Working out is important when it comes to overall health, but what many people don't realize is that your rest days are just as significant. You can't expect your body to function at its highest capacity if you don't give it time to recover. POPSUGAR spoke with Dee Gautham, NASM-certified personal trainer and NPC bikini competitor, who gave us the rundown on how many rest days you need, how you should take them, and, most importantly, why they're so crucial to your fitness goals.
"Rest days help your body repair and recover itself," Dee told POPSUGAR. "If fat loss is your goal, taking a day to rest your muscles and restore your energy can help you push harder in the gym the next day, so you can get to your fat loss goal more efficiently."
And if you're trying to build muscle, rest days are just as important. "You don't go to the gym to build muscle: you go to the gym to tear apart your muscle fibers, and it's during the rest period that they grow back stronger," she explained. "Lifting weights causes micro tears in our muscle tissues, and they grow back stronger when we rest."
When you don't take rest days, "your body increases its output of the stress hormone cortisol," Dee said. "Elevated cortisol levels results in many negative symptoms, like feeling fatigued, poor sleep, water retention (which can make you feel bloated and actually mask fat loss), poor immune system functionality, and much more." So now you know — rest days are necessary for everyone, whether you're trying to lose weight or achieve some new fitness goals.
There isn't necessarily one golden rule when it comes to rest days, and Dee says the number of rest days you take will depend on your current fitness level — "how conditioned you are, how your workout plan is structured, how intense your workouts are," etc.
But here's what Dee has to say in general: "A beginner just starting to work out might need two to three rest days per week, while a more experienced athlete might be fine with one day a week of active recovery."
That being said, a rest day doesn't mean you should just sit around all day long and binge on fast food. "I like to think of rest days as 'active recovery' days," Dee said. "I go for a walk outside, do some yoga, or do some light stretching or foam rolling to get the blood flowing without anything too intense."
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As far as when to take rest days, it pays to be strategic. "Rest days are great to take after high-intensity workouts such as circuit training, HIIT workouts, or weight training," Dee suggested. "These types of workouts have a high 'afterburn' effect, known as excessive postexercise oxygen consumption (EPOC)." That means your body's metabolic rate will remain slightly higher the next day, so even though you're not working out, you're still burning more calories than usual.
Keep in mind that you can work in a rest day of sorts by working opposing muscle groups on consecutive days. For example, if you do a strength-training session on your legs one day, you can let your legs recover by working on your arms the next day. But make sure you still take enough full rest days where you're not working out at all. Dee said this will "let your overall nervous and muscular systems recover from training."