Jessica Thiefels by Jessica Thiefels

Rest days are critical for fitness success. Working out causes microscopic tears in your muscle fibers and rest days allow those muscles to heal, which, in turn, allows them to grow. Yet, making time for rest can be hard—whether you’re feeling extra motivated to stay active or are worried that taking a day off will result in a slower road to reaching your goals. 

Unfortunately, leaving rest days out of the equation can lead to a wide variety of setbacks, including:

  • Burnout: If you get sick of what you’re doing because you haven’t had taken a day off, you’re more likely to stop altogether.
  • Overtraining: This can result in mental, muscular and hormonal imbalances.
  • Injuries: Without rest, your muscles become tired faster. When you’re fatigued, you’re more likely to fall out of form during exercise, which can lead to injuries.

The good news is that rest days don’t mean you have to—or should—sit on the couch all day. A productive rest day, or an active rest day, allows you to reap the benefits of movement, including improved mood and boosted heart rate.

Active rest days also speed up the delivery of nutrients to the muscles that are being repaired by increasing blood flow through your body. “Circulation brings nutrients to the tissues, nutrients provide the material to facilitate the improvement, and circulation is enhanced by movement,” writes ACE Pro Jonathan Ross, in an earlier blog entitled Recovery Redefined: How Much Rest You Actually Need.

The key to making your rest days productive is to choose exercises that boost your heart rate and relieve your muscles, but don’t drive you to total fatigue. Here are a few ways to do exactly that on your next active rest day.

Go Low-impact

The best way to stay productive without going overboard on rest days is to focus on activities that are innately low-impact. They’ll be easy on your body while allowing you to get nutrients circulating faster and more effectively.  Here are a few low-impact exercises to try:

  • Take a walk—long, short, around the block, whatever works for your schedule.
  • Go swimming. Some gyms have a swimming pool. If you have a membership, take advantage on your rest days. If your gym doesn’t have one, head to a local YMCA, which will likely have one that you can use for the day.
  • Take a bike ride. Bike around your neighborhood or town, or ride on a stationary bike.
  • Go stand up paddle boarding. If you live near a body of water, this popular sport may be an option for you.
  • Use the rowing machine. Nearly all gyms have a rowing machine. Ask a trainer how to use it if you’ve never rowed before to ensure you’re using proper form.
  • Hop on the elliptical. Head to your gym for a slow, short-and-steady elliptical session.

Choose an Activity That Boosts Mental Health

Another way to make the most of your rest day is to use this time to focus on activities that also offer a variety of mental health benefits. While all exercise has been found to relieve stress, reduce anxiety, help you sleep better and boost your mood, the following types of movement are especially beneficial for your mental health:

  • Yoga: If you don’t have a membership, test out a few studios—most offer a free first week, so you can enjoy classes without the cost.
  • Hike: Time outside has been shown to boost mood, focus and self-esteem. If you don’t have a mountain close by, find the nearest nature trail.
  • Canoe/kayak: Canoeing and kayaking help you build upper-body strength and endurance while giving you much-needed time outside.
  • Dance: When you dance, you can let your body be free—while staying active. Dance at home or with friends, or find a local studio to take classes.

Do Self-myofascial Release

Self-myofascial release (SMR), also known as foam rolling, is a great way to have a productive rest day. Deb Preachuk, a Corrective Exercise Specialist, explains the benefits:

  • Relaxation of the muscles, eliminating tension and relieving aches and pains
  • Reduced soreness and improved tissue recovery
  • Improved range of motion
  • Improved elasticity of muscles
  • Production of cytokines, which play a role in decreasing inflammation

Ultimately, foam rolling can also help your body recover faster and more efficiently. The best part is that it’s easy to do. To perform SMR, you can use a traditional foam roller, tennis ball or rolling stick along with the following techniques, recommended by Jonathan Ross:

  • Roll and hold: Roll along the length of your muscle, stopping to hold on a tender spot for 20 seconds; let the muscle relax into the roller.
  • Pin and move: Roll to a pressure point and move the accompanying joint.
  • Cross-fiber: Roll perpendicular to the direction of the muscle tissue.

Stay Active and Rest

A productive rest day provides your body with a wide variety of benefits, including faster recovery, greater range of motion, improved mood and more. Use these tips to have an active recovery day, allowing you to make time for rest while reaching your fitness goals.