women drinking water after a light workout on a recovery day

Here’s Why Rest Days Are Important for Improving Your Fitness

Do you want to feel better at the gym, speed up your results, and stave off injury? You can accomplish all of these things with one surefire fitness tip: Rest. That’s right, one of the best things you can do for your body is to add rest days into your fitness schedule. The benefits of rest days are difficult to overstate. So, let’s explore the importance of rest days and learn about what happens to your body when you take a day off from the gym.

Why Are Rest Days Important?

If you force any machine to run at full power, it won’t last long before breaking down. The same holds true for your body. Exercising is great for your health and overall well-being, but, like most good things, there’s a limit to how much exercise your body can handle. Working out at the gym puts your body under mechanical and metabolic stress. Your body requires rest in order to recover and adapt to these stresses.

Rebuild Muscles

Resistance training (also called strength training or weight training) creates microtears in your muscle fibers. Don’t worry, this is completely normal and necessary to build muscle. The resting period after your training is complete is when you become stronger. That’s because as you rest, your body will repair the muscle fibers, building them back stronger. This is how you improve your strength over time and also how muscles increase in size (hypertrophy). (Here’s what you need to know to gain lean muscle mass.)

Time to Adapt

Your body continually responds and adapts to the workouts you put it through. Not only do your muscles improve during rest days, but so do your lungs, heart, and other bodily systems. Every time you run, swim, or perform a high-intensity interval (HIIT) workout that pushes you toward your limit, your body responds. Your heart and lungs learn to move oxygen to your muscles more effectively, and even your nerves learn to better communicate with your muscles.  

Refuel

Long bouts of moderate exercise or short HIIT sessions can quickly drain your body’s store of glucose and glycogen, which are two forms of sugar the body uses for energy. Rest days allow you to refuel and give your body time to convert the carbohydrates you eat into new stores of glycogen. Without ample time to replenish your energy, you’ll feel tired and slow during your workouts. Worst of all, when your body is running on empty, it may begin to break down your muscles as a last-resort energy source.

During your rest days, make a point of refueling with the right nutrition. Eat plenty of protein to help your muscles recover as well as complex carbs to bring up your glycogen levels.

Mental Health

Many workouts can be just as mentally challenging as they are physically difficult. Rest days aren’t just good at protecting your physical health. They can help give you a mental boost as well. Taking rest days gives you a chance to relax, spend time with your family, work on your hobbies, or catch up on chores. By giving your motivation muscles the day off, they’ll come back stronger the next time you visit the gym.

Protection Against Burnout and Injury

Certain exercisers make the mistake of believing that the more they exercise, the better it is for them. This couldn’t be further from the truth. If you keep up a daily workout schedule without breaks, your body won’t have time to recover or replenish your stores of energy. Over time, your performance will drop. You may also begin to feel irritable and have difficulty focusing or pushing yourself through the hard parts of your workout. This is classic burnout that can turn into a full-blown fitness plateau. Working out too much is also a ticket to injury, often leading to pulled muscles, sprained tendons, aching joints, and even hairline bone fractures.

What Do Rest Days Look Like?

What exactly are you supposed to do on your rest days? Sit by a pool and sip a drink with an umbrella in it? Actually, taking a rest day doesn’t mean you have to plant yourself on the couch from sun-up to sun-down.

Passive Rest Days

As the name suggests, passive rest days are days when you avoid physical activity. Passive rest days are ideal for new exercisers or those who are feeling particularly burned out or overworked. The thing to keep in mind is that a passive rest day isn’t an invitation to splurge. You aren’t taking a vacation from your fitness plan. Instead, rest days should support your fitness plan. Use your passive rest day to focus on building health habits. This could be a great day to meal prep, meditate, or grab a massage.

Active Rest Days

Many athletes and more experienced exercisers prefer to take what are known as active rest days. These exercise rest days typically include a low-intensity activity that doesn’t overburden the body. Athletes who specialize in a certain sport can benefit from performing different activities to alleviate stress on their most-used muscles and joints. For example, runners may want to try swimming or even light weightlifting and core work.

Some of the best light workouts for rest days are:

  • Walking or jogging
  • Cycling
  • Rowing
  • Swimming
  • Yoga
  • Light weight training
  • Tai Chi
Mobility Days

Mobility training is one of the least appreciated aspects of a complete fitness routine. Mobility work, according to Men’s Journal, refers to “exercises that will increase your range-of-motion and your stabilization, or control of the muscles that surround each joint.”

Mobility work can include bear crawls, dynamic stretches, foam rolling, and so much more. Many of the best athletes and weightlifters are obsessed with mobility training and use it to help them improve their form, gain more flexibility, and even prevent injuries. One of the best ways to use your rest day is to pull out your foam roller and start rolling.

How Many Rest Days Should You Take a Week?

You’re sold on rest days, but how often should you add them to your workout routine? That answer depends on your fitness level, your training regiment, and how your body feels. The American Council on Exercise suggests taking one rest day every seven to 10 days. However, beginning exercisers may prefer to take two or even three rest days a week. It’s always better to start with more rest days a week and then add more exercise over time as your body adapts to its new workload.

You may also want to take more rest days if you engage in higher-intensity exercise. If, for example, you’ve been doing a lot of HIIT workouts, your body will need extra rest compared to someone who performs steady state cardio workouts. (Do you need to take a rest day from cardio? Yes, you do.)

Weightlifters need to consider other factors when planning their rest. It’s a good idea to rest each muscle group for two days between training. This is why many strength trainers and weightlifters spread their training over the week.

Additionally, take your training regimen into consideration. Athletes, in particular, may ramp up training in time for a sports season or ahead of a competition. After the season or competition is over, you may want to take several days or even weeks off to let your body fully recover before starting the training cycle again.

Finally, listen to your body. It will tell you when to take a day off from working out. If you start feeling hints of burnout, it’s time to skip the gym and relax.

Some of the common symptoms of burnout include:

  • Feeling sluggish during the day
  • Struggling to find the energy to workout
  • Moodiness and loss of motivation
  • Movements feeling harder than they usually do
  • Weights feeling heavier than they usually do
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Feeling stressed
  • A plateau or even decrease in performance

Let your body guide you. Sometimes your body just needs a day off. Other times it may require a few days or a week to rebound. You can always build back your fitness as long as you stay healthy and motivated. (Here’s how to get back into a workout routine after a fitness break.)

Don’t Rest for Too Long

Don’t use the benefits of rest days as an excuse to cut down on your training too much. Remember, rest days are a strategic fitness tool. If you aren’t sure how to incorporate rest days into your training program, ask a staff member at your gym for guidance. If you choose to work with a personal trainer, they will help you determine how many rest days are appropriate for your training and whether you should take passive rest days or active rest days.

Now, rest, repair, re-energize, and then get back to work.

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