Swimming girl

You know the sense of determination you get when you want to accomplish a fitness goal? That eye-on-the-prize, can’t-take-a-day-off motivation? While it can feel great to be so focused, giving your body time to recovlisa er with active rest days can actually be more beneficial than working out seven days a week, according to the experts. “It’s not sustainable or healthy to go hard each day of the week,” says Dr. Matthew Kwan, Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at McMaster University in Ontario. “At least one or two days each week should be dedicated to active rest, whereby you allow your body and your mind to recover from higher intensity training.”

That said, not all rest is created equal. Passive rest—think lounging around during a Netflix binge—might seem appealing, but it’s not the most productive for your fitness routine. “Active rest doesn’t mean becoming a couch potato and bumming around doing nothing; the idea is to keep the blood moving and stimulate the body’s recovery, aiding in future training sessions,” says Dr. Kwan.

What is active rest?

Active rest—or a low-intensity activity such as walking or stretching—allows you to keep up your fitness momentum and promote better recovery for your muscles. “Active rest is the incorporation of lighter movement days between targeted training days, allowing our bodies a break from the wear and tear of hard training—it’s what’s needed to prevent us from becoming broken,” says Dr. Kwan. “Evidence suggests that active rest can help both in terms of muscle recovery and the prevention of mental burnout.”

“After high-intensity exercise, there’s typically a breakdown of energy stores and possibly some minor muscle damage that needs to be repaired,” says Dr. Stephen Cornish, Assistant Professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Recreation Management at the University of Manitoba. “During active recovery, there’s more of a chance for these energy stores to be replenished and muscle damage to be repaired without doing heavy loading with high-intensity exercise.”

What active rest looks like

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The intensity of the active rest zone varies from person to person—what constitutes a low-intensity jog for a marathon runner would look very different to someone who has never run more than a mile.

As a general rule of thumb, active rest approaches, but doesn’t cross, your body’s lactate threshold, says Dr. Bruce Gladden, Director of the Muscle Physiology Lab at Auburn University in Georgia. In layman’s terms, the lactate threshold is about the point of exertion where you’d start to have difficulty talking. “The intensity for active recovery would be at that level or lower,” he says.

So how can you incorporate active rest into your week? It’s easier than you think.

Power walking—your heart rate is elevated, but you can still easily hold a conversation.

Yoga—look for classes at your on-campus gym or a local studio, or for flows on YouTube, that emphasize lots of stretching.

Swimming—switch up your cardio routine with a few laps on your active rest days to reduce the impact on your joints and help your body recover.

Biking—keep it mellow. Save the sprints and hills for a more intense workout.

Elliptical—a low-impact elliptical session is another great cardio alternative.

Rebounding—jumping on a trampoline (you can find small ones to fit in your bedroom/small spaces) is a great moderate-intensity, low-impact workout. Research by the American Council on Exercise in 2016 found that while participants still got a great workout, jumping on a trampoline felt easier than running or biking (if you ask us, it’s also way more fun).

Hiking—if you’re a regular weightlifter, give your muscles a break and add in a nice view with a leisurely hike. Just remember Dr. Gladden’s rule of thumb—the effort should be easy enough that you can still comfortably talk. No hills or trails nearby? A stroll around campus works too.

rolling up yoga mat

The case for adding active rest

So why engage in active rest rather than plowing through a training schedule or using your rest day as an excuse to fall down the rabbit hole of weird cat videos? Active rest actually has big body and brain benefits. Here’s what it does:

Active rest is a key factor in preventing overtraining and injury—especially overuse injuries. “Overtraining is where the exercise volume and/or intensity is so high that it’s nearly impossible to recover from,” says Dr. Stuart Phillips, the Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in the Department of Kinesiology and the Director of the Physical Activity Centre of Excellence at McMaster University in Ontario. When you don’t build active rest into your training schedule, you’re breaking down muscle tissue faster than it can repair itself. “Without this necessary recovery period, e.g., active rest, it can lead to increases in strains and sprains, greater fatigue, and can even hinder the overall healing and recovery period,” says Dr. Kwan.

Following the tissue damage caused by an intense workout, you want to increase the blood flow to your muscles to help them mend. “Active recovery improves blood circulation, clearing lactic acid and ensuring that oxygen and nutrients are being delivered to cells to expedite the recovery of damaged tissue,” says Dr. Kwan. This kind of activity also helps the flow of lymphatic fluid, which can help eliminate inflammation.

When done properly, high-intensity exercise is OK and healthy—but it does put stress on your body and raises the level of cortisol (the stress hormone) in your blood. Low-intensity exercise, on the other hand, doesn’t, according a 2008 study published in the Journal of Endocrinological Investigation. When the researchers tested the impacts of various activity levels in moderately active participants, they found that active rest—defined as 40 percent of your maximum workout effort—actually lowered cortisol levels.

Student perspective

“After intense workouts, my muscles are really sore. With active rest, I’m able to recover faster and do intense workouts more frequently.”
—Kate W., fourth-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

“If you were to continuously perform long, high-intensity workouts without accounting for active recovery sessions of lower intensity, it could lead to staleness, boredom, and a lack of motivation for your workout sessions,” says Dr. Cornish. Think about it this way: Even if you love running, running the same sprints on the same route for every workout can get tedious. That’s a recipe for burnout. Incorporating active rest into your schedule is the perfect excuse to switch things up—after taking a day off to swim a few easy laps, you’ll be itching to get back to your running route.

Active rest also helps you listen to your body and engage in some self-care, which can be just as important as pushing yourself to reach a new workout goal. Having an awareness of your energy level is key to progress, experts say. If you usually have a specific time goal or mile split in mind, try going with your body’s flow on an active rest day instead—slowing down or stopping to walk when your legs start getting tired.

It may seem counterintuitive, but scheduling regular bouts of active rest into your workout routine can actually help you train more intensely. “How would you feel about pulling three consecutive all-nighters? How functional are you really going to be finishing your papers and studying on that fourth day awake? Rest is a critical part of human function; don’t fool yourself by thinking active rest is a waste of time, as skipping these days often means being on a fast-track to burning out and to inefficiently working towards your goals,” says Dr. Kwan.

Trying to push through daily high-intensity workouts puts you into what’s called an “overreaching period.” “You may actually find that you’re not improving over that period of time,” says Dr. Gladden. In addition, overreaching for a week or more can cause lasting immune system dysfunction (e.g., you could be more susceptible to that nasty cold going around campus), according to a 2007 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology. When you consistently overtrain like this, “you’re more susceptible to infections, you might have difficulty sleeping, and you’ll have greater stress,” explains Dr. Gladden, all of which can hamper your progress.

Student perspective

“It gives your body time to heal and your muscles time to regenerate. I use active rest as motivation to get through the week—it’s a day I look forward to because I always feel great afterwards.”
—Laine H., recent graduate, University of Ottawa, Ontario

How to work active rest into your workouts

So now that you know active rest can be a lot of things—biking, yoga, swimming, walking—the next question is how often should you do it? That depends on how intense your regular workout schedule is, experts say. “The harder you’re exercising, the more you need active rest,” says Dr. Edward Coyle, Professor of Kinesiology and Health Education at the University of Texas at Austin. “One rule that most athletes follow for training is a hard day followed by an easy day. If you try to put two or three hard days in a row, that can be counterproductive.”

How do you know it’s time for an active rest day? Ask yourself:

Am I sore every day? A little soreness is expected, especially if you’re trying a new workout, but anything lasting more than 48 hours is your body’s way of saying it needs a break. “Soreness isn’t a marker of workout effectiveness,” says Dr. Phillips. “Being sore is an indication of damage that requires repair—so being sore every day means you’re not adequately recovering.”

Is my workout performance going down?  In other words, do you feel like you can’t keep up with your usual workouts or your go-to moves are getting harder? “That’s a clear sign you need to build in some active rest,” Dr. Gladden says.

How am I truly feeling?  If your honest answer to the question “How do I feel today?” is “tired” or “run down,” it might be time to swap in active recovery. “Persistent tiredness, feeling ‘stale’ or demotivated, or an elevated heart rate at rest are all signs you should be building in active rest,” says Dr. Phillips.

If you’re training at a more intense level, consider building in active rest every two or three days. For example, you might do an intense cardio cycling session on Monday, hit the weight room hard on Tuesday, and then stick to some slow yoga on Wednesday.

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Student perspective

“I often do cardio and strength training during the week and walk my dogs on my active rest days on the weekends.”
—Amanda V., fourth-year undergraduate, Mount Royal University, Alberta

Foam rolling is also a great way to engage in active rest while preventing sore muscles,. “The use of foam rollers to massage over targeted muscle groups and for stretching activities is a great way to keep the body moving and blood flowing,” says Dr. Kwan. Follow an intense workout with a body-loving foam rolling session (you can even do this immediately after hitting the gym or finishing a run). For 10 minutes, spend a full minute rolling out each of the following body parts: quads, hamstrings, upper back, triceps, calves, inner thighs, outer thighs, and glutes.

Try out this full body foam rolling routine

Here’s an example of what a week of moderate training with active rest might look like (tailor your own schedule to fit your needs and fitness level)

MondayWorkoutHigh-intensity cardio, such as cycling or a long run
TuesdayActive restYoga to stretch out any tightness in legs
WednesdayWorkoutStrength-training session, like barre or HIIT to target the upper body
ThursdayWorkoutGive arms a break with a cycling session
FridayActive restFoam roll to show extra love to muscles after a long week
SaturdayWorkoutKickboxing class
SundayRest—you don’t have to be on the move every single day. If you’re feeling tired even when you work in regular active rest, listen to your body and take a full day or two off.

While your preferred workout and rest activities of choice will change based on the types of exercise you’re into and how intensely you’re training, there’s one thing to always keep in mind: “Active rest is the secret sauce to performance and physical fitness gains,” says Lisa Workman, Certified Exercise Physiologist and Fitness Centre Manager in Alberta. Working active rest into your workout routine will help you grow stronger and stay active week after week.

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Article sources

Edward Coyle, PhD, Professor of Kinesiology and Health Education, University of Texas at Austin.

Stephen Cornish, PhD, CSEP-CEP®, Assistant Professor, Department of Kinesiology and Recreation Management, University of Manitoba.

Bruce Gladden, PhD, Director of the Muscle Physiology Lab at Auburn University, Georgia.

Matthew Kwan, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Family Medicine, McMaster University, Ontario.

Stuart M. Phillips, PhD, FCAHS, FACSM, FACN, Tier 1 Canada Research Chair, Department of Kinesiology; Director of the Physical Activity Centre of Excellence, McMaster University, Ontario.

Lisa A. Workman, MA, BPE, CESP, Certified Exercise Physiologist and Fitness Centre Manager, Alberta.

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Evidence-Based Fitness. (February 17, 2008). Rest vs. active recovery. Retrieved from https://evidencebasedfitness.net/rest-vs-active-recovery/

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