The human body is a dynamic and complex set of systems that allow us to perform tasks of different intensity throughout the day. From running and sitting to kneeling and jumping, our bodies adjust to our movements regularly. So one might think that exercising constantly, if not every day, is the best way to become fitter.
But the “go home or go home” mentality often leads to exhaustion, injury, or both. Like a car that needs to be tuned up every few thousand miles, our bodies need a day off from intense workouts so they can recover and come back stronger for the next tough workout.
The science behind rest days
In exercise physiology (the study of the body’s response to physical activity), there is a well-known process that describes what happens after strenuous exercise or any other type of stress. This is the stimulus-recovery-adaptation curve; When the body is stressed with exercise, there is a short-term decrease in performance. When this decline is dealt with with adequate rest, the body repairs itself and is able to perform at a higher level than before. When proper recovery is not given, performance will continue to decline until injury or overtraining occurs.
Fatigue is not a bad thing, it is actually an indication that rest is required so that the body can repair itself. Usually, fatigue manifests itself in the form of sore muscles, a general feeling of fatigue, slow reflexes, decreased strength and power, and/or mood swings.
How to take a productive rest day
Just because you’re planning a day off doesn’t mean you have to relax at home all day. One of the best ways to encourage repair and recovery is to recover activity. The light movement aids muscle inflammation and increases blood flow, providing essential nutrients for tissue repair. After a hard workout, the muscles (and the nervous system) need 24-72 hours to fully recover. The types of workouts you do, the intensity, and how long you do them consistently will determine how much rest you need between workouts. Inflation training (muscle building) requires longer recovery periods (48-72 hours) between workouts than moderate cardio-based exercise, which will be more along 24-48 hours.
Intensity and duration play major roles in the need for rest days. The harder and longer the exercise, the more time it will take to recover. Low-intensity exercises such as walking, cycling or elliptical exercises can be done every day if they are done at a pace you can tolerate for 45 minutes or more. HIITs that get your heart rates up very high and usually involve lots of joints should take at least one day between workouts.
In general, workouts longer than 60 minutes, involving whole body movements and between 8-10 on the intensity scale, should take 48-72 hours between workouts. Workouts less than 60 minutes and less than 7 out of 10 intensity levels can take fewer rest days (24-48 hours)
One way to continue to get your fix in the gym is to mix up the types of exercises you do with the muscle groups you work on. Strength training for the upper body and lower body on a split routine that builds in rest time between workouts and allows those muscles to recover while working the other half of the body.
If you do HIIT, alternating between high intensity days and low intensity days also helps with recovery time so you don’t miss a day at the gym.
Other factors affecting recovery and performance improvement
There are hundreds of websites and blogs full of the latest recovery tools that sell for hundreds of dollars, promising faster, better, and more efficient recovery. However, the three best things you can do after a workout are sleep well, eat well, and move around throughout the day. And quality is important.
Sleep is the number one thing you can do to improve performance in addition to taking rest days. Before and after exercise, getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night aids performance in the gym and may play a much greater role in injury prevention than previously thought.
What you eat matters not only on your workout days, but also on your rest days. Eating plenty of protein and staying hydrated helps repair and build muscle. The body uses up its own energy stores throughout the day, especially during workouts, so making sure to refuel with quality foods and fluids can lead to more gains when paired with rest days.
Moving around throughout the day to complete activities of daily living can help reduce pain and fatigue. Standing and walking for a minute or two every hour can help loosen stiff muscles. In addition, walking is one of the best ways to reduce the sensation of lower back pain. Movement is a wash, and the more movement you do with no exercise in your day, the better you’ll feel overall and the more metabolically active your body will be, especially if your goal is fat loss.
As the saying goes, “Sometimes making progress means taking a day off”. The more we stress ourselves out in the gym, the more we need rest and recovery to continue performing, lifting, running and living at a high level. Just like your car needs a little TLC after a few hundred miles, refueling your body is absolutely essential if you want to maintain or improve your fitness.