Why Rest Days Between Workouts Are So Important

A regular fitness routine is linked to benefits like stress relief, improved heart health and a lower risk of cognitive decline. But while staying active is important, experts note that you shouldn’t be pushing it in the gym 24/7. You need to take a day off every now and then.

Regular rest days “make sure you are giving your body and mind an ample amount of time to recover,” said Taylor Norris, co-founder of the workout platform LIT Method.

The idea of taking a day off may seem counterintuitive. You might even feel a bit guilty for purposefully not moving as much. But don’t let that mentality set in. Giving your body an occasional break is just as important as exercising it. Here is some expert-backed advice on why you should embrace a day off from fitness:

Recovery is necessary for tissue repair.

Vigorous exercise puts stress on your body and damages muscle tissues. A rest day gives the tissues the time they need to repair and get stronger.

“When we don’t allow for tissue repair, we do more harm to our body than good,” said Amanda Freeman, founder and CEO of New York City’s SLT, a total-body workout class.

Freeman encourages at least one self-care day a week and tells her clients to spend at least a few minutes a day on recovery efforts such as stretching or foam rolling.

Jess Spelke, a trainer for AKT Denver, a cardio fitness workout, said that keeping your activity light on rest days allows your muscles time to rejuvenate and rebuild.

“If you continue to work the same muscles you use in your workout routine, they are in a constant state of effort and can transition to a state of overuse,” Spelke said. “Once you reach this state, you can be injured and/or imbalances are created within the body because the overworked muscle is not as effective.”

A day off can prevent an injury.

If you push your body too hard and too often without a break, you’re likely to end up with injuries and pain.

“Think about working out in terms of a marathon, not a race. If we don’t take care of our bodies, we risk injury, which in turn is the body’s way of forcing a rest period upon itself,” Freeman said.

Spelke noted that intentionally adding rest into your routine helps prevent your body from reaching the point of exhaustion as well.

Exhaustion “can lead to stress fractures, overuse injuries, joint pain and emotional fatigue,” she said, adding that if you get to that point, you could miss your workout for more than just a rest day.

You’ll save your bone mass.

Juliet Kaska, a celebrity trainer affiliated with Vionic Innovation Lab, pointed to a 2017 study that found overtraining may cause a decrease in bone density. The researchers wrote, “Very intense training without adequate recovery period may lead to increased inflammation and subsequent bone resorption (loss).”

“When an individual has a loss in bone density, they are more inclined to have bone fractures,” Kaska added.

Even professional athletes know the importance of taking a break.

“What does Serena Williams do when she gets off the court? She starts her cool down and her recovery process,” said Aja Campbell, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of ATTAGIRL, a lifestyle and apparel brand.

At one point, Williams took four months off from tennis, calling it “the best thing” she could have done at that time. The break, she said, got her back on track mentally, gave her body some downtime, and restored her motivation to go out and dominate on the court.

Your brain needs a break, too.

Your body isn’t the only thing that needs time off from training ― your mind will benefit as well.

“Working a full-time job, family responsibilities, managing interpersonal relationships all take a toll on a person’s overall stress level,” Campbell said.

“Training raises our stress hormone, cortisol. When cortisol is high, your body doesn’t work as efficiently because it believes that you are putting it in a harmful environment,” added Courtney Olsen, a certified personal trainer and nutrition specialist with Blink Fitness.

Olsen explained that high cortisol hinders your gains because your body is focusing on keeping safe rather than building lean tissue. Proper nutrition, sleep and recovery in combination are vital.

Rest equals muscle gains.

Gains are made while you rest, said Holly Rilinger, creator of LIFTED, a workout that focuses on the mind and body.

“The real magic happens when your muscle tissue repairs itself [during] days off and you come back stronger and with more muscle mass,” she said.

In order to see results from the physical stress of exercise, your muscles need time to adapt and recover, said Nate Offer, master trainer at fitness company STRONG Nation.

“The best way to help your body recuperate and stay on track to reach your goals is by taking a rest day. Fitness improvements happen to your body after the workout ― not during,” he explained.

You’ll start to look forward to your next workout.

“Just like with loved ones, absence makes the heart grow fonder,” Rilinger said.

Taking a day off can make you miss the feeling of working out and even make you eager to return to the gym. “That’s a nice feeling to have vs. eventually hating the thought of going to the gym because you have overdone it,” Rilinger said.

You’ll also avoid burnout, Spelke noted.

“A rest day that incorporates a different, low-impact activity not only gives your body the opportunity to work different muscles, but also allows your brain a little reprieve from the potential monotony of your daily routine,” Spelke said. “Just as when you wake up feeling rested from a good night’s sleep, a rest day will give your body that same opportunity to meet your next workout with energy and enthusiasm.”

Rest days help you keep a healthy attitude about exercise.

Spending hours every single day working out or pushing your body beyond what it’s able to handle isn’t healthy physically or mentally. Rest days allow you to find some space ― in every sense ― away from fitness, which can help you maintain healthy boundaries with exercise.

Rilinger is constantly telling her clients to take a day each week to forgo fitness and instead do something else. “Obsessing over anything is unhealthy. Think about other parts of your life that can be enriched by the time a day off gives you,” she suggested.

How not to feel bad about a rest day.

Karina Krepp, a certified personal trainer, yoga instructor and health coach, noted that rest days can create anxiety for habitual movers. But they should still take an occasional break because it is beyond beneficial. On a rest day, she tells her clients to do things like get extra sleep, do a mood-boosting activity, go for a walk in nature or learn to cook a new recipe.

“You need to remind yourself that a rest day is helping you reach your goals ― it is not hindering them,” Offer said.

And don’t be afraid to take an extra rest day if you are feeling tired. You’re not limited to one.

“I cannot stress enough how important it is to listen to your body,” Norris said, adding that if you’re exhausted despite getting six to nine hours of sleep, if you’re feeling dehydrated, or if your muscles are extra sore two days after a workout, it’s time to take a rest day.

If you’re still struggling with taking a break or you start to feel a compulsive need to work out, it might be a sign of a bigger mental health problem. If that’s the case, reach out for support. Talk to your friends or family about what’s going on, and chat with a mental health professional if the urge to exercise is disrupting your life.

This story is part of Don’t Sweat It, a HuffPost Life series on improving your relationship with fitness. We’re giving you a guide to the latest thinking on exercise and why we’ve been conditioned to hate it in the past. Mental health and body-positive fitness experts will offer guidance and show you how to find a routine that works for you. Find all of our coverage here.

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