How to Decide What to Do on Your Workout Rest Day

Ah, rest days. Those glorious days where you can kick back and relax after all your hard workouts. And make no mistake, they're just as important as the days you're logging a solid sweat session, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

A day of total rest and relaxation could be just what your body really needs. (Image: Hero Images/Hero Images/GettyImages)

They give your body and mind time to recover and allow your muscles to repair and refuel. But what's the right way to handle a rest day? Should you take the day completely off or still make time to get active? And what's the best thing to eat on your days off? Consider this your A-to-Z guide to the proper way to take a load off.

Should You Exercise on Rest Day?

While you definitely shouldn't be scheduling any sort of strenuous workout for your days off, rest days can involve different things for different people. There are two types of recovery: passive and active.

  • On passive recovery days, absolutely no exercise happens.
  • On active recovery days, you may lean into some light movement, like a yoga class, laps in a pool or a walk around the block.

There's a place and time for both, and which variation you choose largely depends on what your body is telling you, says Alexis Dreiss, founding coach at Rowgatta in New York City. Are you feeling completely wiped out from your workout the day before? Take the day off. Does your body want to be moving? Get going!

If you choose a more active approach, be gentle, says Alex Silver-Fagan, Nike master trainer and founding trainer at MIRROR. "The intensity and the amount at which you move should be taken down a notch on a rest day," she says. "You can definitely add in some restorative yoga or stretching, but keep in mind the intensity at which you trained previously. You want to do something that is restorative."

When Silver-Fagan says restorative, she means gentle movement that helps to get the blood flowing, which can bring oxygen to the parts of your body that need it most, alleviate tightness and lessen lactic-acid build-up in the muscles.

And of course, how long these recovery sessions last is completely up to you and your personal comfort levels. While a 60-minute yoga class may feel good to you, some individuals may need less movement. According to an August 2019 review published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, even six to 10 minutes minutes of active recovery showed promising effects on performance.

What About Those Normal, Everyday Tasks?

You've likely heard the classic daily movement recommendation time and time again: 10,000 steps a day. For some, 10,000 steps may feel like a large effort. For others, it's status quo.

On rest days, listen to your body and do what feels right for you, says Silver-Fagan. "An object in motion stays in motion," she says. "You should continue to move, if you feel comfortable with it."

As for other typical around-the-house to-do list items — like gardening or housework — feel free to move about as usual on a rest day, says Dreiss. "Doing work around the home and being mildly active on a rest day is completely fine, but don't push yourself if you are physically exhausted." If at any point you feel like you're pushing yourself too much, take a load off. "Be mindful, and listen."

What Should You Eat on Rest Day?

On average, most people need about 2,000 calories per day, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This is the amount that nutrition facts labels typically use as the basis for their percentage of daily nutritional values. Of course, this amount varies from person to person, based on factors including amount of physical activity, sex and age.

During a rest day, though, you'll likely won't burn as many calories as on a day where you do an intense workout. But regardless of whether you're moving or not, your body needs calories from carbohydrates, fat and protein, says registered dietitian nutritionist Stephanie McKercher. "You might notice that you feel less hungry on a rest day, but it's still important to re-energize with breakfast, lunch and dinner daily."

While some may choose to cut back on their overall intake on rest days under the assumption that they aren't burning as many calories, that's not necessarily a winning strategy, says registered dietitian Susan Bowerman. "If you cut back (and especially if you cut back too much) you might impair your performance at your next workout," she says. "Your diet should stay more or less the same on rest days."

There is one exception, Bowerman says. "If you consistently take in a post-workout recovery meal or snack, that's something you can certainly skip on your rest day."

If you do choose to snack throughout your day off, reframe the way you think about your bites, says McKercher. "The nutritional makeup will be just a little bit different. Instead of providing mostly simple carbs and electrolytes, everyday snacks should ideally include a balance of nutrients from carbohydrates, fats and protein," she says.

Regardless of activity levels, make sure your diet includes fruits or vegetables, whole grains, functional fats and plant-based sources of protein to maximize your nutritional intake, says McKercher.

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