how to overcome the mental block of taking rest days
Confession: rest days are a fight against myself.
I'm not sure how I got into the habit of not taking rest days, honestly. As a competitive swimmer all throughout middle school, high school, and half of college, Sundays were my prized rest days. When you have practice 6 days a week, oftentimes 2x a day, with dryland (what non-swimmers call normal exercise) tacked on, you cherish that rest day to do absolutely nothing at all. And sometimes, that day is more important than all the practice you've done, because that day is your day to recover.
Work hard, rest harder, I used to say.
But when I stopped swimming and started developing my own workout schedule, rest days disappeared. I wanted to try all the things — wanted to run, box, do yoga, strength train, spin... and oftentimes that meant that I was doing double workouts a day to fit it all in. I still had the mindset of my past-swimmer self, so this was absolutely normal.
But not taking rest days wasn't.
There are so many reasons why people struggle with taking them — why I still struggle with taking them. Even if the logical part of you knows that it only benefits you to take them, taking them can still be a challenge.
This post breaks down the different reasons why you, I, and so much of the fitness world skip rest days — and why you really, really shouldn't.
reason no. 1 : you don't feel like you need a break
We've all been there. you're thinking, Hey — I'm feeling great! I've been killing our workouts! Why do I need to take a break when I'm not sore/tired/exhausted?
Well, once you're at that state, it can be too late. Regular rest days not only allow your muscles to grow and recover, but also make the rest of your workouts more effective. In fact, if you take an extended rest period (3-5 days), you can even break out of a plateau.
Another reason why you shouldn't wait until that point is that you can injure yourself or push yourself too far. There's been some days where I felt like I was on the point of collapse — I couldn't even function as a normal human being (going to classes, walking around, doing typical life things) because I could barely move from my bed. Trust me, you do not want to get to that point.
reason no. 2 : you're afraid of not burning calories
As someone who's struggled with an eating disorder in the past, I completely understand this perspective, and I'd be lying if I said I never feared this.
Also, as much as I love my Apple watch, the fact that it tracks calories I burn kind of exacerbates this problem. On non-rest days I can burn up to 1.5K; on rest days, I get to 450 if I do some type of walking around. But when I had my goal set to 850, I would feel like crap about myself for not reaching it.
Tip: If you have a fitness or calorie tracker, take it off during your rest day. You don't need it. Forget it. Rest days aren't about the calories you burn — and you won't gain weight from not working out one day.
(As a side note, one of the biggest mindsets I had when I was struggling with my ED was that I had to stick to the "calories in calories out" philosophy. So when I didn't work out, I straight up wouldn't eat. I would wonder how many calories I burned with each step I took, and translate that to food. Don't fall into this trap.
You might feel hungrier when you take a rest day — know that this is completely normal. Your body needs extra nutrients to heal itself; see it as an opportunity to heal and nourish your body, and build those muscles. You're also storing fuel for the next day and for your next workout.
Don't feel guilty about eating more than "you should" or "is normal" during a rest day — if you eat more than when you're working out, it's ok. Just enjoy your food, enjoy yourself, eat if you're hungry, and stop when you're not. It's all about balance.
P.S. I totally had 3 dinners during the rest day I took yesterday. Yup.)
reason no. 3 : it feels weird not to — you've built a habit
Sometimes this happens too. You get into a routine of working out, and it becomes normal. It's a habit. And that's a frickin' GREAT habit to have.
But that also means it feels so frickin' weird when you don't workout. Like you're missing something in your life.
Hey, that's ok. You're not missing anything — if anything, you're gaining time. I've found that I have so much extra time when I don't workout — in between travel time and the actual workout, it's a couple of hours that I get back.
Use that time for something productive, like doing laundry; for something creative, like writing; for something calming, like reading; for something social, like having dinner with friends; or for doing absolutely nothing at all. It's your prerogative.
Tip : I've found that taking rest days to run all the errands I normally have no time to run is a good way to move around but also makes it feel less weird that I'm taking a rest day — it makes your day so busy that you don't feel like you need to workout.
reason no. 4 : you honestly just forget
Similar to no. 3, sometimes the weeks slip by and you're like, "Oh, when was the last time I took a rest day?" And have no idea. Yeah, same.
Between using workouts as times to meet up with friends, the free workout classes I'm thankful to be offered on occasion, the runs I have to get in for marathon training, and teaching, sometimes I either feel like: 1) I don't have time to rest or 2) I just forget that I need to rest.
But my friend Parisa said something that's important and so applicable in her Instagram the other day :
"Life is too short to be intense all the time."
Heck yes. Prioritize rest. You need it.
Tip: One thing that's helped me is to schedule in a rest day each week. I literally go into my calendar and make an event called "REST" (yes, all caps too because it's v important). It's best to take a rest day on the same day every week just so you don't forget — you can make it a recurring event in your calendar and move it around if you need to (but don't delete it!).
reason no. 5 : you get FOMO
Whether your workout doubles as your social hour or whether you just really like taking fitness classes, workout FOMO is so real. If I'm free to take a class but need to physically force myself to rest, it's a huge internal struggle with myself.
But Nancy, you could be taking this spin/boxing/yoga class, I tell myself. Or, as I sit in a coffeeshop on a beautiful day, but Nancy, you could be going on a run! Look at all these other runners.
No. Stop. It's ok. You're not missing anything life changing if you don't go on that run or to that workout class. If you feel like you must, then compromise: take an active recovery day and go on a walk to celebrate that gorgeous weather, or take a slow flow yoga class.
Note: Active recovery is different from rest. active recovery involves a light workout, whereas rest is complete and ultimate rest - make sure you factor in both!
reason no. 6 : you don't believe that they're necessary
Well, let me dump some research on ya non-believers.
Muscles take 4-6 days to fully recover between workouts. no, not a 4-6 hours. We're talking days here. Days.
That's because exercise creates micro-tears in your muscles; lifting weights especially breaks down your muscle fibers. When these heal, you build muscle and get stronger.
“Exercise stresses the body, so in order to ensure the positive things you’re seeking you need to allow recovery time. Everything needs time to recover, rebuild and rejuvenate before exposed to stress again.” — Dr. Cedric Bryant (Chief Science Officer for the American Council on Exercise)
But that doesn't happen unless you let yourself rest.
"These light days make the heavy days possible." — The Science of Eating
Because, according to the Recovery Principle, it's during rest periods that your body will adapt to the stress you place on your body with exercise, so you can get better. Stronger. Faster. More efficient (the Principle of Adaption).
"One of the best favors you can do for your body and your running performance is to respect the need for rest and recovery." - Active.com
In addition, the harder you train, the more you need to rest to fully recover. Optimal performance is a balance between stress (exercise) and rest.
"Recovery isn't just important, it’s a biological necessity." — Dr. Vern Neville (Loughborough University)
Not only can not taking rest days lead to mental and physical burnout, but it can also lead to overtraining and make you more prone to injury. Overtraining, or pushing yourself too far, also decreases your immune system, making you more prone to getting sick. And when you do get sick, it's my personal belief that it's your body forcing you to finally rest.
But wouldn't you rather just not get sick at all?
Note: One of my goals Every. Single. Month. is to 1) take more rest days and 2) take more intentional rest days. They shouldn't just be days where my body almost collapses and forces me to take a rest day. I should schedule them in, and use that time to follow my own advice — be productive, take a walk, breathe, and enjoy life. Just keepin' it real for you guys.
so what about you guys? do you have any rest day tips or rest day favorites?
P. S. Something that's made taking rest days easier (because we get out of that mindset of "oh everyone else is doing more") is the Twitter @restdaybrags — check it out!
Interested in more rest day articles? Check these out:
- "I Went a Year Without Taking a Rest Day" by my friend Holly (you may know her on Instagram as eating_peanut_better)
- "How Your Drive to 'Work Harder' is Actually Hurting You" via Fit University
- "How to Actually Enjoy Your Rest Day: Riding the Waves of Rest Day Woes" via Fit University
- "7 Best Things to Do on Your Rest Day" via Spoon University