Pete McCall by Pete McCall

Whether you are training for an endurance race such as a marathon or simply trying to maintain good health and a comfortable bodyweight, it is important to do the right amount of exercise for your particular needs. Some people mistakenly believe that more is always better, but when it comes to exercise, that is simply not the case.

Exercise is a physical workload imposed upon the body; the type of exercise and the amount you perform determines the specific changes that your body will experience. For exercise to have the greatest effect and create the changes you want, the type of exercise and the level of intensity should vary on a regular basis. Alternating between low-, moderate- and high-intensity workouts—known as periodization—provides different methods for structuring workout intensity to allow for proper rest after exercise.

Arguably, the most important component of periodization is proper rest and recovery time between hard or high-intensity workouts. Exercise creates two types of stress on your muscles: metabolic stress that comes from depleting the energy stored in individual muscle cells and mechanical stress created by physical damage to the structures of muscle proteins. While the body experiences metabolic or mechanical stress during exercise, it’s during the recovery period after the exercise that the body repairs the muscle proteins and replaces the glycogen (stored glucose in liver and muscle tissue) used to fuel the workout.

Your body needs sufficient time to repair and refuel, especially between challenging, high-intensity workouts. This doesn’t mean you can’t exercise every day, but it does mean that you need to space out your harder workouts and combine them with lower-intensity workouts. For example, during a seven-day week, you might have two to three high-intensity workouts, two to three moderate-intensity workouts and one to three low-intensity workouts. There will be some weeks when you’re feeling awesome and can push for three hard workouts, while other weeks you can only handle one really hard workout and a couple of moderate-intensity ones. (Note: If you’re going through a stressful time at work or home, it’s best to lay off the high-intensity exercise because an accumulation of too much total stress can be challenging for your body.) Perhaps the most important training day of the week is the one that is often the most overlooked by many active people—the rest day.

Some people believe that taking a day off from exercise or any strenuous physical activity is akin to being lazy, but that simply isn’t true. While it is important to be physically active most days of the week, it is equally as important to give yourself and your body a break by making sure to schedule at least one day of complete rest from demanding physical activity every seven to 10 days.

Feeling stressed or burned out or having a tough time falling asleep even though you are physically exhausted are all possible signs of overtraining and an indicator that you need to allow for more rest time in your workout program. But if the thought of a day away from the gym or not enjoying your favorite activity leaves you feeling concerned, here are eight benefits of taking a complete rest day.

  1. Taking a day off from the gym makes it possible to spend that extra time with your loved ones. This is especially important if you have young kids. They’ll love the extra time together and, because you know they grow up quickly, you’ll cherish your time with them.
  2. Pushing through a tough workout requires mental toughness and stamina, which means that physical exertion is not only hard on your body, it can really fatigue your brain as well. Spending a day away from your typical training environment can give you a psychological break from exercise and help your mind relax, allowing it to recover along with your muscles.
  3. Moderate- to high-intensity exercise can rely on the glycolysis energy pathway, which uses carbohydrates to fuel muscle activity. Feeling sluggish or drained at the end of a workout could mean your glycogen levels are depleted. If they get too low, your body could catabolize protein for fuel instead of using it to repair muscle tissue. Taking a rest day can help your body properly replace the energy stores in your muscle cells so that you have a full battery for your next hard workout.
  4. A day of rest allows your body to repair tissues damaged from the mechanical stresses of exercise. Specifically, rest allows time for the fibroblasts—individual cells that repair damaged tissues such as muscle proteins—to do their job and repair any tissues that need it.
  5. If your muscles have been feeling a little sore, a day of rest can allow your circulatory system to perform its job of removing metabolic byproducts in muscle cells (from using energy during exercise) while also delivering the oxygen and nutrients used to help repair damaged tissues.
  6. While some consider spending time at the gym or sweating to a favorite workout a hobby, ]it’s important to have other hobbies as well. Learn or practice a musical instrument. Coach a team. Volunteer at your kids’ school, or visit an older adult community. Taking the time for other hobbies or to perform volunteer work can help reduce feelings of self-importance, while benefitting your local community.
  7. Taking a rest day can benefit your work life, especially if you find yourself cutting your work short to make it to a class or meet friends for a run. Use your rest day to spend some extra time at work to become fully organized or get ahead of the next big project, which will demonstrate your commitment to your team.
  8. The best reason for a rest day? Finish reading that book you keep starting or binge-watch that show that all of your friends are talking about. Tell yourself that you’re not being lazy, but rather you are focused on the recovery phase of your workout program.

When it comes to exercise, sometimes less is more. Avoiding rest days can set you up for things like repetitive stress injuries or overtraining, which will eventually force you to take some rest days—whether you like it or not. A well-designed exercise program—one that will help you meet your goals—includes adequate rest  to fully recover from the stresses of hard exercise.

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