“How long does it take to lose progress on vacation?”
This is a frequent question I get from clients: “I’m going on vacation – I’m worried about losing the results I’ve gotten over the last few months. How much am I going to set myself back?”
Obviously this is a nuanced question, because what you do on the vacation is going to play a role in what direction your body composition and fitness moves in a relatively short amount of time.
So let’s set three assumptions from the get-go, just so that we aren’t trying to imagine the outcomes of literally millions of combinations of variables:
#1: You walk a lot on vacation, and maybe even do a little formal exercise.
Let’s say this isn’t a laying-on-the-beach-in-Cabo vacation. This is something like Disney, or a cruise, or a European vacation, or generally some setting where you may be sightseeing and actually be logging more steps per day than you do at home. Or maybe you have a hotel gym that motivates you to maintain your workout schedule.
#2: You attempt to follow generally healthy habits while on vacation, even if you don’t eat exactly like you do at home.
Let’s say you make an effort to eat fruits and vegetables, avoid a “free-for-all” mentality with food and alcohol, and try to pay attention to not eating to the point of being stuffed.
#3: You are on a weight loss journey, or are maintaining weight lost.
For the sake of this post, let’s just throw out other examples, like someone who is training for weight gain. Let’s focus on people who are trying to lose fat, gain muscle, and generally improve their healthy, but aren’t overly-lean at the start of the vacation (let’s say less than 20% body fat for women or less than 10% for men).
With these three variables in place, let’s talk results.
How Long Does it Take to Lose Progress?
First of all, we have to divide “progress” into three categories, since it’s a vague term:
Muscular Strength and Size
Here is generally what will happen if you take a break from actively supporting these goals:
Cardiovascular fitness (i.e., being able to run, bike, swim, or generally move without getting out of breath) starts to decrease after about a week-long break. Within a month, the heart health benefits can be seriously diminished.
If you go on a week-long vacation and don’t exert yourself at all, you probably wouldn’t notice much difference when you get back to your running or cycling routine. But if your vacation lasts two weeks, you might notice a significant change in your endurance.
If someone is training for a race, I highly recommend that they run on vacation.
Muscular Strength and Size
Please note that muscular strength and size are still two different dimensions, but I simply grouped them together for convenience under the “strength training” category.
The good news is that strength-training-related progress loses ground much more slowly than cardiovascular fitness. You probably have a 2-3 week lag time before you notice, “Wow, that feels much heavier than it used to.” The average vacation is 1-2 weeks – if you literally did zero lifting on your trip, you might have a tiny bit of a learning curve upon your return, but nothing significant.
Weight loss is a tricky one, too, because we almost have to separate the topic into strictly physiological results on the one hand, and the more intricate psychological drivers on the other hand.
In other words, are we really asking about literal weight loss, or are we taking a look at how someone’s behavior changes as a result of being “off”? Do they have trouble getting back “on”? Does it freak them out to come back and see any immediate weight gain from the trip?
So let’s dive into this one a little bit.
Fat loss happens slowly, as you know from losing weight. The initial water weight lost may be very fast, but then actually losing fat pound by pound is a process that doesn’t come easily to your body. Once someone “hooks” into real fat loss, it’s common to only lose 0.5-1 pound per week with a balanced, healthy lifestyle.
To some degree, the same is true in reverse. Water weight increases very quickly, and then true fat gain is much, much slower. One study (that was – granted – done on young, healthy men) showed that five straight days of eating an extra 1,000 calories per day had nearly no effect on their weight. It took four weeks of eating at this surplus to put on 3 pounds of body fat. This is because when you eat more food, your body compensates a little by raising your metabolism. In other words, you won’t gain as much weight as you think you would when you overeat.
Granted, it is easier to overeat than it is to restrict food for a diet. But in the end, your body has an economy that likes to compensate for excess consumption (up to a certain point).
To summarize, I think you could easily predict that – almost no matter what you do – you’re going to come home with some extra water weight, and this is nothing to be concerned about. If your vacation is very long (2+ weeks), you could anticipate that you will gain body fat if you don’t take steps to regulate your eating during travel.
The other aspect of weight loss I want to focus on is the psychological side of habit formation.
Sticking to healthy habits gives people a strong sense of self-efficacy – the “I did it!” feeling that improves self-esteem and confidence. Totally letting loose on vacation for days and days at a time can erode this sense of consistency and accomplishment. This helpful article by James Clear (of Atomic Habits fame) explains how skipping any one healthy habit at a time (missing a planned workout, eating an overly indulgent meal) can affect habit formation:
“One mistake is just an outlier. Two mistakes is the beginning of a pattern. Killing this pattern before it snowballs into something bigger is one reason why learning how to get back on track quickly is an essential skill for building good habits.” – James Clear
Now, I wouldn’t even frame it as a “mistake,” per se. Missing a workout here and there is a normal part of life and doesn’t affect habit formation negatively in any way. Similarly, a fun meal that doesn’t conform to your expectations of healthy eating – every once in awhile – does literally nothing to your health or mindset, and can actually be healthy for reducing black-and-white thinking. But once we start stacking up these diversions so that they’re quite frequent, it may take weeks to change physical health, but it may only take days to change your mental space.
If you combine that with disappointingly quick water weight gain, it often leads to thoughts like these:
“This happens every time. I get off track, and I gain weight so fast.”
“Why is it impossible for me to lose weight?”
“Anytime I let loose for even a second, the weight comes right back on.”
Then what’s the next natural thing that follows this defeatist thinking? Either completely giving up, or…
“Let’s buckle down and hit it super hard this week to lose the weight.”
And then we have the binge-restrict cycle.
So how do we interact with this phenomenon – that even though hitting pause on some healthy habits for a week or two doesn’t create any physical change, it can seriously derail the big picture?
Of course, I have a few suggestions (you know I do).
Tips to Maintain Progress on Vacation
Here are 5 ideas for maintaining forward momentum, even if you don’t literally lose weight during the vacation itself:
#1 Be mindful of how long the actual vacation is.
Allow the length of your travel to dictate your behaviors and strategies. Is it a four-day long weekend? Or is it a 15-day major vacation? Plan your habits accordingly. The longer the vacation, the more beneficial (in my opinion) it is to plan some exercise and to be more strategic about your nutrition.
#2 Resist the temptation to be “off” leading up to the vacation and afterward.
Sometimes, a 5-day vacation turns into a 9-14 day break because the trip gets framed with two days on either side of preparation and recovery. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, but you have to be honest with yourself that your break isn’t 5 days – it’s more than a week. Refer to tip #1.
#3 Choose healthy habits that feel doable and do them.
This is highly individual. Every family is different, every trip is different, and every person is different. Some people will work out on vacation. Others won’t – it may be unrealistic. But to build that feeling of self-efficacy even when you’re in vacation mode, it’s so smart to pick some positive behaviors and follow through. Maybe it’s eating a healthy breakfast every morning. Maybe it’s hitting a certain step count if you track your steps. Maybe it’s eating protein at every meal. Maybe it’s formally exercising literally once while you’re on vacation. The follow-through is what’s important, so pick things that feel manageable, and are only a slight stretch on your normal comfort zone for vacation mode.
#4 Think about your relationship with food.
I cannot overemphasize the fact that it is normal to eat more on vacation than we do at home (for most people, anyway). We’re not in our normal routine, we’re tantalized by new and interesting foods, and we’re making memories. In my opinion, it’s not smart to set up the expectation that eating is going to be highly controlled on vacation. But that doesn’t mean that overeating is inevitable.
Food intake has a huge spectrum and many different aspects – it’s not binary. There’s not “healthy eating” (i.e., restriction) as Choice A, and free-for-all bingeing as Choice B. Even while you’re eating differently (and probably more) than you do at home, you can still utilize healthy habits and mindsets to honor yourself. You can stop before stuffed. You can eat at normal mealtimes. You can split over-the-top treats with others. It’s not just about what you’re eating – it’s about how you’re eating, and what is driving you.
You can also refer back to tip #3 and do things that you know encourage appetite regulation, like eating protein, eating fiber, eating regularly, and exercising.
#5 Anticipate weight gain.
Finally, I think it is extremely reasonable and realistic to expect that you will come back a few pounds heavier on the scale. I have had several times when I have gone on a vacation and come back lighter, but these were trips that included tons of movement (think hilly Italian cities). But most of the time, it’s wise to expect that the combination of higher carbohydrates, extra salt, and air travel itself will leave you a little bloated and weighing in heavier – even if you exercised and watched what you ate.
It’s key to separate “progress” (literal downward movement on the scale) from “momentum” (consistency with habits, big picture results). Progress is a part of momentum. Maintain your momentum, and progress will follow, even if there’s a little lag time.
Finally, I would invite you to dig deeper. If you are concerned about losing progress while on vacation, I think it’s wise to consider…
What do you think is going to happen that’s going to cause you to move backwards?
What are you doing at home that helps you maintain your progress?
What behaviors most represent you being true to yourself and your health goals?
What do these behaviors look like, translated into a different form?
Often, I find that concerns about losing ground during travel can come down to a few common factors:
- What they’re doing regularly isn’t sustainable (i.e., the rules are too rigid)
- They’re confusing tools with the lifestyle itself (i.e., using MyFitnessPal equals “eating healthy”)
- Control is mixed up with responsibility/choice (i.e., “being in control” equals “doing a good job”)
- Behaviors aren’t flexible or adaptable (i.e., “I can’t eat healthy because I can’t meal prep”)
- The locus of control is external, not internal (i.e., you “have to” overeat or over drink in the presence of certain family members or friends)
In some ways, this is normal because habit formation is extremely context-dependent. In other words, we love routine and structure. It’s easier for us to “act out” the scripts of our habits when we’re in a familiar setting where we’ve practiced that script many times.
But part of evolving in your health journey is learning to be more adaptable – to internalize habits so that they’re part of us, instead of entirely dependent on an external setting.
Need help making this leap? Get in touch.