Exercising stimulates changes in our muscles and our bodies. It increases our strength, cardiovascular endurance and our muscle mass, but it does this by causing tears in our muscles. When we are resting our bodies, this is the time where these changes really take place. Giving your body the time to recover from the strain of exercise is just as important as exercising in the first place.
Over-training can be either localised or systemic. It can be from over exercising to the point of stressing your body, from not getting enough rest and sleep or from not eating enough to sustain the stress your workout is applying to your body. I’ve experienced all of these and the best cure is a good meal and a rest day and here’s why.
Avoid Burning Yourself Out
Working out every day may seem like the best way to get as fit as possible as fast as possible, but ultimately, this will just result in you burning out. You’ll burn out your body, you’ll burn out your energy, you’ll burn out your motivation. Then you’ll stop going completely. This result is clearly not the best way to get fit. It’s true that some days we just feel lazy and don’t want to go. On those days it’s fine to push through and do it anyway, but listen to your body. Is it telling you it needs a break? You’ll know because everything will ache slightly, you’ll feel tired and possibly irritable and everything just seems more difficult than it should be. It may even be that you haven’t eaten enough or got enough sleep to be fit for your workout. Whatever the reason, trust your body.
Immune Responses To Skipping Rest Days
Our immune system is designed to protect us from invading pathogens and to help us heal from injuries. Usually this is a great thing, especially when it works well. However, too much of anything can cause problems.
Healing Muscle Tears
When we tear our muscles with exercise, we also stimulate the immune system to respond to these tears and help fix them. The immune response to these tears increases the amount of inflammation in your muscles, which can take up to three days to clear away. Not allowing your muscle tears to heal means you run a greater risk of injuring them later. I learned this from my martial arts training. I used to train 11 hours a week, every week and I loved it. Once a week, I would also go trampolining and swimming, play badminton and go to the gym at the weekends and do yoga twice a week.
Fast forward 8 years and I’m seeing a physio because the micro tears in my abductor muscle have healed together badly due to constant tearing. This has resulted in the microfibrils between the muscles fusing too tightly trying to hold the damaged muscle together. They created hard scar tissue that stops my muscle expanding. I’ve therefore lost A LOT of flexibility in that leg, despite painful physio trips (acupuncture = painless is a lie!!).
Fighting Off Infections
If your immune system is constantly overworked repairing small tears in our body, it’s likely to miss a more serious issue, like when you pick up a cold virus. I know this first hand as well. Every time I change my workout to a more intense one, I get sick. I manage 3 days of the workout and I come down with a cold. I'm then unable to exercise for the next week. It took me a while to figure out this was the cause. I spent 9 weeks fighting off 4 different colds while trying my best to get through my new workout programme. Now I introduce new workouts in stages. I take rest days on alternative days for a couple of weeks to ease into it.
Protecting Your Joints
When you do a high impact exercise, like running, you’re putting a lot of strain on your joints. If you don’t give these joints a rest to recover, your immune system will start trying to cushion them with fluid. Usually, this is the right thing to do, but if you were to keep running on swollen joints, it could cause them even more harm. They won’t be able to move properly and will become even more damaged.
Rest Days Keep Your Hormones Balanced
Overtraining your entire body results in systemic fatigue. This is opposed to localised fatigue where you’ve worked out one part of your body too much. When systemic fatigue happens, it causes an over-expression of cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol is released anyway when you exercise as you’re stressing your body out and it can be a good thing. It regulates your circadian rhythm and helps stimulate many useful responses in your body, but only in small doses. Overproduction of cortisol means that your body stops producing other hormones like testosterone. It inhibits the synthesis of protein and muscle repair and growth as well as activating muscle breakdown. Increased amounts of cortisol in the body also cause your body to store fat as it’s not able to use fat as a fuel source efficiently. This means that despite workout out more, you’re actually gaining weight.
For women, exercising too much can also mess with your menstrual cycle. While the thought of not having a period for a few months may be quite appealing, it’s still a sign that something is wrong with your body. It’s no longer fit and healthy enough to bear a child (whether that’s what you want or not). The lack of oestrogen that causes this also causes a drop in bone density, putting you at risk of injury or even long term issues like arthritis or osteoporosis.
Are You Overdue A Rest Day?
If you’ve been training for a long time, you might have just gotten used to feeling tired out. Or maybe you’re just starting to exercise and you think that being tired is part of the process. How can you tell if actually you’ve gone too far and you need a rest day? Well, some of the signs include constant muscle soreness that doesn’t get easier, a higher than usual resting heart rate, loss of appetite and an increase in injuries or minor illnesses like colds.
Some less obvious signs are things like mood swings, depression and insomnia because your hormones are out of balance. This often happens after you are more than overdue a break. So if you’re experiencing these things and you’re not quite sure where they came from, take a couple of days off from exercising. Relax, eat well and get lots of sleep and see how much better you’ll feel from it. Then remember not to go so long without doing this in the future.
Making The Most Of Your Rest Days
As you now know, rest is important, but there’s a little more to it than just sitting watching TV and resting. Sometimes that’s exactly what we need, but for many of us, I suspect that this will make you antsy. It does for me most of the time. By the end of the day, I need to at least walk to the shop so that I’ve left the house.
On your rest days, you may have heard that you should be careful what you eat as you won’t be burning off the same amount of calories. If you’re working out purely for the purpose of losing weight, then this may be true. But for many of us, we see the many more health benefits of exercise. If you’re trying to build muscle or improve your fitness, the last thing you want to do is deprive your body of nutrients on the days that it’s trying to repair tissue. Your body needs a few carbs to replenish its glycogen supplies and some protein to help repair the muscles. If you’re eating ketogenically make sure you take in your full amount of fat and calories.
Get Lots Of Sleep
Sleep is important whether you work out or not. Did you know that chronically sleeping too little causes physical damage to your brain similar to that of long term drug abuse or chemotherapy? When you sleep, your brain shrinks and releases the toxins that have built up in it over the course of your thinking throughout the day. Not sleeping enough causes these toxins to store up and poison your brain. The same is true for your muscles. They need the processes that come with sleep in order to recover properly from the stresses of the day. If you exercise often, you need more sleep than those who don’t as you’re putting your body through more stress than they are.
If you genuinely can’t stand the thought of not working out one day and it will cause you more stress than resting will repair, then put aside the time you’d normally spend working out doing something physically restorative for your body. Why not work on your flexibility and mobility? This will make sure you get the most out of your workouts when you get back to them. There are a few recommendations over at Nerd Fitness. Yoga is also an awesome rest day activity and one I use a lot myself. I particularly like the Five Parks Yoga routines.
Alternative physical activities you can do to help you on rest days is to get a massage and stimulate blood flow to your muscles or get out the good old foam roller.
Although it’s not exercise, you could also do your meal preps on a rest day. Use the time you’d normally spend exercising to cook instead. I generally make all my food for the week on a Sunday. Having the food ready and available makes it much less likely for me to resort to takeaway or shop lunches on days that I can’t be bothered cooking. This has saved my bank balance as well as my nutrition!
The kind of rest days you take depends on the kind of exercise you’re doing and how fit you are. If you’re doing full body exercises like pilates, strengthening yoga, running, full body wight lifting circuits, etc. you should take complete rest days. This is also true if you’re just starting to exercise. Make sure your body recovers fully before pushing it again.
However, if you’re a seasoned athlete or you’re doing localised weight lifting, you can use rest days to change your exercise. Work out a different muscle group, do some cardio instead of weights every third day or even swap your intense workout for a stretching or yoga day, a nice walk or a swim. Either way, make sure your rest day happens! None of us are hardcore enough to power through every day without breaking. The most important thing is to listen to your body and to enjoy your workouts.
So what's your favourite rest day activity? It is gentle exercise, a day of relaxing or an outing with the family? Share your best rest activities in the comments below!