No matter your fitness goals—a stronger core, completing a 5k, trying HIIT for the first time—there’s one surprising element that will help you succeed: rest. It may feel difficult to hit the pause button from a very active lifestyle, especially if you’re trying your best to be healthy. But, taking time off from your workouts allows your body and mind to recover from being pushed to the limit. Here’s why you should skip the shame and instead give yourself permission to add rest days to your exercise routine.
You’re Not Slacking, You’re Re-Charging
When you’re aiming for certain results within a set time frame, it’s tempting to postpone rest days or write them off as unnecessary. However, most trainers agree on their value. They allow your body and mind to completely recover from hard work. Even if you feel fine, a rest day is a chance to relax and slow down so that you can approach your next workout even better than before.
“Your body has to repair itself,” says Aaptiv trainer Candice Cunningham. “if you don’t give it adequate time to do that, you’ll keep your stress hormones elevated. That can lead you to actually holding onto weight. It is also good for your mind. Sleep and recovery are just as important as workouts themselves.”
Joy Peterson, personal trainer and co-owner of Peterson Holistic Services, suggests viewing rest days an opportunity to recharge and refuel. “If you go at it hard too many days in a row, your body will be running on empty, no matter how much food you eat. It takes time for your body to process, uptake, and distribute the fuel needed to keep you going at your usual hectic pace. And just like your body, your mind needs time to process and adjust to the activity you have been engaged in. During rest, especially sleep, your brain is busy solidifying the neuro connections that will lead to better balance and coordination in every movement.”
Rest days also rebuild your overall stamina, endurance and strength, explains Theodore Smith, yoga teacher and co-owner of Habitat Yoga and Nutrition. “Rest days are equally as important as training days, because they allow for muscles, bones, fascia and connective tissue time for recovery.”
The point is, you’re not slacking when you take a rest day. You’re being smart.
Burnout Is Real
Hard workouts are, well, hard. If your schedule is chock full of sweaty elliptical Tabatas, speedy cycle sessions, or unlimited dumbbell sets with no rest days, you’re eventually going to experience an injury, overtrain or suffer from fatigue.
Luckily, when it’s time for a rest day, your body will give you plenty of physical and mental signals. You simply have to pay attention. “Some major signs that you need a rest day are: higher heart rate, not sleeping, frequent sickness, dehydration, and feeling depressed,” notes Aaptiv trainer Rochelle Moncourtois. “Your body will benefit from taking a rest day to avoid these symptoms.”
“If you’ve been pushing too hard for too long, you will experience burnout,” says Peterson. “Physically, you will experience perpetual muscle soreness and cramping. You will probably even start to find that you ‘hit the wall’ at the gym a lot easier and a lot sooner. Mentally, your cognitive abilities and coordination will be diminished. This downgrading of your mental capacity, while bad for work and embarrassing in conversation, can be dangerous in the gym leading to injury due to mindless movement. If you start to question what you are doing and why you are at the gym in the first place, other than out of some sense of social obligation, then your spirit has clearly taken a hit and could use some down time.”
Instead, view rest days as preventative medicine for your workout plan. The more you schedule them in, the higher your chances of staying healthy and strong in order to be able to accomplish your workouts in the first place.
You Can Move If You Want To
We sometimes correlate rest days with laying on the couch for six hours in stained pajamas eating tortilla chips. Sure, sometimes you need a total recovery day if you’re feeling entirely spent, but generally speaking, rest days are an in-between zone where you can still get moving in moderation. Light exercise, like gentle yoga, walking, swimming or stretching, are all good choices for the quickest recovery during a rest day.
“These types of activities will keep the nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood moving into your deep tissues to facilitate better recovery,” shares Peterson. “It is also a good time to reconnect in a more compassionate way with yourself.” Smith emphasizes the importance of low-impact movement on a typical rest day, versus a complete day off, as the former keeps your body flexible and prevents muscles from stiffening.
If you’re not sure how many rest days to plan for, peek at your workout routine and consider the severity. “The amount of rest days you take in a week really depends on how intense your training schedule is,” says Moncourtois. “For example, if you’re training for a marathon or Ironman, you may need to take a few more rest days than someone who is working out 30 minutes a day.”
Peterson recommends three days on, one day off as a standard for those who prefer intense workouts. In comparison, moderate or low-intensity exercisers can benefit from a rest day every four to five days.
Stronger, Faster, Fitter
Moncourtois used to feel guilty taking a rest day, even as a trainer, but she eventually learned to embrace them as the secret to fitness wins. “Try to remember the day of rest is allowing you to fully recover, so you can perform better! My best races and times were because I took the proper rest days, so trust the process.”
“Your body will thank you in the long run,” Cunningham asserts. “Think of athletes—they train hard but they also rest. Ask any professional athlete and they will tell you sleep and recovery are just as important. With that said, they work and give their all during training sessions. That is how we should be: when we workout, we give it our all. You shouldn’t feel guilty about rest days.”
Once you do invite rest days into your routine, Peterson says you’ll be able to come back with better concentration, more coordination and a renewed sense of purpose. “Never forget that your body is amazing,” she concludes, “and can do unbelievable things if you just give it the time and space to do it.”