We’re often told to fit more exercise into our busy lives, but what about making time to rest between workouts? Certified Athletic Trainer Cameron Apt explains why rest doesn’t just feel good, it also helps your body get the maximum benefit from exercise.
Health Matters: Why are we hearing more about rest as part of a fitness regimen?
Apt: There’s been a dramatic turnaround in our understanding of how the body responds to and recovers from exercise, and especially how the neurological system is involved in that recovery. If you overdo it with exercise, you’re not doing your body any benefit, and you may be doing it some harm. So the current approach encourages you to work out effectively and efficiently, and provide your body with sufficient rest to recover from exercise before you work out again.
Health Matters: What’s the harm in not getting enough rest?
Apt: Risks range from an increased tendency for muscle/ligament injuries to a serious health condition called rhabdomyolysis, where the death of muscle fibers causes their contents to be released into the bloodstream. During a workout, it’s normal to feel some soreness as you work those muscles and for a day later. But if you feel very sore two or three days after a workout, that’s a problem—especially if you try exercising on top of that deep fatigue.
Health Matters: What happens to muscles when you exercise, and during rest?
Apt: When you lift weights or do other exercise, you are actually causing small tears in the muscle fibers. When you are actively exercising, you’re not getting stronger—you’re actually putting stress on your body. The strength-building comes when you rest those muscles, which allows them time to rebuild. The muscle rebuilds with a tiny amount of scar tissue. Every time you work out, followed by sufficient rest, your muscles get a little bigger and stronger.
Health Matters: What exactly do you mean by rest—a complete lack of activity?
Apt: Not necessarily. You can alternate daily workouts between lower-body and upper-body weight-lifting regimens, for example. Or you may do weight-bearing exercise one day and follow it up with a day where you do non-weight-bearing exercise like walking, running or swimming. Keep track of your high-intensity workouts and follow them up with lighter exercise days. You may want to have one or two days a week where you do no exercise at all. And if you’re looking to get, as we say, “bigger-faster-stronger,” you will need to keep adjusting your workouts to build in new challenges as you gain strength, agility and endurance.
Health Matters: Aside from watching your exertion level, what else is important during rest?
Apt: Good nutrition, adequate sleep, and proper hydration will help your body make the most of the rest you give it. These elements are fuel for the muscle-building that your body needs to do when it’s resting. Eat well-balanced meals that provide protein, carbohydrates, even a small amount of fat. Eat more vegetables because, generally speaking, most of us are not getting enough servings of those every day. Drink enough water throughout the day to ensure you’re hydrated when you’re ready to work out again. And focus on getting restful sleep: at least seven to eight hours a night. Avoid using your computer or TV at least an hour before bedtime to help you get high-quality sleep.
Health Matters: How do you know when you’re overdoing it with exercise?
Apt: There are some very clear signs that you are working out too much—besides physical fatigue, you typically will feel mentally lethargic, burned out, unenthusiastic. People who overdo it with workouts can even feel a sense of confusion.
Whether you're an elite athlete, a weekend warrior, or someone who just wants to stay fit, it’s important to listen to your body and respect it when it’s telling you, “Enough.” Having a well-designed workout regimen that challenges your body, but also gives it time to recover and come back stronger, is your best bet for improving your performance.
Cameron Apt, ATC, CSCS, is a certified athletic trainer as well as a certified strength and conditioning specialist, who focuses on human movement, efficiency, and performance at UR Medicine’s Sports and Spine Rehabilitation. Apt directs the Athletic Performance program, which focuses on performance enhancement in high-level athletes, as well as movement quality and strength for a wide range of the fitness population.