When it comes to exercise, it’s easier to assume more is better. But is it really? Not all the time. “There’s a point of diminishing returns where doing more exercise won’t yield more benefits, so sometimes doing less is better,” says Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist and author of Ageless Intensity: High Intensity Workouts to Slow the Aging Process. In fact, exercise physiologists and sports psychologists are increasingly finding that taking a day off can do lots of good things for your body and your psyche.
The new Daily Readiness Score on Fitbit Premium can help you understand whether your body is truly ready for a challenging workout—or you need more time for it to rest. (Read more about Daily Readiness here.)
Here’s why it’s okay to take that break—plus, some tips on how to recognize when you need one.
The yin and yang of exercise
Nobody would argue that a long run or HIIT workout is great for your heart, mind, and muscles. But that doesn’t mean you should go all-out every single day. Beneficial as it is, exercise places a lot of stress on your body, taxing your muscles, joints, tendons, and bones [says McCall]. And that’s not all. Too much can also cause inflammation that can drain your mood, energy, and immune health.
Feeling like you need to hit the gym or the track every day has another downside—namely psychological stress. “There’s a difference between saying to yourself ‘I have to do my run and I want to do my run,” says Greg Dale, PhD, director of the sports psychology and leadership program at Duke University. “If you’re always feeling like exercise is something you have to do it’s a sign that you need to take a break.”
There are other clues too. Like perpetual muscle soreness, an elevated heart rate that doesn’t return to normal within a few hours post-exercise, or a dip in your heart rate variability [says McCall]. “But the number one telltale sign is that you have trouble falling asleep even though you feel physically exhausted,” says McCall.
A balancing act
So how much exercise is enough and how much is too much? “There are days when you just need to take a break completely to allow yourself to emotionally, physically, and mentally get away from it,” says Dale. “It’s a small way you can have some balance in your life.”
That mental break may have other upsides. According to a 2019 Journal of Health Psychology study, recreational athletes who were less likely to think about working out when they were off the field were less injury-prone than those who couldn’t emotionally disengage. They also had more mental energy and slept more soundly.
Finding your sweet spot
While the ideal number of exercise days varies from person to person, McCall recommends breaking your weekly physical activity down into three different levels as follows.
2 to 3 days per week: Go for your all-out toughest workouts, where you’re huffing it to the point of breathlessness.
2 to 3 days per week: Aim for light to moderate exercise like a short recovery run, a hike, or a long walk. You should be breathing faster than usual, but not out of breath.
1 to 2 days per week: Think light non-exercise activity such as yard work, cleaning the house, or playing with your kids.
Try a new outlook
In a world where we’re always told to go longer and stronger, it can be hard to wrap your head around the idea of a rest day. That’s why Dale recommends looking at it from a different perspective. “I’m not saying to take a week off but it’s important to give yourself permission to take those small breaks,” says Dale. “They’re good for you physically and, more importantly, they’re what your body needs in the long run.”
By KAREN ANSEL, MS, RDN for Fitbit: Karen Ansel, MS, RD, CDN, is a nutrition consultant, journalist, and author specializing in nutrition, health, and wellness. Her latest book is Healing Superfoods for Anti-Aging: Stay Younger, Live Longer.