How Important is Rest Day? Most exercisers know that getting enough rest after exercise is essential to high-level performance, yet some still over train or feel guilty when they take a day off. Here’s the truth about rest days, why it’s important, and how you can make the best of it for your fitness program.
I went for a beautiful run with a friend the other day. She was a collegiate athlete who upon graduating moved into medical sales full time. Her background in sports ingrained in her a very active lifestyle and she works out every day. On our run, she asked me to join in for an upcoming sunday workout. “I wish I could” I sighed, “but Sunday is my rest day.” It led into a conversation about how difficult it can be to take a day off from exercise (especially when it’s such a valuable part into your lifestyle). “How important is a rest day after all?” she inquired. And it led me to begin this post….
Most exercisers know that getting enough rest after exercise is essential to high-level performance, yet some still over train or feel guilty when they take a day off. Here’s the truth: Rest days are an essential part of training and when you get the MOST from your time in the gym. Exercising creates tiny tears in the muscles. When you allow the muscles to rest, the tissue is able to repair itself using proteins and amino acids. This creates stronger muscles over time, which appear leaner, especially combined with the fat-burning process. It’s this rebuilding process that makes you tougher so refusing to take rest days will negate all that hard work you’ve done in the gym. While it may feel like you’re slacking and make you worry that you won’t build strength or increase speed or lose weight, time off allows your body and mind to fully recover and grow.
Think about how you feel after a poor night’s sleep: Your cognitive skills are fuzzy and your body starts to fall into a catabolic (breaking down) state, which can skyrocket stress, sap muscle strength, and cause mood shifts. The same fatigue happens on the body when you don’t allow it to recover properly from exercise. Never taking a day off sets the body up for a breakdown. You become more susceptible to severe muscle soreness, a suppressed immune system, a decrease in strength and performance. Not only that but over time over-training can also cause irritability, mood swings, excessive fatigue, weight gain (oh yes!), heart-muscle damage, thyroid dysfunction, brittle bones, amennorrhea (losing your period), and overuse injuries which can have life-long impact. Not to mention the mental health complications that can come from too much working out like OCD, depression, and anxiety.
That being said, taking rest days can actually be the hardest part of a training program for some. Sounds like an oxymoron, but for some of us, forcing ourselves to leave the running shoes, not go to yoga with friends, or step back from the weight rack and hot-step ourselves out of the gym is a very real challenge.
People often worry that taking a rest day will set them back in their training and delude themselves that somehow they’re the superhuman exception but in reality not resting will catch up with you. Even Olympians take rest days. But seeing as there are a lot of misconceptions about resting, here are my suggestions for making REST days a healthy part of your training:
1. Rest days are a MUST (aka non-negotionable!). Get in the mindset that resting isn’t “cheating” and that your body deserves time to reap the benefits from your training. Remind yourself that time off is actually PRODUCTIVE: You are allowing your body to grow stronger!
2. Regularly assess How Often Should you Rest. Everybody’s body is different and how often you need to rest is unique to you and your current training load. Its best to play around with different rest day frequencies to see what feels best to your body. As a general guideline: If you are starting out with a new exercise program or are a beginner exerciser, rest every third day (that is, exercise two consecutive days and rest the third). More experienced exercisers should take a recovery day at least once a week. In addition, its a good idea every eight weeks include a week where you decrease your training load and/or cross train with new, different activities. Regularly look at your training program and intensity to define how often you should include rest days week to week.
3. Schedule the day. Plan ahead for rest days. They have a place in every workout program – you can even call them periodization if you want to sound fancy at the juice bar. Just don’t be too rigid about your plan. If you wake up one morning feeling extra sore or sick, just take some time off.
4. Define what “Rest” means to you. How inactive you are on your rest day depends on the intensity of your workouts leading up to it. For example, if you are killing it in the gym day in and day out, your rest day should be a day completely off from taxing your body. You might go for a casual walk at most, but no great effort to do more physical work than necessary should be made (read: no gym!). However, if your workouts have been light to moderate intensity all week or you’re a beginner exerciser, you can take a more active recovery day. That might include playing a sport outside, taking a yoga class, or going for a longer walk. Everybody’s body is different and how you rest will vary week to week. The important part is that it HAPPENS and that it is part of your training plan.
5. Take a Mental Break as Well. Don’t forget that any activity you do on your rest day should also help your mind take a break. Whether that’s journaling, a cooking class, an evening with friends, a walk in the park, or taking the dog out with your spouse, do whatever clears your head and stops you from thinking about counting reps or reaching your goal. You’ll be fresh and ready to train once you’ve had mental time off.
6. Eat a normal, healthy, balanced diet. Just because you didnt work out doesnt mean you should drop your healthy nutrition habits. Don’t restrict your calories because you didn’t “earn them” from working out or binge on sweets if you feel guilty from not exercising. Maintain a normal, balanced, healthy diet and eat mindfully! Pay attention to your hunger and eat till you are satisfied (not stuffed). Nutrition is a big piece of recovering right – you have to nourish your body with good foods in order to come back stronger. Eat healthy no matter whats on the workout agenda. Good in = good out. Keep it up!
7. Get enough sleep. Nothing messes up your system more than not getting enough shut-eye. One of the symptoms of over-training is having a hard time falling asleep and/or insomnia which can start a vicious cycle of over-exercising and under-resting. Make sleep a priority and get the hours you need nightly. It may be hard to get to bed on time, but its a habit worth working for. you deserve to feel good and recover right.
8. Do something for your mind and spirit on your rest day! Remember: fitness isn’t about looking good. Its about mental health, life satisfaction, and energy levels. On your rest day, focus on the OTHER parts of you that can use self care. If you have a hard time not working out, it may help to build hobbies and habits outside of fitness. Remember: when working out becomes your life, you need to work on your life. Call a friend, take a class, meditate, take up a hobby – anything you find that helps give your mind and spirit a workout. Need some ideas that dont require burpees? Click here for my suggestions on “Mental and Emotional Self Care” strategies for success!
How do I recover and rest right? Watch this quick video where I share my recovery tips for success with Sara Plummer of “Get healthy, sexy, happy!”
Learning when and how to rest is a constant process and a balancing act. I am by no means perfect – I’ve struggled with my propensity to workout too much and too hard. But this is why I’m writing about it. I rest now. ( I still have crazy moments… dont we all?) but resting is a valuable part of my healthy lifestyle. And it’s made a huge difference. Exercise will always be a balancing act and finding the right balance will take constant tweaking and adjusting as your life evolves and changes. But once you learn to embrace the rest day as not just an “off day” but a “productive-in-a-behind-the-scenes-ways” day it’s a lot easier to recover right. The most important thing about rest is that it happens and that you get healthier, stronger, and happier over time 🙂
What’s your philosophy on recovery? How often do you take rest days? Do you schedule them into your weekly workout plan, or go on an as-needed basis? Leave your thoughts as a comment below, Id love to hear from you.
Heres hoping we all keep growing stronger and finding balance in work, training, and life. Sending you lots of love and rest,
Want to build a balanced body? Check out my book, Balanced Body Breakthrough and get your mind, body, and spirit in great shape so you can love your life.