Once you've boarded the healthy living train and started reaping the results of regular exercise, taking a day off may seem counterintuitive. Won't you be putting your weight loss at risk if you're not burning calories by running, cycling or some other activity? Plus there's the mental aspect of exercise to consider—if your workouts double as daily therapy and stress relief, you might be reluctant to give them up, even for just 24 hours.
The experts agree that rest days are just as essential to your progress as the most grueling gym sessions. "When you work out, you create micro-tears in your muscle fibers," explains fitness trainer Tricia Brouk. "The body’s natural response to repair those tears is how we build muscle, and that happens during rest." Brouk also points out that workouts produce the stress hormone cortisol, which is beneficial in short bursts but can cause the body to store fat if it's elevated for a prolonged time period. Rest days help to normalize cortisol levels.
"Too much exercise and not enough rest can lead to overtraining," Brouk warns. "In addition to triggering the body to store more fat, this can also cause you to become weaker, because you haven't given your muscles enough time to repair and strengthen. If you're feeling tired, moody, rundown and not at your peak performance, take the day off."
The benefits of days off aren't just physical—your brain also needs a rest. "We don't typically think of exercise as learning, yet mastering new movements requires rest in the midst of your busy schedule," say Galina and Roland Denzel, coauthors of "Eat Well, Move Well, Live Well: 52 Ways to Feel Better in a Week." "Exercise positively affects brain functions related to memory and learning, but those same brain centers can become damaged by stress hormones. If you want your brain to reap the benefits of an exercise program, it's key to keep stress down and safeguard your rest."
Instead of resisting rest days, why not take the opportunity for a little self-pampering? With the right recovery tools at your disposal, you can easily make the most of your off-road days.
- Foam Roller: Fitness trainer Brooke Taylor uses a foam roller on rest days to perform self-myofascial release, which aids in muscle recovery and soreness while promoting balance and flexibility. Dr. Keith Sparks, a chiropractor with ICT Muscle & Joint Clinic, recommends the Grid Foam Roller. "It has a hard inner core but a soft outer core, allowing for compression of the tissue without causing increased discomfort," he says.
- Epsom Bath Salts: Fitness trainer Kristy Stabler recommends drawing a warm bath and sprinkling in some Epsom salts to reduce muscle pain and inflammation. "Epsom salt baths, and specifically the magnesium they contain, absorb through the skin to help reduce inflammation in the joints and muscles," she says.
- Ice Pack: This compact, reusable gel pack can be frozen for long-lasting pain relief. Wrap it around the neck, knee, ankle, elbow, wrist or shoulder, or apply it to the lower back.
- Chocolate Milk: Trainer Joshua Margolis, founder of Mind Over Matter Health & Fitness, says chocolate milk is the name of the recovery game. Studies have shown that the low-fat version has the ideal mix of carbs and protein to promote muscle repair.
- Cooling Towel: When you wet the super-absorbent fabric of The Grommet's Cooling Towel, it evaporates at a temperature that's 20 degrees cooler than the air, keeping you cool for two to five hours.
- Toe Alignment Socks: They may look a little silly, but biomechanist Katy Bowman, author of "Movement Matters," recommends toe alignment socks as a simple step to foot pain relief.
- Heating Pad: This extra-large heating pad can provide immediate pain relief to different muscle groups.
- Athletic Compression Supports: Vantelin compression supports can be worn on the ankle, calf, knee, elbow, back or wrist to protect the joints, increase energy and promote proper body alignment. Try wearing them on your rest days to increase blood circulation, which helps with sore muscle relief and recovery.
- Rolflex: The ergonomic Rolflex applies up to 40 specific sports massage techniques to relieve sore muscles.
- Recovery Sandals & Flip Flops: Manufactured by the family-run company Gone for a Run, PR SOLES sandals feature Accupoint® soles that provide a massaging sensation when you walk, improving circulation in the feet and legs and speeding up post-run recovery.
- Sleep/Meditation Apps: Getting the proper amount and quality of sleep is essential to recovery, ensuring that the brain and body get the energy they need for optimal performance. Running coach Kyle Kranz recommends napping on rest days. Need some help drifting into dreamland? Headspace and Insight are two popular meditation tools.
- Massage Roller: Designed by a biomechanics expert and a professional triathlete, the RAD Massage Roller is a high-density foam roller that relieves sore muscles, knots and everyday kinks anywhere on your body.
- Herbal Teas: These rest and recovery teas from Yogi are specially formulated for soothing and relaxation.
- Lockeroom Pocket Physio: This handy, compact tool is a favorite of fitness trainer Cheryl Russo for reducing muscle trigger point spasms and performing deep muscle releases.
- Lacrosse Ball: When you need to relieve sore muscles in a more concentrated area, a lacrosse ball can be highly effective. "You can get into tight zones that are tough to get with a foam roller, such as the chest, deep glutes and bottoms of your feet," says Tyler Spraul, head Trainer at exercise.com. Personal trainer Ashley Pitt puts a lacrosse ball under her bare feet, stands up and rolls it from heel to toes. "You'll find that you walk taller and feel better all over your lower half just from giving yourself a beneficial foot massage, which gets the blood flowing up the legs," she says.
- Yoga Mat: A comfortable exercise mat is great for practicing yoga, doing light exercises or stretching at home on rest days. Express yourself with a custom-made artistic mat from DiaNoche.
What’s in your rest day toolbox?
- Aromatherapy: Russo uses essential oils on rest days to promote calm and relaxation. Her favorites are lemongrass to soothe sore ligaments, white fir to alleviate strains and wintergreen to reduce inflammation. Made with mango butter and phthalate-free pear scent, the Pear Mango Crème from Zen Squared Mind and Body soothes the skin and promotes mental relaxation. Zen also offers a Meditation Mist designed to soothe your senses with grapefruit essential oils. Calming Body Butta contains lavender, peppermint and magnesium oil, which are effective for muscle recovery.
- Compression Mobility Aid: Dr. Sparks uses Voodoo Floss Bands to mobilize the soft tissue surrounding joints, allowing for quick, pain-free movement.
- Golf Ball: SparkCoach Jen rolls a golf ball on the bottom of her feet after long runs to work out the kinks.
- Foot Massager: Nothing feels better after a long run, walk or hike than a session with a personal foot massager. Create your own custom massage to work out kinks and soothe sore muscles.
- Protein: In addition to recovery, your muscles also need the basic building blocks to facilitate growth—and that's where protein comes into play. "Most people don’t realize that protein requirements for athletes are higher than [for] sedentary people," says Stabler. Find out how much protein you really need.
- Stretching Aid: Research shows that stretching between workouts helps muscles recover more quickly because they are more receptive to glycogen replacement, which fuels the next session. Russo uses a yoga strap to assist with stretching and recovery. In absence of that, you can use a light resistance band, belt or rolled-up towel.
- Bear Mattress: For serious athletes ready to make a significant investment in performance, the Bear Mattress is specially designed for optimal muscle recovery. Made from advanced graphite-gel memory foams and CelliantTM responsive textile technology, the mattress helps to increase blood circulation and offers more support and comfort than traditional models.
- The Floor: One of the most effective recovery aids won't cost you a penny. Bowman suggests making use of the floor on rest days. "Just because you're not exercising doesn't mean you shouldn't be moving," she says. "Stay mobile by going furniture-free on recovery days. You'll naturally get more mobility work by getting down and back up, and resting in chair-free positions that look remarkably like yoga poses.”
- Electric Muscle Stimulation: You've heard of wearable devices that track your steps and activity—and now there's PowerDot, which stimulates your muscles to accelerate recovery and increase circulation. There's also a massage setting to soothe sore muscles.
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