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How Important are Rest Days?

When we find physical activity we enjoy and noticeably helps us look and feel better, we might understandably become addicted. We tend to think more is better, but you know what they say: too much of a good thing can be a bad thing; and in the world of fitness, this argument is valid. In fact, rest days are as important as the time you spend exercising.

Why Do You Need Rest Days?

Put simply, when you train, you put stress on your body and tear it down; when you rest, you allow your body to heal and get even stronger than it was before. Rest days allow your muscles, bones, nerves and tissue to rebuild. When you deprive yourself of this much-needed healing time, your body doesn’t get the chance to bounce back.

Sleep is especially important — both getting enough hours and getting the right quality of it. According to research, several brain functions heavily depend on REM sleep (1). Other research has made a connection between disturbed sleep and acute and chronic pain — meaning poor sleep could make pain worse (2). Science has even drawn parallels between lack of REM sleep and depression (3). It goes without saying, then, that getting adequate sleep is vital to overall physical and mental wellbeing.

The Risks of Not Resting Enough

The consequences of overtraining are nothing to scoff at. When you don’t rest enough, you put yourself at risk of poor performance, an inability to maintain your training load, constant fatigue, a repressed immune system (and thus, more frequent illness), low-quality sleep and mood imbalances (4). Other possible indicators of a lack of rest include muscle damage, decreased aerobic and cardiac efficiency and depression (5).

This isn’t a matter of simply taking a rest day to recharge your battery. When you’re lacking sleep and recovery, you’re doing damage to your body’s neuroendocrine system, at a hypothalamic level. While short-term overtraining can usually be remedied in days or weeks, long-term overtraining is a whole other beast and could potentially take much longer to recover from (6).

When it comes to rest and recovery, taking time off from training can mean the difference between success and failure (7).

How Often Should You Rest?

There’s no one answer to this, because we’re all different. Some people can train Monday through Friday and rest on the weekends, and feel totally fine. Others like to do two days on followed by one day off. You’ll probably have to experiment with different approaches and see what feels best for you.

There’s another important question to explore: how exactly do you rest? Some people like to do absolutely nothing, while others like to do active recovery, which might include light movement like walking, swimming or yoga. Again, this is a personal decision. While there is much to be said for active recovery and still allowing the body some activity, it also depends on a lot of factors, including how intense and long your regular training sessions are.

References

  1. “Dependence on REM Sleep of Overnight Improvement of a Perceptual Skill.” Karni, A., et al. 1994.
  2. “Sleep Loss and REM Sleep Loss are Hyperalgesic.” Roehrs, T., et al. 2006.
  3. “REM sleep and depression: Common neurobiological control mechanisms.” McCarley, R. 1982.
  4. “Overtraining effects on immunity and performance in athletes.” MacKinnon, L. 2000.
  5. “Overtraining in Athletes.” Fry, R., et al. 2012.
  6. “Overtraining in Elite Athletes.” Kuipers, H., Keizer, H.A. 2012.
  7. “Enhancing recovery: Preventing underperformance in athletes.” Kellmann, M. 2002.