Last Update: August 18, 2023
When it comes to working out, we’ve been told that more is better. And there’s no doubt that a lot of Americans should be exercising more—more than 80 percent of us don’t even come close to meeting the recommended guidelines for weekly physical activity.
But what about those people who fit in a sweat session every day, watch what they eat, and still can’t seem to shake those few lingering pounds? They’re probably missing a major component of any quality workout regimen—a rest day.
Before we break down why you need to take a day off, it’s important to understand why getting physical changes your body. Exercise is, essentially, stress that causes the body to react. And usually it reacts by adapting to exercise.
That’s why when gym-goers add a little more difficulty to their regular workout regimen—maybe to improve athleticism, build more muscle, or just get ready for vacation—they’ll notice their bodies changing. Increasing the duration, frequency, and intensity of sweat sessions forces the body to adapt. That could mean more muscle growth and strength, improved endurance, and fat loss.
And after a while, the same exercise that seemed so difficult before actually feels pretty easy. But because it’s not challenging anymore, the body doesn’t need to respond as much—which means it’s no longer changing at the same rate. When active people notice they’ve plateaued and no longer see gains or improvement, the natural response is to make workouts harder and longer and to stop taking any days off.
But training so often can actually have the opposite effect—not only are results nonexistent, but it seems that it gets even harder to maintain fitness. Surprisingly, taking rest more seriously and ditching a few of your scheduled workouts can can yield more muscular gains, improved energy levels, and even help you ditch extra fat.
OK, so most people need to take a day to recover—but why? Here’s the science and psychology behind why taking a day off can actually make workouts more effective.
During a sweat session, the microscopic fibers that make up muscles are ripped apart, hence that burning feeling that comes with lifting weights or sprinting quickly. Once activity stops, the body repairs those fibers—which results in greater strength and more muscle mass. That’s easiest for your body to do during rest, because that’s when the pituitary gland produces the most growth hormone (HGH) to help cells grow and regenerate. During rest periods, HGH reconstructs muscle fibers to make them stronger and bigger—so yes, getting all those reps in on the squat rack is important, but muscle gains actually happen during times of recovery.
Exercising for multiple days in a row without enough rest negatively impacts growth hormone production—bad news for anyone trying to get bigger biceps or who wants their six-pack to emerge in time for spring break.
Elite marathoner and Olympian Ryan Hall stunned the running world in January when he announced his retirement from the sport at 33, the age at which most competitive distance runners hit their fastest times. Hall cited overtraining as the heartbreaking reason he had to bow out of the sport; although he won the Olympic Marathon trials in 2008 with a 2:04 marathon time, he admitted that due to years of pushing himself too hard, he’s now barely able to finish a three-mile run.
Overtraining, or continually exercising even while fatigued for extended periods of time, takes a serious toll on the body physically and mentally. Side effects of overtraining include chronically sore muscles, decreased performance, and difficulty sleeping along with depression, apathy, and trouble focusing. For some people, overtraining is a symptom of an exercise addiction, a very serious issue not dissimilar to an eating disorder. Others simply believe that more is better and assume they’ll eventually see the results they’re hoping for. Unfortunately, extended periods of overtraining can permanently disrupt hormonal levels, mess with metabolic function, and destroy athletic ability. In other words, sometimes less really is more.
There’s no doubt about it—sometimes laughing and connecting with friends over a slice of gooey cheese pizza feels just as good for your health as logging miles on the treadmill. Sure, it’s important to be active for physical wellness, but scheduling your life around workouts isn’t the point. Most of us want maintain our optimal health in order enjoy our lives as much as possible, but if your social life starts to depend by your sweat schedule, it’s a good time to examine why those gym sessions have become so important and what you’re sacrificing in order to make them happen.
Rest doesn’t necessarily mean sleep (although sometimes getting additional shuteye is the best thing you can do to recover.) Recovery days can include an easy walk, swim, or jog depending on your fitness level. Foam rolling or going to yoga could be considered rest, too. Or you could spend the day in the kitchen making food to fuel your muscles—our Paleo pancakes recipe topped with almond of peanut butter is the perfect recovery meal because it’s packed with healthy proteins, fats, and fiber.
Bottom line: Everyone needs a day off, especially those who are trying to change their bodies. Recovery should be taken as seriously as actual training, because both are equally important in maintaining a healthy body.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho
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