Whether your workouts involve weight training, Soul Cycling, or training for a marathon, you have probably been introduced to the concept of a rest day. After all, just like working or studying seven days a week can overload your mental health, overworking your body can have the same exhausting effect on your physical health. Giving your body a much-needed recovery day to rest and regenerate is crucial to your workout regime, explains Jillian Michaels, health and fitness expert and creator of The Fitness App.
What Is a Rest Day?
“A rest day is quite literally a day of physical rest where you don’t train in order to let your body heal from previous workouts,” she says. “If you think of exercise as the architect, then think of recovery as the builder.”
However, while the term might imply taking a day hiatus from fitness, it isn’t necessarily an excuse to plop down on the couch and watch reality television during your usually scheduled workout.
Here is everything you need to know before giving your body a break.
The Benefits of Taking Rest Days
There are both physical and mental benefits to taking a rest day, according to Michaels.
- Rest days can help your body recover from micro injuries: Micro injuries are subtle traumas to your muscles, bones, tendons or ligaments that can occur as a result of physical stress of your training regimen, Michaels explains. “Rest days allow your body to recover from them.”
- They can also help prevent major injuries: Michaels adds that a rest day can also prevent a micro injury from becoming something significant. “For example, if you train hard and apply repetitive force to the bone tiny cracks can happen—which is a good thing, because this is how the bone remodels itself,” she says. “But, if you don’t allow these tiny cracks to heal and you train again too hard too soon, you can get a stress fracture.”
- They give your body time for regeneration: Rest days also give the body the time it needs to adapt to the stress put upon it from exercise and regenerate, “enabling a stronger better conditioned body,” Michaels points out. “This applies to bone density, muscle maintenance, cardiovascular conditioning, etc.”
- They can help prevent burnout: Rest days offer mental health benefits as well. “I personally feel that rest days help keep us from burnout,” Michaels reveals. “Often if we go too hard with fitness it can burn us out—not just physically but emotionally. Engaging in a regimen with no rest can feel too strict over time and cause us to become more lax as the months pass.” Think of a rest day as a way to find balance, which “is important not just for the physical benefits, but for the longevity of your health and fitness regimen.”
How Many Rest Days Should You Take Per Week?
Leigh F. Hanke, MD, MS, Yale Medicine physiatrist explains that the need for a proper “rest day” depends on what you are resting from—the intensity level, frequency, and type of activity. However, anyone who is actively engaging in moderate to intense exercise should be taking at least one per week.
For example if you are running, which is considered a high impact activity, taking a rest day is crucial. However, if your daily workout consists of a 20-30 minute pilates class or another low impact minimal aerobic activity, you can forgo taking a day off.
Michaels reveals that she takes two days of rest per week. “One is absolutely essential,” she asserts. “[For me], three is the max.”
If you're having a hard time convincing yourself to take a rest day and are craving movement, consider working out an area of the body that you didn't work the previous day or two. For example, you could work your lower body on Monday and Tuesday, then just your upper body on Wednesday.
What to Do on Rest Days
Again, how you take a rest day is dependent on your exercise regimen. Michaels notes that there is a difference between “active recovery days” and “rest days.”
“A rest day is a day of no physical fitness at all. An active recovery day is a day of very light activity to help boost circulation, which accelerates healing,” she explains.
While both are good, one day of pure rest is simply essential. “So for example, I would recommend 4 days of working out followed by either two active recovery days and one day of pure reset OR one active recovery day two days of pure rest.”
Dr. Hanke uses the example of someone who is weight training. “Instead of training your upper body you could go for a light jog or cycle,” she says. Or you could use your rest day to allow for recovery of the specific muscles you are targeting. This is why some trainers will alternate workout days around specific areas, such as the upper body one day and lower the next.
“Conversely you can take a rest day from high impact aerobics like running and use the day to cross train with cycling or weight training. Or use the rest day to truly rest and relax with no workout which can help both physically and mentally recover.”
If your workouts are tough enough to leave your breathless, sore, or sweaty, you should be giving your body the much-needed break it needs in order to regenerate. As Michaels and Dr. Hanke explained, there are a variety of ways you can incorporate a rest day into your workout schedule, mostly dependent on the type of your daily workouts. If you have any questions on the best way to take a rest day, don’t hesitate to reach out to your instructor, trainer, or MD.