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5 Reasons to Skip a Workout, According to a Fitness Expert

Skipping Workouts

Story at-a-glance -

  • If you’re sick with widespread muscle aches, vomiting, fever or extreme fatigue, skipping a workout is recommended
  • Skipping a workout may also be beneficial if you’re injured, exhausted or very sore from a previous workout

By Dr. Mercola

Most Americans suffer from a serious exercise deficiency and therefore can ill afford to skip a workout. But, this doesn't mean you should spend every day at the gym either.

No matter what your fitness level, everyone needs to give their body time to recover between workouts, especially if you engage in high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

In the case of HIIT, it's recommended that you do only two or three sessions per week, and on your "off" days you may engage in another form of gentler exercise, like yoga, flexibility training or stretching.

Spacing your workouts appropriately helps you get the most benefits without over-stressing your body, but you generally want to avoid skipping too many of your "on" days. That being said, there are certain instances when it may make sense for you to skip your workout entirely.1

5 Scenarios When Skipping Your Workout Makes Sense

One of the benefits of being fit is that you can take time off from exercise and use the "reserves" that you have built up during your time off. If done infrequently, skipping a workout is unlikely to negatively affect your overall fitness level, and in the cases that follow is probably more beneficial than not.

1. You're Sick "Below Your Neck"

If you have a simple cold and you feel up to it, exercise can actually be beneficial. Increasing your body temperature enough to break a sweat may even help you to kill off invading viruses (it's sort of like a do-it-yourself fever). Use common sense, though.

If you're exhausted and feeling very ill, the stress exercise puts on your body may end up suppressing your immune system and impeding your healing process. At the very least, you'll want to take your workout level down a notch or two if you're fighting off an illness.

High-intensity exercise should be avoided when you're sick, because any kind of intense exercise boosts production of cortisol, a stress hormone that inhibits the activity of natural killer cells — a type of white blood cell that attacks and rids your body of viral agents.

And if you have a fever or symptoms "below your neck," like those below, you're probably better off resting instead of exercising:

  • Coughing or chest congestion
  • Fatigue
  • Widespread body and muscle aches
  • Vomiting, upset stomach and/or stomach cramps

2. You're Injured

Regular exercise can help you to prevent many injuries, however you'll want to avoid exercising an injured area of your body. If you have a shoulder injury, you may still be able to work out your lower body (or vice versa), so long as you don't aggravate the injured area.

You should focus on healing and definitely avoid any activities that cause pain at the injury site.

Oftentimes, you may still be able to engage in gentle exercises, such as swimming, water aerobics and some types of yoga, even if you are injured. In fact, it might be beneficial. Listen to your body and be careful not to overdo it.

3. You're Exhausted

If you've had a poor night's sleep, you may be better off sleeping in than getting up early for your morning workout.

Like exercise, sleep is also essential for your health, and you generally don't want to sacrifice one for the other. It's difficult to catch up on sleep once you're sleep-deprived, so make sleep a top priority.

Keep in mind, however, that exercise is important too. If you have a hard time waking for early-morning workouts, try exercising in the mid-morning or afternoon if your schedule allows it.

You can even exercise in the evening, if you like. Some people find late-night exercise to be beneficial for sleep. Generally, exercise should leave you feeling energized and invigorated.

If you find your workouts typically leave you feeling exhausted instead of energized, this is a sign that you may be exercising too much and need to take more time for recovery.

4. Your Body Is Very Sore

Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), or the muscle soreness you've experienced one to two days after exercise, is caused by inflammation stemming from microscopic tears in your muscle fibers.

More specifically, these are microtears between your muscles and their surrounding tissues. This most often occurs when you start a new exercise program, change it in some way, or resume exercising after a period of inactivity.

Eccentric contractions seem to cause the most soreness, meaning movements that cause your muscle to forcefully contract while lengthening, such as the downward motion of squats or pushups.

These damaged muscles release chemical irritants that trigger mild inflammation, which awakens your pain receptors. This temporary discomfort is a natural part of your body's natural muscle-rebuilding process, and is generally not an indicator that you need to skip a workout.

Many people, in their zeal for beginning a new exercise regimen, overdo it and become extremely sore. In this case, if your muscles are very sore you'll want to take ample time for those muscles to fully recover before training them again — which may be much as five to seven days.

5. Your Schedule Is Jam-Packed

On days when you're completely overextended, a lengthy trip to the gym may not be in the cards. This doesn't mean you should skip your workout entirely, though. Many HIIT workouts can be done in just a few minutes time.

Peak Fitness HIIT takes 20 minutes to compete a workout (see the details below), but you can also get an effective workout done in seven minutes or even four minutes (ironically, the four-minute Tabata protocol is most challenging of all).

The point is, gone are the days when going to the gym needs to take you two hours. In fact, you don't even have to go to the gym at all if you don't want to or don't have the time. Some of the best workouts can be done in 20 minutes or less, right in your own living room.

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What Happens When You Skip Too Many Workouts?

Skipping an occasional workout is nothing to fret over. But if skipping workouts becomes a habit your body and your fitness level will suffer, with negative changes occurring faster than you might think. A study in the Journal of Applied Physiology suggested that skipping workouts for just two weeks may significantly reduce your cardiovascular fitness, lean muscle mass and insulin sensitivity.2

Dr. James Ting, a board-certified sports medicine physician with the Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, California told CNN it may take two months or more to completely fall out of shape if you stop exercising.3

However, there are varying opinions on the matter. Many experts agree that about two weeks is a pretty standard number after which your body will start to fall out of shape with no exercise. However, coach Pete Magill, six-time masters national cross-country champion, told Shape you can lose up to 50 percent of your fitness gains in a single week of inactivity.4

Cardiovascular Fitness May Be Affected First

When you skip too many workouts, the strength of your heart and lungs will fade first. One study found that after just 12 days without exercise, VO2 max, a measure of cardiovascular endurance, dropped by 7 percent while blood enzymes associated with endurance performance dropped by 50 percent.5

Generally speaking, if you're very fit to begin with your body will remain in a fitter state longer than someone who's not fit, even as your workouts cease. The older you get, however, the faster your muscles atrophy if you're not regularly engaging in appropriate exercise. In addition, it will take you longer to gain it back. When comparing 20 to 30-year-olds with 65 to 75-year-olds, the older group lost strength nearly twice as fast during six months of inactivity.6

If you need to cut back, incorporating some form of high-intensity exercise on a weekly basis seems to improve your chances of maintaining your conditioning, even if you can't resume your full fitness routine for several months. In order to do this successfully, you need to exercise at about 70 percent of your VO2 max at least once per week, according to sports medicine expert Elizabeth Quinn.7

VO2 max (also known as maximal oxygen intake) is defined as the maximum volume of oxygen you can utilize in one minute of maximal or exhaustive exercise.8

Make Your Workouts Fun to Resist Skipping

If you find you're tempted to skip workouts often, it could be because you're not picking the right types of exercise for you. No one wants to stick with an exercise program they dread, so choose activities you enjoy. Not surprisingly, research has shown that enjoyment is one of the strongest predictors of long-term exercise maintenance.9

According to Michelle Segar, Ph.D., author of the book "No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness," "Our brains are hardwired to respond to immediate gratification, and to do what makes us feel good. This is one of the reasons we tend to give up on chore-like workouts."

Further, honing in on the more immediate rewards of exercise, such as feeling refreshed and able to think more clearly right there and then, are more potent motivators than "avoiding future heart disease" or "losing 10 pounds."

It also helps to make exercise into a habit. The video above shows ways you can actually "trick" yourself into exercising, although research suggests consistent exercisers have made exercise a habit triggered by a cue, such as hearing the morning alarm and heading for the gym first thing in the morning without even thinking about it.10 This kind of habit is referred to as "an instigation habit," and it was found to provide people with the most consistent results.

In fact, the strength of a person's instigation habit was the only factor able to predict a person's ability to maintain an exercise regimen over the long-term. So for a simple tip to help make exercise a life-long habit, decide what your trigger cue will be. It could be your morning alarm clock, your lunch break, or even feeling stressed — and then just follow through by going to the gym (or wherever you do your exercise) when the cue is triggered.

The idea is to hinge the habit around a recurring cue so that you get started on your workout without actually having to consciously decide to do so each time (which then gives you opportunity to talk yourself out of it).