What to Know About Rest Day Workouts

Medically Reviewed by Ross Brakeville, DPT on June 18, 2023
4 min read

‌Exercise helps keep you fit, supports your health, and gives your immune system a boost. That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends you get at least 150 minutes of exercise each week. 

But there’s another important part of working out – the “off” day. On this day, a rest day workout can help you stay the course. Here’s what you need to know.

Rest day workouts are the activities you do to stay active without doing traditional fitness routines. On your recovery day, you stop doing high-intensity exercises and replace them with low-intensity activities. 

You keep your body moving but don’t let it reach those extreme stress conditions.

You may wonder why you should stay active on your day off. Rest day workouts are also known as active recovery, which means you’re letting your body recover from a workout while keeping it moving. 

When you do active recovery, you help your heart, muscles, and nervous system take a break from intense activity. But you don’t let your body be inactive. Staying active during your rest day helps your body heal and recharge faster. In active recovery, your blood, lymph, and muscles keep active. 

Blood. Blood flow helps move nutrients and oxygen around your body. It also removes waste like blood lactate.

Lymph. Lymph moves white blood cells throughout the lymphatic system. It gets rid of extra tissue fluid, lactic acid, damaged cells, and unwanted bacteria or viruses.

Muscles. Your muscles heal during rest. While exercising breaks down muscles, resting lets the fibroblasts come in and rebuild the muscle tissue. Muscles begin to heal during resting periods, and they can heal faster during rest day workouts. This is because they have more access to a healthy blood flow, so they feel less tired and can remain flexible.

If you exercise every day at a high level, your body produces large amounts of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol is a hormone your adrenal glands make. It helps with things like blood sugar levels, sleep/wake cycles, metabolism, and salt/water balance. 

Adrenaline – also called epinephrine – is another hormone your adrenal glands make. This hormone works with cortisol when your body is stressed. It increases your blood pressure, heart rate, and energy levels, and it kicks in with “flight-or-fight” responses.

Cortisol and adrenaline are essential for good health, but too much of each keeps your body at a high-stress level. If you exercise without taking a rest day, you never let your body relax. That’s when you can get stubborn belly weight gain, higher blood pressure and blood sugar, and a weaker immune system. You might also have trouble sleeping at night.

Rest day workouts help lower your cortisol and adrenaline levels. They also give your body time to recharge glycogen levels. Glycogen is your stored glucose – the fuel your body needs for energy. Your body stores this energy in your muscles and liver.

When you do high-stress exercises, your body uses glycogen pulled from your muscles first and then your liver. How much glycogen you have depends on your health and diet. For example, an athlete could use about 50% of their glycogen stores in about 2 hours. Your body might need as much as 24 hours to refill those energy stores.

Fitness is important for your health, but overdoing it can backfire. Here are some signs that you’re due for a rest day and a rest day workout: 

  • Your muscles are always sore. Having sore muscles all the time means you aren’t letting your muscles heal.
  • You’re exhausted. Feeling fatigue shows you’ve used up your energy stores and your body is feeling stressed.
  • You can’t sleep. If you feel too buzzed or wired at night to sleep, your body isn’t leaving the high-stress exercise state. You may have too much cortisol and adrenaline running through your body.

The best rest day workouts are low intensity but enjoyable. Moving around can help to improve endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin hormones. These hormones are chemicals your brain makes, and they can help you feel happy and relaxed. 

Here are some examples of low-intensity activities to do on your rest day.

  • Walking
  • Slow jogging
  • Biking
  • Yoga or tai chi
  • Dancing
  • Kayaking
  • Swimming
  • Rowing
  • Rock climbing

If you injured yourself during a fitness routine or are in pain, skip the rest day workout. Instead, take a complete rest day. Passive recovery lets your body put all its resources into calming pain and healing injuries. 

Make sure you eat healthy meals every day, since all those carbohydrates, proteins, and fats help your body fuel up for success. After a low-key rest day workout and three healthy meals, you should be ready to jump back into your regular fitness routine.