Does the idea of not exercising for one whole day stress you out? Maybe it makes you feel lazy or you're afraid of gaining weight. There are so many reasons people struggle with taking a day off from working out.
But here's a comforting fact: One rest day won't sabotage all your hard work and fitness gains. On the contrary, giving yourself a break is necessary to achieve your health goals (more on that later!). After all, even Olympians and pro-athletes hit the pause button at least one day each week.
If you're struggling to slow down, check out these healthy, expert-approved ways to help you overcome your mental block and learn to appreciate a little R&R.
1. Shift Your Perspective
To rid yourself of feelings of guilt, you might need to reframe the way you think of rest days. "Perspective is everything," says Lonnie Sarnell, PsyD, a clinical and sport psychologist in New Jersey. "The way you think about rest days is essential to building them into your routine in a healthy way."
So if you're giving yourself a guilt trip about taking a day off, remind yourself that rest is really good for you. "You don't actually make physical gains during your workout. You make them between your workouts as your body recovers," says K. Aleisha Fetters, CSCS, trainer, coach and co-author of the forthcoming book Give Yourself More.
The benefits aren't just physical. "Relaxation is just as much a part of mental and physical health as extreme exercise," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read it Before You Eat it: Taking You from Label to Table. "Taking a break is not something to feel guilty about — it's an activity to welcome to your regular routines."
2. Make Rest Days Intentional
When you're serious about exercise, odds are you have your workouts planned each week, so part of the anxiety you may experience about rest days is the lack of structure. That's why you should tackle this exercise-free time with a sense of purpose, which will keep you focused and nix that gnawing feeling that you're slacking, Fetters says.
"Approach rest days like any other day in your workout plan — a rest day isn't a day 'off,' but instead a day that's about intentional recovery," says Fetters, adding that you should schedule them in your calendar and have a plan.
Specifically, think about what you can do for your muscles to help them recuperate from all your hard workouts. For example, reserve time to foam roll or stretch or get a massage. "Rest doesn't have to — and shouldn't — mean a departure from being intentional with how you treat your body," Fetters says.
3. Forget the Fitness Tracker
If you're scared of not burning enough calories or not reaching your step goals on rest days, wearing a fitness tracker may just drive your anxiety through the roof. "Tracking your steps or calories burned on rest days may make you feel inadequate, like you should be doing more," Taub-Dix says.
Luckily there's a simple solution — leave your fitness band behind for the day. "Taking off your tracker can help make sure that you aren't getting caught up on calorie-burn counts and active minutes when what you really need to focus on is slowing down," Fetters says.
If going tracker-free for a day feels too stressful, take some time to reflect on your relationship with the device, Dr. Sarnell says. Though wearables can be useful fitness tools for many, they can also lead to an unhealthy obsession in some people, especially for those with a history of eating disorders. If you find yourself fixating on numbers and it's affecting your mood, consider enlisting the help of a mental health professional.
4. Add Active Recovery
Got ants in your pants? You don't have to stay on the couch on rest days. "If you're really hooked on exercise, active recovery is going to be your best friend," Fetters says.
"Performing low-intensity, gentle aerobic exercise, yoga, stretching and foam rolling are all great ways to promote physiological recovery from more intense exercise while lowering our stress levels and helping us connect to our bodies and better meet their needs."
Plus, doing light movement can help you get that feel-good endorphin high that you experience through exercise but may crave on rest days. "Going for a leisurely walk outside is one great idea," says Fetters, adding, "time outside has a huge impact on mood!"
She's right. A June 2019 published in the journal Scientific Reports found that spending at least two hours in nature a week is linked with a person's positive overall wellbeing, while a December 2018 study in Environment International discovered that walking (to work) through natural environments can decrease stress and boost mental health.
Conversely, exercising too much — i.e., not taking rest days — may have a negative effect on your mental health. A March 2012 review published in Sports Health summarized that overtraining has been linked to depressive feelings.
5. Be Productive in Other Ways
Part of what feels so good about working out is the sense of achievement. That's why rest days tend to feel empty and unproductive. But these off days offer the perfect opportunity to do other important things.
"You can definitely channel your workout energy into other productive activities on your rest days," Dr. Sarnell says. " It's valuable to have multiple life domains that allow you to feel positive and accomplished, so utilizing that energy in other areas of life is great for developing more balance overall."
Take advantage of those free hours and do something fun and fulfilling, Taub-Dix says. Go to a museum, connect with friends and family or take a relaxing bubble bath. Or if you need to catch up on daily tasks, schedule that time to run errands. By keeping your day busy, you won't have time to worry about skipping a workout.
6. Rethink Your Training Strategy
If the number on the scale won't budge, your inclination may be to push harder and longer in your workouts, when what you might actually need is a day to relax. "Kicking your routine into overdrive and running yourself into the ground sets you up for major backslides, plus it's not sustainable," Fetters says.
That's because exercise is a form of stress on the body, and pushing yourself too hard and too much can elevate stress hormones like cortisol. And when your body produces consistently high cortisol levels, you're more likely to be obese and have a larger waist circumference, according to a February 2017 study published in Obesity.
So, if your weight loss grinds to a halt, stay the course. "When we encounter plateaus, it's best to stay the course with what has already proven to work for you while making small, subtle changes to your workouts that will challenge your body to adapt," Fetters says.
In other words, instead of training harder and longer — and skipping rest days — train smarter. Switch up your regular routine by incorporating cross training. Adding variety to your weekly workouts not only boosts weight loss but also reduces your risk of injury, improves your overall fitness and keeps boredom at bay, according to the American Council on Exercise.
7. Trust Yourself
Many people are scared to fall off the wagon, worried that one rest day will become two, three or four. Overcoming this fear — of spiraling out of control — has a lot to do with learning to trust yourself, Taub-Dix says. And, remembering your why may help you do that.
"It's important to remind yourself about the positive aspects of working out — feeling more limber, energetic and stronger — so that you'll want to go back to your routine after a rest," she says.
"If you're concerned about one rest day turning into many more, create a routine that combats this," Dr. Sarnell says. "For example, if you rest on Sunday, you might sign up for a workout class first thing Monday morning so that it feels like an appointment that's built into your schedule."
"The key is knowing that you'll be exercising again soon — and that you need rest in your routine to feel healthy and balanced," Taub-Dix says.
- Scientific Reports: “Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing.”
- Sports Health: “Overtraining Syndrome: A Practical Guide.”
- Obesity: “Hair cortisol and adiposity in a population‐based sample of 2,527 men and women aged 54 to 87 years.”
- American Council on Exercise: “What is cross training and why is it important?”
- Environment International: “Active commuting through natural environments is associated with better mental health: Results from the PHENOTYPE project.”