Whether you’re into strength-training or running, rest days are a key part of any workout routine. But it can be hard to know what to do on rest days, especially if you can’t get enough of your go-to form of exercise.
Why are rest days important?
“We have to remember that working out, while a good stressor on our body, is a stressor,” Cori Lefkowith, owner and founder of Redefining Strength, tells SELF, explaining that taking a day off gives your body a chance to recover from that stress—and avoid the fatigue and delayed progress that comes with overtraining. “Without them, you don’t allow your body to repair and build up stronger. You hit a point of diminishing returns where you’re running on empty so can’t truly push at your full 100%.”
And, if you only work out at full speed, without mixing it up with rest and low-intensity exercise, you could be risking something worse than diminishing returns. “One of the best reasons to take a rest day is to help prevent injury and allow your body to work safer for your next workout,” Dani Coleman, lead trainer at P.volve Los Angeles, tells SELF. Overuse injuries in particular (like shin splints) can arise when your fitness routine lacks rest days.
From preventing fatigue to staying safe, rest days present you with a wonderful opportunity to come back to the gym (or track, or studio) feeling refreshed and ready for another session. But, to return to our original question, what you do on your rest days will actually depend on the type of rest day you plan for yourself.
Active rest days vs. passive rest days
You don’t have to confine yourself to the couch on rest days if you still want to move around (though there’s nothing wrong with spending the day in full relaxation mode—more on that later). Active recovery days, in which you enjoy low-impact movement and light exercise instead of your regular workout, can be extremely beneficial to muscle repair and, therefore, your overall fitness goals. It increases blood flow to your muscle tissue and breaks up lactic acid (a waste product that accumulates during exercise), which loosens your muscles and prevents soreness, Coleman says. Those effects will ultimately help your body repair itself.
Passive rest days, on the other hand, are exactly what they sound like: days spent relaxing—without much physical activity at all. “Passive rest days are the best when your mind and body are mentally and physically depleted,” Coleman says. Lefkowith echoes that sentiment, explaining that they can help you fully de-stress and give your body time to recover to the point that you’re eager to work out at full intensity the next time you hit the gym. Lefkowith also points out that passive rest is the better option if you’re in pain (rather than experiencing muscle soreness) or dealing with an injury—in those cases, your body needs real downtime to heal.