In college, I was what they call a gym bunny. In reality, I was a workout addict. I had to work out every single day—if I didn’t, I would get extremely antsy and moody. But I wasn’t getting results. I wasn’t getting stronger, and I certainly wasn’t losing my Freshman 15. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of them was that I wasn’t taking break days.
Taking a break day during your week of exercise is just as important as the workouts themselves. This applies to both cardio and strength training. Here’s why:
1. Your muscles grow when you rest.
When you work out, you’re actually creating tiny tears in your muscle fibers. It’s when you’re resting that your body repairs those tears and makes them stronger and larger than they were before. That means you’re literally building strength not during the exercise but after, when you’re sore and recovering. This is applicable both to strength training and cardio—you are still breaking down those muscles when you run or walk, and giving yourself a rest can help you go faster and farther during your next workout.
2. Not taking a break can stunt your weight loss.
Many people think the key to losing weight is to just do tons of cardio every single day. Not true. First of all, you need a mix of cardio and strength-training, and second, overdoing the cardio can actually give signals to your body to hold on to weight. When you do too much cardio, your body starts to go into preservation mode and burns muscle instead of fat. This loss of muscle then slows down your metabolism. Studies show it is more effective for weight loss to do intermittent intense workouts than long regular bouts of low- to medium-intensity aerobic workouts. My advice? Take one or two awesome sweat-inducing, gut-busting spin classes per week, then switch up the rest of your workout for the other days.
3. Break days boost motivation.
As motivated and committed as you may already be, there is a physiological and psychological response to giving yourself a break—literally. Whether you admit it to yourself or not, if you’re a committed exerciser, your body gets fatigued. Exercise, after all, is a form of stress. When you intentionally schedule in a break, you are sending your body and mind a message that you deserve this well-earned respite from the stress of working out. I’ve seen it time and time again in myself and in my spinning students: When you come back from your break, you will be refreshed and reinvigorated!
4. Downtime aids joint health and helps prevent injuries.
Exercising puts stress on your joints; even a low-impact exercise like swimming can cause shoulder issues over time. Running is probably one of the most injury-inducing exercises: Your body takes a pounding through the ankles, knees, hips, and lower back when you run, and if you don’t take a day off, your tight calf muscles or tendons of the feet can lead to bone spurs, shin splints, muscle tears, tendon shearing, and more. Even my beloved spinning (and cycling) promotes poor posture in your shoulders and back, especially if you don’t take posture breaks during class.
5. Break days help regulate your appetite.
The more you work out, the more energy your body needs and the hungrier you get. On your break day, you will likely find that your appetite scales back along with your activity level, and this could be a nice break if you are getting in the habit of eating larger and larger meals.
6. Overexercising can disrupt your sleep.
A healthy balanced amount of exercise can help you fall asleep and sleep well. But overexercising, without break days, can increase your levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can disturb your sleep and lead to problems like digestive issues, depression, and weight gain.
7. Break days are good for your mental health.
Working out stresses not only your body but also your mind. Often with intense workouts, you are engaging your mind in an intense way—being hyper-focused and straining everything to complete the exercise. In extreme cases, putting yourself through this level of stress on a consistent basis may lead to depression, anger, confusion, anxiety, and irritability. Often we use exercising as another way to beat ourselves up. Scheduling in a break day can give your mind and body some much-needed breathing space. It can also help to identify and break patterns of addiction. Being addicted to working out is a real thing, and it’s not healthy—I know from personal experience. Being diligent about break days can insert a change in your pattern and force you to focus on other elements of your life besides working out.
How many break days you take in a week and what you do on your break days depends on your personal exercise regimen and situation. Older people might need more time to recover, as do people who do a lot of heavy weight-training. Taking a break day doesn’t mean turning into a couch potato—you can still be physically active by taking walks, for example, or a restorative yoga class. Giving yourself a break takes intention and, for those of us who are avid exercisers, diligence. But the effects are numerous and nourishing for your body, mind, and heart.