Instagram is full of tips, workout videos and instructional reels but few people are trying to get our attention by bragging about their rest days. Rest days may be less glamorous, but they’re an important part of any exercise routine and in this article, we’ll argue that proper rest can be just as important as the effort you put into your training.
What is a Rest Day?
It’s a day off and there’s no agreed definition, so we prefer the intuitive idea that it’s just spending a day not exercising. The American College of Sports Medicine, who are always a good source for definitions and standards, acknowledge their importance… and they also note that many may be tempted to skip rest days because the endorphins, dopamine and other benefits of exercise can be addictive.
The Benefits of Taking a Rest Day
The reason any exercise plan should include carefully spaced rest days is that it prevents muscle fatigue, improves performance and reduces overall risk of injury. These are some of the physical benefits, but there are also psychological and even mindfulness benefits that we’ll go into in more detail below.
Physical Benefits of Rest Days
Let’s have a look at some of the most important physical benefits of taking a rest day…
During rest days, our bodies take the opportunity to flush out many of the waste products that have accumulated while working out. Your exercise may have also caused inflammation which needs to ease, and micro-tears that need to be repaired as part of the overall muscle-building process.
We’ve talked in other articles about the perils of overtraining, but to give you a quick rundown here, too much training is heavily associated with injuries. So, it’s a good idea to avoid injuries and overtraining, by taking rest days. Also, while our bodies generally work bilaterally, it’s possible that you may have a muscle imbalance that causes some muscles to work a little harder than they should in comparison to others, making them more prone to injury, and adequate rest is a good way to avoid injury in these areas.
Your body is a complex machine that relies on chemicals and energy to give a top performance. Rest is an important part of restoring the chemicals that fuel the energy conversion process, and sufficient sleep has been associated with lower levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), increased human growth hormone levels (used to repair tissue). Rest is also correlated with improved glycogen synthesis, the process that delivers energy to your muscles.
Increased Strength and Endurance
Above, we mentioned the idea of micro-tearing during a workout. Your muscles are composed of tightly-packed fibres that work together to contract every time you move, and the process of building those fibres relies on your workout causing the microscopic tears that are then repaired. Those tears are repaired on your rest day, which is why it’s vital to take time off regularly.
Mental Health Benefits of Rest Days
We work hard when training, and that puts stress on our bodies, but the regular effort and the potential anxiety when giving your all can also start to affect your mental health if you’ve not got time to recover from the emotional exertion. Regular rest days help prevent this, giving you time to unwind and put your mental resources under less pressure.
Reduced Stress and Anxiety
During our long human history of living as hunter-gatherers, we evolved to endure both physical and emotional bouts of stress and strain whereby we would work hard and then rest. That’s why it makes sense that rest days should be a part of your week, so that you’ve got an opportunity to unwind from all the stressful things in life.
While exercise is generally associated with better sleep, both in terms of quality and regularity, poor sleep is a symptom of overtraining. We’ve discussed the perils of over-training before but the long and the short of it is that adding rest days into your routine can help ensure you continue to enjoy the sleep benefits of regular exercise.
Enhanced Mood and Motivation
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re a go-getter and a hard worker, and I’m sure you don’t need us to tell you the importance of results. Results help motivate us, but if we’re constantly giving it our all without a break, it might be harder to see those results and feel the reward, particularly if we’re training so hard that our peak performance suffers. That’s just one reason why regular rest days can help you really see the results and improve your motivation.
How to Incorporate Rest Days into Your Fitness Routine
We hope we’ve shown you the benefits now, but the question is what’s the best way for a busy and motivated fitness enthusiast to add rest days to their schedule?
Frequency of Rest Days
We should take at least one rest day per week, although it’s worth remembering that guidelines like this are often tested with athletes so your mileage may vary. Your age, level of fitness and the type of exercise you’ve been doing should all affect exactly how much rest you need. A good rule of thumb would be resting every third day for beginners, whereas more experienced exercisers could reduce that to perhaps once a week. It’s important to listen to your body so an idea might be to start off with several rest days per week and reduce those carefully based on how you feel.
Types of Rest Days
Something that’s often overlooked when it comes to rest days is that there’s more than one type, and this flexibility means that you can incorporate rest days in a way that suits you…
Passive recovery is about as intuitive as it gets: just take a day off. And, an important consideration of rest day is sleep so you should also make sure to get a good night’s rest. For a passive rest day, make sure you exert yourself as little as possible and plan for a relaxing bath or shower as well.
Active recovery is a good way to still enjoy a workout while also giving your body a break. For an active rest day, you could plan for a less-intense exercise session like Tai Chi, yoga or a trip to the pool. Even if you’re having an active day, still make sure to get good sleep.
What Should I do on a Rest Day?
It’s important to listen to your body, so what you do on a rest day may come down to individual choice, but here are some suggestions; it’s a good idea to get adequate sleep because that’s one of the most restorative parts of your day, and it’s also vital to hydrate so that your entire body is in good condition. As far as activities, you should consider foam rolling or stretching, as many people say these are beneficial to recovery. You could also try some light exercise as well, as many people prefer an active recovery.
Is it Bad to Workout Every Day?
It’s not necessarily bad to work out two or more days in a row, but it’s generally not advised to spend an entire week without a rest day. Also, if you want to workout on consecutive days, you can alternate the types of training you do to ensure your body can recuperate in one way while working out in another.
Is it OK to do Cardio on Rest Days?
Yes, and it may be a good idea. Light cardio can boost your recovery and decrease soreness, which puts you in a great position to return to training. However, if you’re aiming solely at strength training then the benefits may be more limited, but there’s no harm from light cardio on a rest day.
How Rest Days can Help you to Avoid Overtraining
So many people in the fitness community are about hard work, and many people are reaping the gains, but there is such a thing as too much hard work. This is often called overtraining, and it’s an important element to be aware of in your fitness journey. In short, rest days are vital to ensuring your overall performance doesn’t decline.
Common Misconceptions about Rest Days
Let’s look at some common misconceptions about rest days…
You should push through exercise even if you’re not feeling 100%
When you’re not feeling it, your body may be trying to tell you something. Make sure you’re taking your scheduled rest days, and perhaps consider taking an extra one this week.
Rest days can lead to lapsing on good habits
For a start, taking rest days is a good habit, not a bad one. A routine is not about having the same schedule every day, every week, it’s about regularly doing positive things. Rest days are a vital part of your plan to progress in your fitness, so don’t think you’ll be lapsing on good habits when you take them.
Rest days will stall your fitness gains
Little could be further from the truth because, to get fitter or build muscle, your body needs to repair the strain you’ve put on it. This may mean rebuilding microscopic tears from lifting weights, and rest days are when your body repairs all that stress.
Rest days should be as passive as possible
You can take it easy on your rest day if you want, but there’s also no harm in taking an active rest day like we describe above and getting some light exercise in.
You only need a rest day if you really feel you do
In the fitness world, you’ll often see the advice that you should listen to your body. We’re not going to argue against that but we also think that you should definitely take rest, even if you think you don’t need it. Our bodies are complex machines and sometimes it can be hard to predict exactly how you’re feeling, so it’s a good idea to stick to rest days because they’re definitely productive even if they’re passive.
If there’s one thing we want you to take from this article, it’s that if you want 100% progress, then you shouldn’t always be at 100% effort. We love it when we see people putting their time at the gym because we know that they love fitness and wellness as much as we do, but we also recommend some strategic rest days. They’re an important part of any progressive programme designed to maximise the benefits from your efforts.