunately, the human body just doesn't work like that.


The way inactivity plays out may be best described as T'hat which we don’t use we lose' this is the natural law of entropy and acts on us all equally.


If we go into periods of inactivity, the law of entropy sets in and we stand to lose ground on performance, lose hard-earned muscle, and could even develop an enhanced risk of more serious health issues.


All of these factors mean that you really want to try to avoid your activity level dropping to zero at all costs. Consistency is king


When times get tough, my advice is always to find what you might consider a ‘fall back’ position, i.e. a base or minimum level of activity that you will still maintain, even if circumstances mean that you have to deviate from your ideal training program.


Having a plan in place to ensure that you maintain at least a minimal amount of activity will help you avoid losing a lot of the health, fitness, muscle and even mental health progress that you’ve worked for.


Of course, this 'fall back' position is something that can be implemented in future, but what if you're in a place where you're looking to return to exercise now?


The first thing to note is that you shouldn’t try to come back at your peak. You have to consider yourself de-conditioned.


Your strength, fitness and perhaps even range of motion is likely to have reduced over time, and that is entirely normal.


You’ll be able to get this back over time, but it would be inappropriate to try to jump back in at the level that you were working at previously.


So how should we kick things back off?

Getting Back Into Training: Where Should You Start?

Ideally, you would begin with some light cardio and mobility work for a few days. For example you could try this 10-minute follow along beginner mobility sequence


Getting in two of these workouts would be the ideal ‘on Ramp’ to higher intensity training and resistance training.


In addition to a noticeably different performance, you’ll experience more muscle aching than usual when returning to exercise.


Again, this is normal and, unfortunately, just par for the course.


You can offset some of this soreness and try to speed recovery by staying hydrated, keeping mobile and engaging in recovery practices like massage, epsom baths, cold showers and sauna.


You should find that this muscle soreness begins to become less frequent after 7-10 days.


If the gradual reintroduction of exercise sounds quite slow and you can’t resist the urge to jump right back in, you will find that you will be hit harder by the fatigue and muscle soreness.


It could be argued that you'll be through the worst of the storm quicker too if you were to ramp up the higher-intensity workouts more quickly, but it's important to take an honest appraisal, or get a personal trainers analysis of your current condition to establish whether you are in a good place to weather such a storm.


I personally don’t recommend this route and if you do take it, you need to be honest about whether you are in the right place to recover from such a short, sharp shock.


I say this because it’s one thing if you just lost momentum with your training, but if the decline of your exercise practice was more like one of the outcomes of a harder, more challenging time in your life.


In particular, if stress or sleep deprivation were factors, then my advice would be not to come back with full intensity, because fatigue and overtraining are real things, so it could be a false economy. I wrote some notes on how to spot signs of overtraining for Athletics Weekly which you can read here.


A lot of people consider exercise a linear positive, i.e. the more exercise you do, the better results you’ll get. Unfortunately, as with many things related to health and fitness, it’s a lot more nuanced than that.


Exercise drives change in the body - if you tax your cardiovascular system you get fitter, if you lift heavy things you get stronger and build muscle - but these aren’t treats for the body, these are stressors.


You’re only getting fitter and stronger because you’re putting your body through stress, and the genius that is the human body responds essentially by saying to itself "Okay, well, if we’re going to be doing that again, we'd better get bigger, stronger, faster etc".


Exercise is a hormetic stressor, which is something that causes temporary stress in order to force a positive adaptation in the body. There are numerous other examples of hormetic stressors, including (but not limited to) heat exposure, cold exposure and fasting.




Despite the benefits of these hormetic stressors, if you put your body through too much stress, which includes too much or too vigorous exercise and aren’t able to fully recover from it, you will get fatigued, and possibly even lower your immunity, on a long enough time line you will face over-training.


Recovery is crucial to a good exercise routine, and if you cannot get adequate sleep and rest or you do so much exercise that it’s just a bridge too far, this is when you run into problems.


My advice to avoid this would be to come back to exercise somewhere between 50-60% of what you used to do or think you’re capable of.


For example, if you’re used to doing 4 sets bench press at 60kg, come back with 2 sets at 30kg, if you’re used to running a 10k at a good pace, jog a 5k in at half the speed.


This keeps things from getting too complicated and its an excellent rule of thumb to follow. Do this for a few weeks and then slowly build up to where you were previously.


This allows your body to adjust and appropriately to the new stimulus and it won’t be long before you’re conditioned again and able to consider more challenging training loads.

Your Recovery is Just as Important as Your Training

As mentioned above, recovery is an important part of any training regime. Build in active rest days on a 1:1 ratio with your actual workout days.


This ensures that there is adequate recovery built into the regime from the beginning, and to really maximise your time, I'd recommend ‘active rest' days, rather than days of complete inactivity.


An active rest day can actually facilitate muscle recovery and would typically involve pleasure or hobby pursuits like walking, cycling, yoga even light sports.


The idea is that our bodies are built and intended to move, so you don’t want to go into an idle state just because it's not a structured workout day.


To achieve a holistic approach to wellness it's a good idea to maintain a distinct balance between training and activity.


The nuance is that workouts should have an intention behind them. For example, you do 'Exercise A' to force an adaptation to see 'Benefit B' - the stressor forces the change and needs to be recovered from,  whereas activity is low impact, low demand movement or fun and offers no barrier to recovery so you can do as much of it as you want to.

From the Healthy Ambition Podcast

Optimising your recovery practice is an essential part of your health and fitness, on Episode 17 I discuss percussion devices and other recovery modalities with Dr. Jason Wersland, inventor of the Theragun.

Long Layoffs Are Good Opportunities

It would be remiss of me not to address the silver lining and point out the opportunity a long layoff represents, which is that in the de-conditioned state, you are primed for adaptation.


Your body gets used to what it's exposed to, and this is actually why a lot of people get frustrated with their lack of progress with workouts.


We have evolved to be survival machines, which means the body doesn’t waste energy so you have to keep exposing it to progressive, but controlled strain which is what we call the process of over-reaching, rather than overtraining.


This way we force adaptation. As above, the body is basically saying to itself "Well if you’re going to keep doing this really hard stuff, we’re going to have to get bigger, stronger, fitter in order to comfortably handle the load".


So coming off of a layoff, you’re going to be in a perfect position to see fast progress, it’s not uncommon to see positive recomposition at times like these, but you need to balance that relationship between overreaching and overtraining, which is where enlisting the input of a coach can help.


The pointers above should address the physical side of making your return to exercise, but we should also look at the reasons why you are here having had unplanned time off and needing to make a comeback, because moving forward you want exercise to become a consistent habit.


You have to take an honest appraisal about what led to the layoff in the first place, otherwise, you won’t know what the potential threats, catalysts or triggers might be for it to happen again.


The most important thing is to not be overly critical of yourself about the break from training.


Of course, it’s one thing if you were ill or injured, but if life got in the way or your discipline failed you, don’t dwell on things. Identifying the catalyst and taking ownership of the situation is key to getting past it and avoiding it happening again.


If you start to notice any destructive patterns kicking back in, address them, nip them in the bud and make the necessary changes.


Success with health and fitness is all about consistency, avoiding setbacks, creating a realistic and sustainable plan, then carrying out the program with as few missed workouts as possible.

Work to Create Sustainable Habits

To conclude, the slow and steady approach might feel a little frustrating at first, but it's the prudent way to go.


Getting injured, overly fatigued or trying to come back at peak level could all lead to additional time out, so resist the urge to overdo it, get your initial conditioning under your belt and then keep building on it.


Your goal is to use these sustainable habits and never to have a long period away from exercise again.


Of course everything is easier with a coach in your corner, so if you would like to discuss how I might be able to help you make a return to regular exercise please feel free to schedule a consultation call here