As someone who loves working out for both the physical and mental health benefits, I often struggle to pencil in rest days. Exercise makes me feel great, so why would I purposefully not work out? Turns out, many others feel the same way, especially amid the chaos that is our new pandemic world.
“A lot of people are turning to fitness as their sort of escape from reality right now,” Kellen Scantlebury, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Fit Club NY, tells SELF. With so much in life feeling chaotic and overwhelming these days, exercise can be a needed distraction, a grounding stress-reliever, a controllable piece of reality—and sometimes, all of the above.
But when it comes to working out, more definitely doesn’t equal better. It may seem counterintuitive, but exercising a ton without taking rest days can actually do your body—and your mind—more harm than good. Not taking a rest day when you need it, especially if you are overtraining, can increase your risk of overuse injury, decrease your performance, crush your motivation, and suck the joy out of an activity you once loved, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
In short, rest days are incredibly important. And you should build them into your exercise routine no matter what your fitness goals are, certified exercise physiologist DeAnne Davis Brooks, Ed.D, associate professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of North Carolina Greensboro and USATF Level 1-track coach, tells SELF.
Rest days aren’t “extra,” she explains. “You don’t only rest when you’re injured; you don’t only rest when you’re tired.” Instead, rest should be a non-negotiable part of your routine—especially if you want to keep working out for the long haul.
Here’s everything you need to know about rest days—what they should entail, how to tell you need one, and how to determine whether you’re ready to start sweating again.
What exactly is a rest day?
A rest day is simply a day off from your normal exercise routine. These can be planned or unplanned.
When planning rest days, there’s no set rule for how often you should take them—the answer really depends on your current fitness level, goals, training plan, and biological factors. In general, however, more recovery time is necessary after higher-intensity activities, says Brooks. A HIIT fanatic, for instance, will probably need to take rest days more often than someone who walks for exercise. ACE offers the rest-day guideline of at least one rest day every seven to 10 days of exercise, but since it’s so individualized, it’s really important to listen to your body and your brain.
Also important: While a rest day is a pause from your normal routine, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t do anything active during it. A rest day could involve just sitting on the couch and chilling, or it could include active recovery activities, like stretching, foam rolling, yoga, walking, or easy biking. Gently moving around can help facilitate blood flow and thus boost your body’s natural post-workout healing process, Shelby Baez, Ph.D., ATC, assistant professor in the department of kinesiology at Michigan State University, tells SELF. She also recommends practicing mindfulness meditation for mental recovery.
Remember that your rest day is your rest day. So as long as you’re allowing your body and mind a break from your usual strenuous exercise routine, you can define it however you want.
How can you tell you need to take a rest day?
Even if you schedule out your rest days, life sometimes gets in the way. Maybe you ended up working out through your scheduled rest day, or maybe you did take one, but end up feeling a little not-so-right during your workout a few days later. That’s why getting in tune with your physical and mental well-being is super important in helping you decide when it’s time to skip a workout. Here, experts share 10 telltale physical and mental signs that you should probably pause your workouts and just chill for a change.
It’s normal to sometimes feel sore after a workout, especially if said workout was particularly intense or included movements your body isn’t used to. The soreness that comes after an unusually tough or new workout is known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS typically peaks about 48 hours after your workout, though it can persist longer, explains Brooks. If your soreness continues for more than a week, however, or if you experience significant soreness, but can’t ID any changes to your workout routine that might have caused it—then it’s worth asking yourself if you need more rest, says Brooks.
Also, if at any point your soreness is a seven out of 10 or higher on a 1-10 scale, you should definitely take the day off—or at least rest the body part(s) that is aching, advises Scantlebury. For example, if your arms are totally smoked, but you’re itching to do something and your legs feel fine, you could try a lower-body workout. But you may also just want to take the day off entirely—and that’s totally OK, too.
You may think working out just challenges your body, but it also actually taxes your brain. Exercise demands focus, discipline, and mental fortitude, which is why your brain, just like your body, needs time to recover afterwards. So if your mind is begging for a break, you should probably listen.
“I think one of the clearest signs [you need a rest day] is when you really don’t want to [exercise],” Angie Fifer, Ph.D., certified mental performance consultant with the Association for Applied Sports Psychology, and owner of Breakthrough Performance Consulting in Pittsburgh, tells SELF. This aversion she’s describing is more than an “ugh-this-workout-might-be-tough” mentality, she explains. Instead, it’s severe to the degree that “you’re really having to push and shove yourself” to work out. If this level of mental roadblock occurs multiple days in a row, please take some R&R, she says.
Also, if you’re typically someone who gets excited to break a sweat and you find that drive has evaporated, that’s probably another indicator you’ve gone overboard and would benefit from some time off, Cristina Domínguez, Psy.D., New York-based psychologist who counsels clients on sports performance, tells SELF. A mini reprieve may be just what you need to reignite your spark.
Some days, a workout just doesn’t appeal, even if you know it’ll make you feel better. But more often than not, once you start moving your body, your mindset will shift and you’ll be able to mentally embrace the workout, says Fifer. That’s not always the case, though, and if you make it through the warm-up and find you’re still not connecting to the workout, you should probably just call it quits, says Fifer. The same rule applies physically: If you feel soreness or pain even after you’ve warmed up your muscles, you should scale it back, says Baez.. Reminder: There’s nothing to gain from pushing through a workout feeling crappy, and a lot to risk—including injury and burnout.
If you experience muscle cramps while doing relatively gentle activities (say, your calf seizes as you walk up the stairs), or if you wake up at night with a howl-inducing charley horse, that may be a sign that your body is excessively fatigued, explains Scantlebury. Dehydration or muscle overuse can cause that muscle cramping, the Mayo Clinic —two potential side effects of intense exercising. So if random muscle cramps are ambushing your workout, do your body a solid and take a day (or more) off for recovery.
It should go without saying that if you’re ill or injured, you absolutely need to rest (and of course seek medical care, if needed). This is especially important if you have COVID-19 (even if you’re asymptomatic or feel like you’re recovering) or have been in close, prolonged contact with anyone who has it and could have caught it yourself. Why? The novel coronavirus can trigger a huge inflammatory response in your body, and exercising when you have it can make it worse, as SELF reported. Plus, continuing to exercise with COVID-19—even if you don’t have symptoms—can worsen inflammation of the heart wall, a condition known as myocarditis. In turn, myocarditis can potentially lead to permanent scarring on your heart, which can trigger arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat). Here’s how to know when it’s safe to get back to exercise after having COVID-19.
You should also back off from exercising if any part of your workout causes significant pain, says Scantlebury. Say, for example, you feel a sharp stabbing sensation in your knee during a round of squats, or your lower back complains as you perform push-ups. Don’t forge ahead through this discomfort; instead, call it quits, and if appropriate, consult a fitness or medical professional before you get back out there.
We all have days where we just feel “off,” whether that’s physically, mentally, or emotionally. If that malaise permeates your workout—maybe you feel like you’re dragging yourself on a run, or you’re unable to focus during virtual yoga, or you just don’t have the emotional capacity to complete your usual weight lifting routine—that’s probably a sign you need to rest, says Baez.
Before you even start a workout, it can help to take a minute to check in with yourself, she adds. Ask: How am I feeling today? What is my body telling me? Use those answers to determine what is really best for you. “When your body tells you it needs to rest, it’s probably time to rest,” says Baez.
Say your usual running pace is 10 minutes per mile, but today, you’re struggling to manage a 12-minute pace. Or maybe you typically blow through a set of 10 burpees with ease, but all of a sudden, you can barely manage five. Any notable drop in your baseline set of skills is a sign that your body probably needs to chill.
“The best comparison is yourself,” says Baez. Also, if you can’t maintain proper form while completing a move or skill, then you should either decrease the intensity, or stop altogether, adds Brooks. Continuing to forge ahead with poor form will only increase your risk of injury.
If you feel compelled to exercise—and become angry or anxious if you can’t—you may be dealing with compulsive exercise, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Other signs and symptoms include continuing to exercise despite injury or other health conditions that make it difficult, exercising that interferes with other important activities, hiding your exercise from others, or using exercise as a way to try to negate calories you eat. If you’ve been experiencing any of these symptoms, or are concerned about your relationship with exercise, seeking out a qualified mental health professional (many of whom are available for virtual sessions now) can be an important step.
But even if your commitment to fitness doesn’t go as far, a strict workout routine could be causing you to neglect other important areas of your life—like spending quality (safely-distanced) time with friends and family, says Fifer. If that’s you, consider taking a day off (or two) as a way to reintroduce balance into your life. Reminder: Fitness is an important component of overall health—but definitely not the only component.
Your resting heart rate (RHR) should be pretty stable, though it may decrease as a result of regular aerobic training, says Brooks. An increased RHR, on the other hand, may be a sign your body is stressed (which can happen for a variety of reasons, including too much exercise). So if you track your RHR on your smart watch (or other device) and notice that it’s 5+ bpm higher than usual over the course of a week, that may be a sign you’re not getting enough rest between workouts. In that case, take it easy until your RHR drops back to normal, advises Brooks. (And if it doesn’t drop with rest, or you suspect excessive exercise was not causing your elevated RHR, definitely check in with your doctor.)
Extreme thirst, dark-colored pee, and low blood pressure are all signs of dehydration, says Brooks. If you’re dehydrated, definitely don’t start or continue a workout since sweating will only worsen the issue, and could potentially lead to more serious complications in severe cases, like kidney failure and even hypovolemic shock, according to the Mayo Clinic. Instead, call it a day and resume your exercise routine when—and only when—you’ve had a chance to get your fluid levels back to normal levels.
How to know when you’re ready to work out again
Sometimes, all you need is just one rest day. Other times, you may need a couple days off—or more. So how can you determine how much rest is enough? The answer is simple: Listen to your body and your brain. Once you feel like you’ve gotten back to your baseline level of “normal”—that means any severe soreness, pain, or injury has dissipated; you’re feeling hydrated and healthy; and you actually want to work out again—by all means, go for it, says Brooks.
As you resume your typical fitness habits, just remember that rest days should be an integral part of your routine, not a once-in-a-while occurrence. “Rest is undervalued,” says Brooks. “We really need to get the word out that it is an important and useful and helpful component to training.”