Some people mistakenly believe that more is always better, but when it comes to exercise, that is simply not the case.
Exercise is a physical workload imposed upon the body; the type of exercise and the amount you perform determines the specific changes that your body will experience. For exercise to have the greatest effect and create the changes you want, the type of exercise and the level of intensity should vary on a regular basis. Alternating between low-, moderate- and high-intensity workouts—known as periodization—provides different methods for structuring workout intensity to allow for proper rest after exercise.
Arguably, the most important component of periodization is proper rest and recovery time between hard or high-intensity workouts. Exercise creates two types of stress on your muscles: metabolic stress that comes from depleting the energy stored in individual muscle cells and mechanical stress created by physical damage to the structures of muscle proteins. While the body experiences metabolic or mechanical stress during exercise, it’s during the recovery period after the exercise that the body repairs the muscle proteins and replaces the glycogen (stored glucose in liver and muscle tissue) used to fuel the workout.
Your body needs sufficient time to repair and refuel, especially between challenging, high-intensity workouts. This doesn’t mean you can’t exercise every day, but it does mean that you need to space out your harder workouts and combine them with lower-intensity workouts. Perhaps the most important training day of the week is the one that is often the most overlooked by many active people—the rest day.
Some people believe that taking a day off from exercise or any strenuous physical activity is akin to being lazy, but that simply isn’t true. While it is important to be physically active most days of the week, it is equally as important to give yourself and your body a break by making sure to schedule at least one day of complete rest from demanding physical activity every seven to 10 days.
Feeling stressed or burned out or having a tough time falling asleep even though you are physically exhausted are all possible signs of overtraining and an indicator that you need to allow for more rest time in your workout program. But if the thought of a day away from the gym or not enjoying your favorite activity leaves you feeling concerned, here are ten benefits of taking a complete rest day.
- More time with loved ones – Taking a day off from the gym makes it possible to spend that extra time with your loved ones. This is especially important if you have young kids. They’ll love the extra time together and, because you know they grow up quickly, you’ll cherish your time with them.
- Give your brain a break – Pushing through a tough workout requires mental toughness and stamina, which means that physical exertion is not only hard on your body, it can really fatigue your brain as well. Spending a day away from your typical training environment can give you a psychological break from exercise and help your mind relax, allowing it to recover along with your muscles.
- Replenish your energy stores – Moderate- to high-intensity exercise can rely on the glycolysis energy pathway, which uses carbohydrates to fuel muscle activity. Feeling sluggish or drained at the end of a workout could mean your glycogen levels are depleted. If they get too low, your body could catabolize protein for fuel instead of using it to repair muscle tissue. Taking a rest day can help your body properly replace the energy stores in your muscle cells so that you have a full battery for your next hard workout.
- Repair damaged tissue – A day of rest allows your body to repair tissues damaged from the mechanical stresses of exercise. Specifically, rest allows time for the fibroblasts—individual cells that repair damaged tissues such as muscle proteins—to do their job and repair any tissues that need it.
- Remove metabolic byproducts – If your muscles have been feeling a little sore, a day of rest can allow your circulatory system to perform its job of removing metabolic byproducts in muscle cells (from using energy during exercise) while also delivering the oxygen and nutrients used to help repair damaged tissues.
- More time for hobbies – While some consider spending time at the gym or sweating to a favorite workout a hobby, it’s important to have other hobbies as well. Learn or practice a musical instrument. Coach a team. Volunteer at your kids’ school, or visit an older adult community.
- Improved work-life – Taking a rest day can benefit your work life, especially if you find yourself cutting your work short to make it to a class or meet friends for a run. Use your rest day to spend some extra time at work to become fully organized or get ahead of the next big project.
- Enjoy some you time – Finish reading that book you keep starting or binge-watch that show that all of your friends are talking about. Tell yourself that you’re not being lazy, but rather you are focused on the recovery phase of your workout program.
- Sleep better – Is your sleep data all over the place? Over-training could be the culprit. Too much exercise can put your body in a constant state of restlessness or on high alert making a good night’s sleep tough to achieve. A telltale sign is an increase in your resting heart rate. Taking those rest days can help bring down your alertness and heart rate, which can help get you a night of sound sleep. Struggling with sleep? Check out this article!
- Rest days help you avoid injury – It makes sense that the more you push yourself, the more likely you are to experience injury, so rest periods are a great way to ensure you don’t push yourself too quickly or too hard. The risk of musculoskeletal injuries increases significantly when the body experiences a change in either the intensity, volume or type of exercise, so rest days are a great opportunity to take care of all the aches and pains.
What should I do on rest days?
Rest doesn’t have to mean sofa, a whole season on Netflix and uber eats. Although that does sound pretty good. Here are some ways to approach rest to make the most of your down time.
• On active rest days
If you’re feeling good, you can take part in some light activity, without stressing your body. A walk with friends, a gentle swim, some restorative yoga (make sure it’s a recovery class or you could find yourself working much harder than you imagined), mobility work or an easy spin on the bike could be good active recovery day workout ideas.
Or you could try foam rolling, increasing blood flow to muscle tissue to aid recovery.
• On inactive rest days
If you’re in the middle of a tough training cycle it can be hard to find time to catch up with friends, read that book you’ve had by the bedside, get to the cinema or practice your baking/stamp collecting/watercolour hobby. Schedule a nice relaxing activity for your rest day and give your brain a treat as well as your body.
How should I fuel on rest days?
Intense workouts can suppress your appetite so you may find you feel hungrier on rest days even though you’re not training. Try and resist the urge to reach for the junk food though.
Aim for a 3:1 carb to protein ratio. Carbohydrate to top up your glycogen stores and protein to help your muscles grow and recover. You should be eating a good mix of real food to ensure you get all those vital vitamins and minerals as well.