If you’re routine-oriented, craving a dose of post-exercise endorphins, or feeling super-motivated about your fitness goals, you might be inclined to skip your rest day in favor of getting another workout in. But, as beneficial as exercise can be for your overall health and mental well-being—and not to mention fun—more isn’t always better.
“As far as exercise is concerned, there can be too much of a good thing,” says physical therapist Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of digital movement platform Movement Vault. In fact, too much exercise without adequate rest in between can ultimately doom your fitness long-term.
So, the next time you’re considering skipping that rest day, allow these truths to remind you that it’s okay—and, better yet, productive—to rest.
- ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., is a physical therapist and the founder of the digital movement platform Movement Vault. Jake Harcoff, C.S.C.S., is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and the owner of AIM Athletic. Danelle Rivera, C.P.T., is a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor at Crunch Fitness.
You Don’t Get Strong During Your Strength Session
Muscle building isn’t a concurrent process, wherein you lift something up, put it down, and then whammo-bammo, muscles appear. “When you are physically lifting weights, you cause micro-damage to your muscle and surrounding fascia,” explains Wickham. This damage causes an inflammatory response in the body, which causes proteins called ‘cytokines’—in particular two cytokines called IL-6 and IL-10—to flood the bloodstream for four and 24 hours following exercise, he explains.
These inflammatory markers signal to your body that it needs to start repairing damaged muscle fibers, a process that continues for anywhere from two days to a full week following your workout, he says. Assuming your body is functioning optimally, research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology shows that the muscles are fully repaired a whopping seven days following the initial microtear-inducing exercise session.
Only then have you made your gains! “The muscle fibers that remain when the recovery process is complete are stronger and more resilient than the muscle fibers that existed prior to your workout,” explains Wickham. In layman’s terms: You’re not strong from a lift right after you nail the lift, but only once you fully recover from it. As such, it’s essential to take days wherein you give your body time to recover from the stress you placed on it, rather than just continuously placing it under more and more stress.
You Don’t Get Fitter During Your Cardiovascular Training
It isn’t just weight room regulars who improve after their workouts; endurance and sprint athletes get better following exercise recovery, too.
“Increasing speed and endurance involves a multifaceted process, particularly when engaging in cardiovascular exercises like running or cycling,” says certified strength and conditioning specialist Jake Harcoff, C.S.C.S., head coach and owner of AIM Athletic. During these activities, the cardiovascular system undergoes a series of cardiovascular and muscular adaptations to enhance performance, he explains.
Read More: Can Too Much Cardio Interfere With Fat Loss?
On the cardiovascular front, during exercise, the heart starts to pump more blood to the body per beat (called an increased stroke volume). “The capillaries within your muscles also start to multiply, which improves the rate at which oxygenated blood is delivered to your muscles,” Harcoff explains. Over time, these two things make the heart better at its job of pumping blood during and outside of exercise, which results in both a lower resting heart rate and also lower heart rate during that same activity.
Assuming that an individual is on a training plan geared towards making them faster and/or able to withstand longer distances, they will also undergo a breakdown of their fast- or slow-twitch muscle fibers, says Harcoff.
To actually reap the rewards from their workouts, “speed and endurance athletes must replenish glycogen stores, act in a way that repairs the damaged muscle tissues, and mitigate oxidative stress,” Harcoff says. “It is only following adequate recovery (hydration, nutrition, sleep) that they will make the muscular and cardiovascular adaptations they need to be able to go longer or faster in the future.” In short, these athletes need rest days, too.
You’re Not Supposed To Exercise 7 Days Per Week
Rest days aren’t a luxury, but a necessity that all exercisers should take seriously. “The optimal number of rest days per week will vary based on an individual’s fitness goals, and intensity level of the workout,” says Harcoff. Broadly speaking, the harder (read: higher-intensity) your workouts are, the greater the number of rest days you’ll need per week, he says.
“Individuals focused on gaining muscle and strength training will likely benefit from a structured program that has at least one or two full rest days built into it,” says Harcoff. That way, the muscles that undergo damage have time to repair and rebuild—and thus get stronger—before being broken down again the next time you train. Ditto goes for individuals on a particular endurance- or speed-boosting plan.
If your exercise endeavors are more about maintaining general health and fitness, three to four workouts a week typically do the job, leaving those other days as fair game for full rest, lower-intensity movements like walking, or recreational activities, Wickham says.
It’s also important to note that although these recommendations may be a good starting place, let your body tell you when it needs a rest day. Increased resting heart rate, unrelenting muscle soreness, generalized physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, and increased incidence of sickness are all signs that your body would benefit from a rest day, according to Wickham
Active Recovery Days Aren’t The Same As Rest Days
If you don’t have rest day plans with your pals, just finished the last episode in the show you’ve been binging, or noticed that the sun has finally come out to play, you might be feeling particularly antsy on your rest day. You might even feel inclined to head outdoors for a long hike or walk, or to hop on your stationary bike. While there is nothing inherently wrong with adding some activity into your gym-free day, by doing so you effectively transform your rest day into an active recovery day—and they are not the same thing.
Rest days don’t involve any activity at all, explains Wickham. While your time on rest days isn’t necessarily relegated to the couch and bed, these days make reduced stress, sound nutrition, quality sleep, and proper hydration their priority. Active recovery days, on the other hand, involve doing some lower-intensity, lower-impact activity that gets your heart rate up a bit. Most commonly: walking, hiking, biking, or swimming.
“The movement done on active recovery days is designed to get blood pumping to your muscles,” explains Wickham. Blood flow supports recovery by carrying nutrients (such as antioxidants and amino acids) to the damaged muscle tissues while also carrying waste created from exercise (like lactic acid) away from the muscles. The movement also gets your joints moving and helps move around lymphatic fluid, both of which also help get rid of waste and therefore support muscle recovery, he adds.
The overall goal of rest days and active recovery days is similar: mainly, to put your body in a position where it can actually reap the benefits of your workouts. However, because rest days keep your heart rate in rest mode, they can provide more relief than active recovery days, says Wickham.
And then there are the brain benefits of knowing you can do nothing on your rest days. “Giving your brain a day off from thinking about exercise can be hugely beneficial for sticking with your exercise plan longer term and keeping burnout at bay,” he says. Taking a full rest day (or two) per week can help keep motivation and excitement alive.
You Can Still Do Things In Service Of Your Fitness On Rest Days
Rest days themselves are taken in the name of long-term health and well-being. After all, the failure to take rest days— particularly if you are exercising at a very high intensity—can result in overtraining syndrome and also increases your risk of injury, says Harcoff. (As a refresher: Overtraining syndrome, sometimes known simply as overtraining, is a condition marked by too much exercise and not enough fuel and recovery, wherein an individual starts to see a negative return on their workout investment).
Still, there are additional measures you can take during your rest day to inch you even closer to your fitness goals.
For starters, Wickham recommends that anyone lifting heavy or going high-intensity really prioritize stress-reducing activities. It’s not just your muscles that get beat up when you exercise, he says. Your central nervous system (CNS) gets taxed significantly, too. If you don’t implement activities that help this system recover (think stress relief), CNS fatigue can make itself known in your everyday life through symptoms like loss of emotional control, generalized fatigue, mental unrest, and worsened sleep quality. None of which are ideal for anyone who wants to feel good on the day-to-day, let alone have sufficient energy for a solid training session! Exactly what individuals experience as stress-relieving varies, but per the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, helpful activities can include anything from meditating and mindfulness to grounding and sunbathing to yoga and Tai-chi.
Rest days are also a great time to dial in your nutrition and do any meal-prepping that will support your ability to keep your nutrient intake goal-supportive throughout the rest of the week. Since exact calorie and macronutrient needs vary based on your current fitness level, health, age, exercise regime, and more, you might even use this time to check in with a nutritionist if you need support, suggests certified personal trainer Danelle Rivera, C.P.T., a group fitness instructor at Crunch Fitness. “They’ll be able to help you figure out exactly what eating plan is best for your body and optimal recovery,” she says. Otherwise, a calorie- and macronutrient-tracking app is a good way to get a general sense of your needs and check in on your progress.
Your rest day may also be a good time to try out other research-backed recovery methods, such as enjoying the sauna, taking a cold plunge (or exploring other means of cold exposure), playing with contrast therapy (which involves both heat and cold), or using compression therapy.
Just keep in mind that while these methodologies can support exercise recovery, none can replace sleep, sound nutrition, proper hydration, and stress-reducing techniques. “[These other] recovery methods may move the needle five percent, but if you’re not sleeping adequately, eating with intention, and minimizing stress, you won’t see the recovery and therefore muscle gains you want,” Wickham says. Consider a rest day spent on these factors a day well spent!
You Don’t Just Need Gym-Free Days—You Need Rest
“Sleep plays a crucial role in exercise recovery as it serves as a primary period for the body to undergo essential physiological processes that promote overall health and fitness,” explains Harcoff. “During sleep, the body releases human growth hormone, which is a key factor in muscle repair and growth.” This is also the time when the body produces testosterone, which has been shown to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and thus, over time, strength gains.
Adequate sleep also plays an essential role in regulating the stress hormone, cortisol, says Harcoff. Given that higher stress is linked to worse recovery, according to research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, cortisol regulation is key for making gains.
“Overall, prioritizing quality sleep on rest and non-rest days is a fundamental aspect of any effective exercise recovery strategy, ensuring that the body has the time for optimal repair, adaptation, and preparation for your next workout,” says Harcoff.
The beauty of rest days here, though, is that you can use some of your extra free time to revamp your sleep space and routine, suggest Wickham. “We sleep best in spaces that are clean, cool, and free from electronics,” he says. So, rest day is a great opportunity to spend a few minutes decluttering your night table, picking up the clothes strewn about the floor, and taking any old water cups out of your room. You can also take some time to put blackout stickers over your electronics or spin any gadgets so blinking lights face away from the bed. Just know that it all ladders up to greater gains in the end.
Rest Days Are The Perfect Time To Work On Mobility
After a hard training session, most people beeline it straight to the locker room or parking lot, never making a pit-stop on the stretch mats for a little mobility work. Sure, this routine maximizes workout time, but it doesn’t necessarily support health and wellness over the long term, according to Rivera.
Having sound mobility—that’s your ability to to actively move and control your muscles and joints through their full range of motion—is key no matter your sport, exercise routine, or age. “It supports the overall health of your muscles and joints, while also enabling sound movement patterns in life and sport, which reduces the overall risk of injury,” she explains.
Given its importance and the fact that it is commonly overlooked during training days, you could opt for some mobility work on a rest day, if you’ve got ants in your pants but don’t want to shift into full “active recovery” mode, suggests Rivera.
If you’re not sure how to approach it, check out a mobility-specific routine from a platform such as Movement Vault, Pliability (formerly known as RomWOD), and The Ready State. Through these mobility platforms, you can find videos that target specific trouble areas (like the ankles or hips), or follow-along options that attack your full body. Most combine active stretching with mindfulness work that helps improve overall mobility whilst reducing stress state, without jacking up your heart rate (and thus transforming the day into an active recovery day).