You worked out yesterday, so tonight you’re obliged to slip into your pink bunny slippers and queue up Comcast on Demand?
I used to think that. Gee, I sure would like to go for a bike ride around the park, but I’d reverse everything I did at the gym yesterday, I worried.
I’ve since learned that letting your body ‘rest’ doesn’t mean playing dead. At least, it doesn’t have to. If you did a marathon of walking lunges and sumo squats yesterday, well, maybe you’ve earned the couch time. But you don’t have to loaf, if you don’t want to.
To let your body rest and recover, you just need to lighten the activity load.
First off, have you earned a rest?
Rest day assumes that you’ve, well, actually earned a rest. You’ve depleted your energy stores, or you’ve torn your muscle fibers to the point that they need repair (which is the key to building muscle).
It’s the burly strength training workouts, the high intensity interval training, the cardio sessions that last 90 minutes or more. These usually call for at least a day in between. Some people give themselves two or three days, which is just fine.
Quite frankly, if you’ve worked out hard, that rest day will be welcome. If you’re raring to go day after day, are you really pushing yourself hard enough?
Keep in mind that muscle soreness—a good indicator that your body is repairing itself—can take 48-72 hours to set in. That’s why giving yourself ample padding between rigorous training sessions isn’t a bad idea.
Rest is especially important leading up to an athletic event, typically referred to as the ‘taper.’ It doesn’t mean you stop training cold-turkey, just that you progressively reduce the intensity.
Some activity is actually good
Remember: The golden rule of rest is to not exhaust the same muscles in back-to-back workouts. Worst case: overtraining can lead to lowered immune system and injury. Less severe: you won’t progress.
But mild to moderate exertion—say, an hour of steady state cardio—can be done every single day. In fact, it’s good for you. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week. While cardio alone won’t keep you slim, it delivers a horde of health benefits, including keeping your metabolism up and your heart healthy.
Thus, rest days are great for doing cardio activities you love, but that aren’t fitness home-runs. Playing in the yard. Long walks on the beach. Power-shopping.
And active stretching on rest days will relieve built-up muscle tension, good for your muscle health.
A hearty night’s sleep might be more important
Tim Ferriss says if you’re not sleeping properly (i.e., getting restorative sleep), what you do besides that really doesn’t matter. You’ll have to work ten times harder to get the results you want.
Your body uses restorative sleep time to recover after a workout. It also plays a role in weight control, which is why studies have shown higher instances of weight gain among people who sleep less than six hours (or more than eight hours, alas).
So, sacrificing sleep in the name of fitness is a lateral move, at best. I have many friends who get up at 5am to squeeze in a workout before taking the kids to school and heading off to work by 8am. And, no, they don’t go to bed at 9 or 10pm the night before.
If you have to choose—sleep or exercise, I guess you could go 50-50. Do an early-bird workout twice a week (still effective) and get a good night’s rest the rest of the week. Or, sleep in and skip the gym commute by doing a 4-minute workout at home.
Having trouble relaxing? Read fiction. It’s a fail-proof way to chill out. Which is why, as an English literature major, my attempts to pull all-nighters in college always failed.