While it may seem obvious why athletes like Michael Phelps — who trains 5–6 hours most days — need rest days away from exercise, the guidelines for us mere mortals are a little less clear. For instance, if you’re getting the minimum amount of recommended physical activity, do you need to take days completely off from exercising? If you’re taking 10,000 steps per day, does that really warrant recovery time?
As you might expect, it depends on the person.
The Department of Health and Human Services recommends doing one of the following if you hope to achieve the substantial health benefits associated with exercise:
With that in mind, recent research suggests that you can reap the most exercise benefits if you do around three times that amount of physical activity. The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that people who exercised at a moderate intensity, usually walking, for 450 minutes per week (around an hour each day) were 39% less likely to die prematurely than people who didn’t exercise at all. The risk of dying for those who did the recommended 150 minutes per week was about 31% less during the study.
So, if you’re striving to achieve the government’s minimum guidelines — say you’re walking around 20 minutes each day of the week — you might not want to take a rest day since you’re already at the lower end of the recommended amount of physical activity. Similarly, if you’re hoping to shed weight, a day laid up on the couch may not need to happen. After all, rest days are reserved for serious athletes, right?
When considering just exercise, you probably don’t need weekly rest days if you’re doing the minimum amount of physical activity or less. To be sure, studies show that if you’re getting two days of exercise a week or fewer, you’re likely not achieving the desired fitness gains or benefits you’re after. As you might expect, there’s a big caveat to all of this: Your body gets taxed by exercise combined with all the other activities you engage in on any given day. A whole host of things can affect the amount of rest and recovery you need, not just the minutes or miles of exercise you log. Life stress, age, nutrition, sleep, physical fitness levels and certain health conditions should all be factored into how much rest you get.
For instance, if you compare two people who walk 30 minutes most days of the week, each will likely need to take different approaches to rest and recovery, depending on the larger picture of their lives. If one of them has three small children they care for during the day and an overnight work shift that requires them to stand for eight hours straight, and the other has no children and works a 9–5 desk job, you can probably guess which individual might need to occasionally insert an extra rest day into his or her routine.
Understanding the difference between rest and recovery can help you figure out the best course of action for your particular situation. For recreational athletes, most coaches recommend one day of complete rest each week. Research suggests that more competitive athletes may need as much as 48 hours of rest, after especially hard workouts. The need for rest in these instances is related to the fact that exercise of all types causes damage to the muscles, and rest days allow for healing. It is during that downtime that the body bounces back, muscles grow stronger and the desired fitness adaptations occur.
If, however, you’re not training at that level, you need to look at the cumulative stress of your life to determine whether you need days of complete rest. Perhaps instead of weekly days off, you schedule a day off from exercise twice per month. Or maybe you just know that work or family obligations will inevitably intervene on your exercise plans, so you reserve rest for those days when things simply get to be too much.
If you aren’t sure whether or not you need a rest day, active recovery days are a nice middle-of-the-road option. Active recovery allows you to get in some physical activity and burn a few calories, all while giving your body a break. Studies have demonstrated that low-intensity exercise, like swimming or yoga, can actually benefit recovery and enhance relaxation. So if you’re feeling worn down from your usual walking routine, taking a day off to hit the pool will restore your energy levels and physical well-being, while burning calories.
The takeaway here is that there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for rest and recovery. It’s all about listening to your body and responding appropriately. You might only be getting in the bare amount of recommended exercise each day, but life could also be serving up a whole lot of other physical, mental and emotional stress, so your body may be begging you to back off. Be sure to listen to that call, but also keep in mind that exercise can be restorative — so it shouldn’t be the first thing to get cut from your daily routine. In fact, research suggests that, rather than fatiguing your body and mind, a walk in nature serves to enhance mood and energy levels. So if you’re feeling zapped, step back and assess your situation. A walk in the park may be just what you need.
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