Rest Days: How Much Recovery Do You Really Need Between Workouts?

An expert weighs in on the importance of rest and recovery after exercise

You know that exercising on a regular basis is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, but maybe you’re so bombarded with facts and figures about how important it is to move more all of the time, that sometimes you forget to stop and let your body take a breather.

“What people need to understand is that exercise stresses the body, so in order to ensure the positive things you’re seeking you need to allow recovery time,” says Dr. Cedric Bryant, Chief Science Officer for the American Council on Exercise. “Everything needs time to recover, rebuild and rejuvenate before exposed to stress again.”

For example, lifting weights at the gym creates a stress that breaks down your muscle fibers; that’s the stimulus. It’s not until after you’re finished working out that the desired adaptations (increased strength, muscle growth, etc.) can start to occur. While you’re resting, your body begins working on rebuilding those muscle fibers, but you’ll only achieve the desired effects if you allow for adequate rest time.  

“It’s during the rest that the positive changes occur,” says Bryant. “Muscles get stressed and adapt to the stress. These are changes that allow you to be able to handle greater levels of resistance.”

And the same concept applies to almost any type of exercise. Those who enjoy cardiovascular activities like running, swimming or cycling should keep in mind that the heart is also a muscle that requires time for recovery, too.

Bryant says that recovery is also important for biochemical processes that need to take place, like restoration of the immune system and strengthening of bone tissue.

So rest is clearly an important part of an effective exercise regimen, but exactly how much do you need?

“A lot of it is really going to be a function of the type of training you’re engaged in, and how fit you are,” says Bryant. “The more intense the training bout, the more recovery time you will need. You really need to be smart about appropriate recovery.”

Bryant recommends alternating your workouts between hard training and easy movement. He says exercisers should incorporate low-impact, low-intensity workouts like yoga or Pilates on the days following their hardest sessions. He also noted that the less fit you are, the more time you’ll need to allow for your body to adapt, so if you’re just beginning a new exercise routine it’s a good idea to start slow and allow some extra time for recovery.

It’s also important to note that rest doesn’t necessarily equate to complete inactivity. For optimal health and wellness you should aim to move as much as possible every day, only some days should  be less intense than others.

“Find what I call kind of a gentler form of exercise,” said Bryant. “Like I said before, yoga and Pilates are great, or play some type of recreational activity that, again, can be done at a milder more moderate intensity. Go on a hike or a nature walk.”

On rest days, instead of thinking about exercise in terms of intensity or duration, Bryant recommends aiming to add simple movement to your day-to-day routine.

“Move the body in a rhythmic fashion that doesn’t involve a great deal of pounding and that’s low impact, this will allow you to help the body to move comfortably. Use the talk test as a gauge to ensure that it’s the right level of intensity.” In other words, you should be able to maintain a basic level of conservation during this type of exercise.

Also important for adequate recovery: cooling down after your workouts, getting sufficient amounts of sleep and eating right.  

Related: Workout Recovery: How Soon Should You Eat After Intense Exercise?

“Think of both your short term and long term recovery,” says Bryant. “Right after a workout, cool down, replenish your energy stores, and hydrate. All these things will help to put you in an environment to promote and facilitate recovery right after the workout.”

If you’re not resting enough, your body will start to show some warning sings. Bryant says that some of the early signs of overtraining include a lack of desire to train, discomfort, soreness and feelings of what he describes as “staleness.”

Bryant says the best way to determine when to rest and for how long is to listen to your body. “It will let you know if it’s recovered,” he said.

Another more tangible way that you can check to tell if you’re training too much is by keeping track of your resting heart rate.

“Get into the habit of taking your resting heart rate when you wake up in the morning,” Bryant said. “If it creeps up over time then you’re probably not allowing for full recovery.”

If you’re noticing any of the signs mentioned above and think you may have entered the realm of overtraining, Bryant recommends taking some time off.

“Rest until you start to feel better,” he said. “When you do go back to training make sure that you feel pretty much fully recovered within one to one and half hours after your workouts.” He also recommended returning to your regimen slowly and at a lower intensity. 

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