Dear workout fanatic: You need to chill. No, really. Seven days a week, you bring it, hitting the gym or lacing up your running shoes. But if you really want to see results, take a day off. Take two. Heck, take a week. 

An increasing number of experts say regular rest days are essential if you really want to get stronger, thinner, more buff—whatever your fitness goal happens to be. “It’s important to allow your energy systems ample time to recover,” says David Buer, an Atlanta personal trainer who has worked with celebrities including Tyler Perry and Abbie Cornish, as well as with professional boxers and other world-class athletes. “Your body doesn’t improve during training. It does this in recovery after a workout.” 

That’s because exercise, including stretching, weight lifting and cardio, breaks down muscle tissue, leaving behind what Buer calls “microtears.” When the damage heals, the muscle becomes stronger and more efficient. The exact way this happens is still somewhat of a mystery, but one thing is certain: If you skip the rest phase, you’re likely to find that over time, your workouts feel harder, you’re sluggish, and you aren’t seeing the kind of results you’re used to. You may also injure yourself.  

For this reason, hardcore bodybuilders schedule periods of what they call “deload” into their regular training. CrossFit, the intense exercise regimen with a cult-like following, includes scheduled rest days as part of the program. And the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the Boston Marathon and posts training plans on its website, warns would-be participants that downtime is not optional: “Many runners train too hard when they should be recovering from workouts, thereby not allowing for good quality training later…” the site says. 

There is, however, a right way and a not-so-right way to take downtime. You’re better off not lying in front of television eating potato chips—especially if you’re trying to lose weight. Instead, “you want to approach it intelligently,” says Buer. Try what the pros call “active recovery”: Take a gentle yoga class, walk the dog, play with your kids. An easy workout will burn a few calories, lower your stress and keep you in the habit of staying active. 

As for how often you should rest? That depends on your fitness level, says Ron Noy, MD, a New York orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist who has treated athletes from the New York Knicks and the New York Rangers. “For most people, working out three days a week or every other day is a healthy balance,” he says. If you’re serious about a particular sport and very active, he recommends practicing your sport every other day and alternating that with another kind of fitness routine. “You can still be working out all the time, but you’re giving your body a break.”

Above all, pay attention to how you feel. “Your body will tell you if you are overdoing it,” Noy says. “If you are finding that you are getting pulls and injuries and muscle strains, or you are just feeling achy when you do your sport, then maybe you are trying to do too much.”

Sources:

  1. David Buer
  2. Boston Marathon training recommendations
  3. Ron Noy, MD