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Stress Prevention

7 Ways to Optimize Your Rest Days

Learn how to make the most of your day off from the gym.

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If you’re an avid exerciser, a rest day is essential. These “days off,” so to speak, of exercise are hardly a mere reward for all the hard work you put into your fitness routine on the other days of the week. Instead, view rest days as an opportunity to give your body the time to physically recoup from the demands of your regimen.

When you are exercising and being physically active, you are putting stress on the body, explains Marvin Nixon, MS, NBC-HWC, CPT, certified nutrition consultant and health and wellness coach. “The main reason to exercise is to have the body adapt to the stresses being put on it and become stronger or faster or bigger or leaner,” he says. “Here’s the catch: The positive changes in the body do not happen during exercise; the positive changes in the body occur while we are at rest.” In other words, if you’re exercising without affording your body some rest in between, the overall result is the opposite of what is desired — i.e., your performance actually decreases.

Rest days not only help your body recover from training, but they also replenish your energy and refresh your mind. “Taking a rest day is like recharging your batteries — we only have so much energy to go around, and rest days help you use it to the fullest,” says Jordan Hosbein, NASM-certified personal trainer. “On a rest day, your energy is used to recover and grow stronger and healthier rather than expelling energy on sprints or burpees, making you feel alert, confident and alive with a sense of well-being.”

Rest days also help protect you from injury because they give your muscles the time they need to recoup and heal from all the micro-tears that exercise inflicts on them during workouts. “Injuries can happen easily when you overexercise or repeatedly push the boundaries of what your muscles can take,” says certified personal trainer Caleb Backe. “Therefore, regular rest days are an essential component of a safe workout routine, as it minimizes the stress and strain on your body, which — if it results in an injury — can mean you’ll have to take more time off than a planned rest day here and there.”

While exercise has been linked to enhanced sleep, rest days in between can help further facilitate proper rest because it maintains a healthy balance of cortisol (the stress hormone) in your body.

Clearly, rest days are quite important — and something you should incorporate into your exercise routine. Here are some expert-approved tips for how to optimize your rest days.

1. Plan rest days into your schedule.

A rest day shouldn’t be something you take on a whim because you’re too tired — they should be incorporated into your routine from the start. This not only ensures that you’re getting the proper rest your body needs, but it also prevents you from feeling guilty for taking a day off, Hosbein notes.

2. Rest more after intense workouts.

If you just performed a high-intensity exercise, you may want to consider taking more than one day off. While Hosbein points out that the amount of rest days you take will vary based on your conditioning, fitness goals and your body’s natural ability to recover, taking a day or two off to rest after an intense workout is normal. “This way, you’re running at 100 percent when it’s time to work out again,” he adds.

3. Get enough quality sleep.

When it comes to how best to optimize your rest day, one of the easiest tricks of the trade is drinking enough water. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that healthy adults get seven to nine hours of sleep per night, so this should be your goal. And it’s best if this is not broken sleep. “You need your body to go through all four of the different sleep cycles, spending adequate time in each, as recovery is optimized during stages 3 and 4, the deepest stages of sleep,” says ​​Robert Dodds, certified personal trainer, fitness coach and founder of Nothing Barred Fitness. 

4. Schedule frequent massages.

Getting a massage shouldn’t just be a one-off self-care day. In fact, it’s one of the best recovery tools. “A massage helps relieve muscle pains, increases blood flow to areas requiring repair, which helps get them the required nutrients for recovery and helps relieve the body of adhesions (commonly known as knots) in soft tissues,” Dodds explains. “When we damage muscle fibers through training, sometimes the fibers of this web can get stuck, which prevents them from moving easily in conjunction with the muscle tissue beneath.”

We feel this as a tight or sore spot in the muscle, which can be more painful with certain movements. Luckily, massage, particularly pressure on the affected area, can relieve this. “Foam rollers, lacrosse balls and other implements can also be great at getting into tough-to-reach spots and applying the required amount of pressure to release these adhesions,” he adds. If massages aren’t your speed, you might be amazed at how chiropractic care can boost your gym performance and help with recovery, too.

5. Go for a walk.

Just because you’re taking a rest day doesn’t mean you have to lie in your bed or on your couch. In fact, continuing to move is a great way to optimize your rest day because it can be quite beneficial so long as you’re doing so at low intensity. “Going for a walk on your rest days can promote recovery, as it encourages blood flow to the muscles,” Dodds says. “This can help relieve your legs of stiffness and soreness.”

6. Eat nutrient-rich foods.

Proper nutrition is important for recovery. Hosbein recommends sticking to wholesome, all-natural foods as much as possible to give your body the nutrients it needs — namely protein and healthy fats. In addition, it’s important to make sure you’re drinking enough water — 15.5 cups a day for men and 11.5 cups a day for women, per The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. On days when you have an intense workout, however, Hosbein suggests drinking even more to replenish fluids lost to sweat.

7. Avoid alcohol.

As much as you might think your rest day would be the perfect opportunity to take the edge off with a drink, alcohol is no good for recovery. “Not only does alcohol lower your body’s effectiveness at replenishing muscle glycogen stores, but it also reduces muscle protein synthesis, meaning that you will be less effective at repairing muscle after a workout or building new muscle if you drink alcohol,” Dodds explains. “Muscle recovery especially requires hydration, and alcohol dehydrates you.”