when to take a rest day

Rest days: how to decide whether you should skip or power through a workout

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Some days, it can feel tough just getting out of bed – let alone working out. When motivation flags, how can we tell if we genuinely need to take a break or if pushing through a workout will serve us best?

We don’t always feel like exercising. On a near-weekly basis, motivation can waver; we feel tired or events crop up and disrupt our whole day. It’s when that happens that the dreaded decision arrives: do we push on to do a workout or skip the session entirely?

It’s an internal conflict that many of us struggle with, partly thanks to the age-old fitness adage that working out usually makes you feel better. But how true is that saying, and what evidence is there to suggest that taking a break will make us feel more fatigued/stressed/lackluster?

Exercise can make us feel good

Exercise has been scientifically proven to boost our energy and improve our mood as it releases the serotonin or the ‘happy’ hormone. Studies such as this 2019 paper, published in Jama Psychiatry, found that swapping 15 minutes of sitting with 15 minutes of running resulted in a 26% decrease in “the odds of becoming depressed”.  

We also know that the elusive high runners experience is created by endorphins flooding the brain with dopamine, which relieves stress and pain. None of this is new; we all know that exercise can make us feel good, but knowing that doesn’t mean that we always want to work out. 

Even personal trainers aren’t motivated all the time. PT Samantha McGowern (AKA Sam Says) tells Stylist: “The reality is, it isn’t that often that we will be super pumped for a workout but by showing up and getting it done, we very quickly feel the benefits and are reminded why we do it.” 

The more we exercise, the easier it becomes to make it a habit. “Of course, unless there is something obvious stopping you from working out, I would always try to encourage doing something over nothing at all,” McGowern advises. “The likelihood is, you’ll be glad you turned up, and if you aren’t, at least you tried.”

But forcing yourself to move isn’t helpful

There is a difference, however, between being mindful that your motivation will waver and forcing yourself to work out when you don’t feel mentally or physically well enough. CBT therapist Dr Sula Windgassen believes that “forcing ourselves to do anything is rarely helpful.”

Dr Windgassen suggests instead that we should encourage, rather than force, ourselves to move. “A gentle way of doing this is to consider the benefits of doing the activity. Could it be enjoyable? Are there any ways you can make it enjoyable?”

The Journal Of Happiness Studies conducted a review of all of their past surveys of over 500,000 people to analyse the correlation between working out and happiness. They found that actually only a small amount of exercise was needed to improve day-to-day happiness, with big improvements starting with as little as one or two sessions a week. Participants who worked out twice a week felt happier than those who never exercised. Researchers concluded that exercise does genuinely help people to feel happier but that it doesn’t require doing a lot to reap the benefits.

If you plan to work out four times a week and only manage two or three, you’ll still benefit from those feel-good vibes. 

You don't have to exercise everyday to reap the mental health benefits of exercising – one or two sessions a week is enough.
You don't have to exercise everyday to reap the mental health benefits of exercising – one or two sessions a week is enough.

How to avoid exercise-based guilt

McGowern reminds us that missing a workout is never something to feel guilty about: “It’s what we do ‘most’ of the time that counts, so skipping the odd workout in the grand scheme of things means absolutely nothing to you or your progress… I would always focus on what you have done rather than what you haven’t.”

By focusing on the ‘big picture’ of your fitness journey, you’ll shift focus from what happens on any single day to what you’re consistently doing over a long period of time to create a sustainable exercise routine.

Regularly skipping workouts requires change

If you find yourself consistently avoiding exercise, however, it might be time to revaluate your relationship with movement and your current workout routine as a whole. “If you’re often struggling to show up for your workouts then it may be time to take a step back and look at the ‘why’ and see what you can do to change that,” McGowern continues.

“This could mean getting a friend involved for motivation, or a coach to help keep you accountable, it could be as simple as the environment you’re training in or a banging playlist.” 

Listening to your body for the answer

With all of this in mind, how do we know which choice to make on a given day? Shahroo Izadi, behavioural change therapist and author of The Kindness Method suggests: “When faced with a choice to make, it can help to ask: What will I be glad I did tomorrow? What would I tell a loved one to do? How do I want to be handling choices like this one long term?”

She explains that “defining kindness towards ourselves can be tricky, especially when it comes to making ourselves uncomfortable. There will be days when kindness is taking the day off and others when it’s committing to that exercise plan.”

It’s as much about what you tell yourself about exercise as it is how your body feels. Your body will send you signals if it isn’t physically ready to exercise, but it’s recognising those signals before they lead to a noticeable injury that’s key.

McGowern says that there are ways to spot when your body may benefit from a rest day. “The word ‘overtraining’ is thrown around a little too much, think of it more as ‘under recovering’,” she explains. “Obvious signs are constant fatigue, lack of motivation, constant muscle soreness and poor performance during training.”

“If you’re finding these symptoms are dragging on for some time it’s likely your body is not recovering and it may be time to look at what you can do, as well as resting, to help improve your rate of recovery.” 

Emotional cues that you need a rest day

There are also emotional markers for when your body might need a rest and it’s important to remember that these signs aren’t universal. Dr Windgassen recommends asking yourself certain questions to gauge your own health: “The last time you were certain you needed rest, what did you feel just prior to this? How was your body feeling? What was your mood like?”

It’s a way of familiarising yourself with your body and knowing what it needs and what it can cope with. “It’s also important to take stock of the context,” she continues, “how physically active have you been recently? How is your sleep and concentration?”

Flexibility is key to working out well

One of the most important aspects of creating a sustainable fitness routine is accepting that not every day will go to plan. There needs to be some flexibility. Some days you’ll be able to work out when you aren’t motivated, other days you won’t.

But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing; you can opt for a gentler form of movement if you can’t face a full workout. “Walking in the fresh air can be an excellent way to get that body moving,” Dr Windgassen says, “as can yoga, cycling slowly or low-intensity body conditioning or stretching.”

However you show up for yourself – whether it’s taking that exercise class, walking to work or resting – make sure that you treat yourself with kindness and keep the big picture in mind. At the end of the day, only you will know what’s right for your body and mind on a given day. 

In need of a good stretch? Check out our 15-minute mobility workout videos. Perfect as a rest day activity or a workout in and of themselves, they’ll have you feeling limber in no time.

Images: Getty

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