There are those who love nothing more than going for long runs or freezing swims on Christmas Day, but for writer Anna Bartter, Christmas week is the perfect opportunity to take a proper break from fitness.
For even the most committed gym-goer, it’s hard to prioritise working out over Christmas. Being away from home or without our usual routines makes it trickier to maintain a regular fitness regime, and this, combined with the temptation to start on the Baileys around 10am, can cause feelings of guilt and restlessness. But what if I told you that a Christmas break may well future-proof your fitness?
I always take a week off at Christmas. I’m not talking annual leave, I’m talking exercise. All year, I’m relentless in my pursuit of fitness, combining strength training with running and HIIT at least four or five days a week. But each December, this goes out of the window, and I end up feeling guilty and unmotivated. This year, rather than berating myself, I’m determined to listen to the experts, many of whom say that, actually, a break is just what our bodies and minds need.
The physical benefits of rest days are well known. Most people agree that proper rest is essential to a healthy regime, allowing muscles time to recover and rebuild. But a whole week off? That’s when the magic really starts to happen. “The perfect amount of rest depends on your body type, age, hormones and various other factors,” says Becky Barrett, founder of bespoke personal training service BBM Fitness, “but a week is a great mini-break without decreasing your fitness levels, and without getting so relaxed that you don’t want to get back into it.”
A proper rest (anything longer than a few days) replenishes energy stores, decreases soft tissue damage, and reduces inflammation throughout the body, cutting the risk of injury – which could put you out of action for much longer than a week. In addition, just a week’s rest can increase metabolism (your body’s ability to use energy), meaning that it can help to safeguard against metabolic illnesses like type 2 diabetes.
In fact, you could be putting your fitness at risk by not taking a week off. Plenty of research shows that regularly undertaking intense sessions like HIIT floods our system with the stress hormone cortisol, keeping us busy, sleep-poor folks in a chronically stressed-out state which can overwork our hearts and lead to mood changes including depression and irritability.
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Taking a break has plenty of health benefits
Yvette Mehmet, PT at Fitness First agrees: “Taking a break of a week or more lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, as well as reducing muscular tension. Rest will always go together with training, so that you have extra fuel in the tank to smash out your next session and get the results you want.”
The mental benefits of taking a break are just as compelling. Researchers from Florida State University recently found that proper mental rest translates to higher performance when exercise is resumed, reducing the long-term risk of burnout and overtraining.
Fitness fanatic and mum Clio Wood, 39, says mental rest has become increasingly important to her: “I used to think that more was more in terms of exercise. Now I’m exhausted and I’ve realised that rest is vital for my mental wellbeing. I allow myself a break and don’t beat myself up about it anymore – it’s important for my mental health and stress levels. Life is way more chaotic now and headspace is a priority.”
Resting can help make us mentally stronger
When we’re mentally at rest, we acquire the new technical and tactical skills we’ve been working on, allowing memories of our new skills to be consolidated in our brain, explains Dr Josephine Perry, sports psychologist and founder of Performance In Mind.
So, chilling on the sofa watching Netflix really can improve your fitness – just don’t confuse resting with doing everything but working out. Dr Perry warns: “We do need to see this time as rest – replacing the gym with partying every night doesn’t get us the same benefits.”
Any sustainable fitness regime has to include breaks
The experts agree that the key to a successful, sustainable fitness regime is finding an activity you enjoy – and taking some time out can help to clarify that. Dr Perry confirms that “having a break is useful as it helps us know how intrinsically motivated we are. When we stop, we’ll quickly know if we’re missing it, and can then analyse what we’re missing and figure out how to get more of that when we go back.” Rather than reluctantly lacing those trainers on a cold, dark January morning, you could do a lunchtime zumba class with your mates or do a warming, relaxing flow at home.
Having a kinder mindset towards our whole body is the first step towards resting properly, and Dr Perry recommends spending some time over the Christmas break shifting your fitness goals to incorporate regular rest days as part of, rather than an alternative to, your routine.
This creates a more positive ‘whole body’ approach, where rest is as important as working out. It also helps to make our fitness regime more sustainable; you’ll be energised and motivated to continue throughout the year. Long-term, it’s prudent to work regular rest into your training schedule, with a week off planned every two months for maximum year-round benefit.
A fitness regime that’s both sustainable and kind to our mind and body? Surely that’s worth ditching the dumbbells and the guilt for this Christmas.
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