You know that rest is crucial for maintaining your fitness—and your sanity. But how much time off from your exercise routine does it take before you actually start to sabotage your results?
According to a new study out of the University of Liverpool, just a brief hiatus from your regular physical activity may have major health consequences—including weight gain and increased risk for chronic diseases (gulp), for otherwise healthy people.
How brief a hiatus are we talking? Just two weeks, according to researchers at the university’s Center for Aging and Chronic Disease.
The study’s participants included 28 young, healthy, active adults, who typically averaged about 10,000 steps per day, had healthy-range body mass indexes (BMIs), and had no health complications. Throughout the two weeks of the study, they maintained their normal diets, but limited their daily step count to just 1,500 per day.
The results were frightening: “Thee participants generally gained fat mass and gained it centrally [around their midsections], which we know is a risk factor for type two diabetes,” says Kelly Bowden-Davies, a lead researcher on the project. “Their cholesterol and triglycerides increased, and their measures of fitness decreased.”
Related: The Truth About Belly Fat
The changes were small, but measurable—indicating a risk of potential future health concerns had that sedentary period continued.
The findings highlight the consequences of a growing trend in sedentary behavior around the world, Bowden-Davies says. (A major red flag for all of us who sit hunched over computer screens at our desks all day or spend a lot of time with Netflix.)
The good news: When the study participants returned to their normal activity levels, the negative changes that resulted from their couch time reversed—in the same amount of time. So, luckily those two weeks off don’t mean permanent damage to your health and fitness—which is a major sigh of relief, and evidence that we do have some ability to improve our health with an active lifestyle.
“What we’re trying to say is that any sort of physical activity is going to be beneficial to your health,” says Bowden-Davies. “How many steps per day you take or how much time you spend sitting is really, really important for your health.”
According to Bowden-Davies, small changes to your daily routine—like getting off the bus or subway a few stops early and walking whenever possible—can offer health benefits (especially when it comes to your cardiovascular system and body weight) long-term.
Keep in mind, too, that the World Health Organization recommends adults between ages 18 and 64 do 30 minutes of “moderate-intensity” physical activity five days per week, or 150 total minutes per week. So, definitely don’t forget to pencil in those strength-training or HIIT sessions!