Depending on how you feel about your fitness routine, rest days may be your favorite or a frustration. Like many aspects of life, balance is key, and incorporating regular rest days into your workout schedule is an important part of maintaining a healthy fitness routine.
Resting allows your body to recover and rebuild, and not making the time for adequate recuperation in your exercise schedule can lead to burnout or injury. To understand why rest days are so important, it helps to look at what’s happening in the body while you exercise and how rest days can contribute to your fitness goals.
What Happens in the Body During and After Exercise
There are a number of physiological responses that happen within your body when you begin exercising. You likely notice many of those responses as you work out — an increased heart rate, sweating, breathing hard, and muscles that become more tired the longer or harder you work. In the hours or days after a workout, you may notice muscle tightness or soreness.
All these responses that you notice on the surface are a reflection of all the work that’s happening inside of your body, as well.
The huffing and puffing familiar to anyone who enjoys cardio workouts is your body’s obvious way of getting more oxygen. Internally, that oxygen is necessary to support your body as it burns through its stores of glucose, which is sugar the body stores and uses to contract muscles, and adenosine triphosphate (ATP), an energy source for all the cells in the body. Oxygen is needed to burn carbohydrates and fat to create more ATP for sustained exercise like running, cycling, or swimming.
As your oxygen intake goes up, so does the amount of work your lungs, diaphragm, and heart do to pull in air and put it to good use. As your physical fitness continues to grow with regular activity, your lung capacity increases and your heart becomes more efficient, along with whatever muscles you’re working in the process.
With strength-building exercises like weight-lifting, you may not see the same intensity of external reactions as with cardio. Instead of maintaining a level of activity for a long period of time, most strength-building happens in short bursts — your reps on the bench press and the minute or two you hold a plank.
These intense, shorter bursts of activity cause a different reaction within your body. Since you aren’t sustaining physical activity for a longer stretch of time, your body doesn’t need to use large amounts of oxygen to create new ATP. Instead, your body uses the carbohydrates that are stored in muscles as glycogen to make new ATP. A byproduct of this process is lactic acid, which can build up in the muscles and is associated with soreness. The process of building up muscle happens through small tears in muscle fibers as you work them out. Your body repairs the tears, which strengthens and builds the muscle fibers.
Whatever your fitness routine looks like, your body is working hard to make it happen.
Why Rest Days are Important
After working out, rest days are the time when your body can build its reserves back up, helping you feel energized, healthy, and injury-free for your next workout.
Considering that both aerobic and anaerobic exercise uses the energy stored in your muscles to power your workouts, it makes sense that your body needs a recovery period to rebuild those stores. And the muscles you’ve worked hard need time to heal so that the muscle fibers can rebuild.
With weight-lifting or targeted strength-building exercise, it’s important to take rest days to give your whole body time to recuperate, but it’s also a common practice to cycle through workouts targeting certain major muscle groups. It’s best not to work out the same area — like arms, legs, or abs — two days in a row.
The number of rest days you should schedule into your week depends on the type of exercise you’re doing and your fitness level. If you exercise regularly your body will recover faster and you might need less recovery time between workouts. If you’re new to working out with regularity, you’ll want to allow your body more time to recuperate between workouts — especially hard workouts where you feel sore for a day or two afterwards.
Make the Most of Rest Days
Adding regular rest days into your workout schedule is one of a few ways to help your body be at its best each time you exercise — along with eating balanced, healthy meals and getting enough sleep. Really, we can’t emphasize enough the importance of supporting your fitness routine with a solid eight hours of sleep each night and healthy food to keep you going!
But rest days don’t have to be a total ban on any physical activity. For many people, regular exercise is easier to maintain when it’s a daily activity, and you may not want to skip out on the endorphins and benefits to your mental health that comes from regular exercise. Rest days are a great opportunity to incorporate low-impact restful activities into your routine. You can unroll your yoga mat and do some restorative yoga and stretching or head outside for a walk.
As your fitness level increases, your body’s ability to recover increases, too. When you maintain a regular workout routine you may notice that you don’t get as sore as you used to, or that you can run farther without needing to pause and catch your breath. Rest days are a crucial part of helping your body build up its supportive strength, and not incorporating rest days into your schedule can lead to injuries, fatigue, and burnout.
Whether you’re focused on building endurance, strength, or simply taking care of your body to feel good, rest days are an important part of the process. For more tips and tricks on building a healthy lifestyle and a sustainable fitness routine, check out our blog, social media channels, or get in touch!