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Rest Days Should Be About Active Recovery, Not Sitting On Your Butt Doing Nothing

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Photo: Getty Images / Neo Vision

It was a random muggy Thursday night in early June, and I had plans to meet up with a girlfriend for a glass of wine. A little sore from the previous day's workout jam-packed with one-too-many squats, I had a thought. I suggested we check out a hot yoga studio in between our two apartments instead of guzzling booze. "I can't, it's a rest day," she said to me. "So yoga's off limits?" I asked her.

Yep, it was. We ended up sticking to the wine plan. Life went on. Still, it got me thinking about the concept of rest days: Are they really meant for doing absolutely nothing active? At all?

As a certified trainer, I understand the benefit of rest days. Think about how you feel when you get absolutely no sleep. You're groggy. Not at your peak. You're likely über stressed. That's exactly what happens to the body when you don't allow it the necessary break from activity. When your muscle fibers are damaged during exercise (hello, soreness), rest periods help them recover stronger and increase in size. And for the record, the rule of thumb is that you rest 48 hours in between working the same muscle groups.

It's true. One Arizona State University meta-analysis concluded that taking one to two rest days between sessions is ideal for newbies aiming for killer strength gains. But our bodies are indeed meant to move. From experience, I can vouch that I felt the best I've felt in years when I did yoga every day for 30 days, including on my rest days. When I hit the mat, like in other low-impact activities like walking or barre, my heart rate isn't shooting through the roof like in a daily WOD. Yoga, for me, is my time to stretch and give my muscles the TLC they deserve, without inflicting muscle damage like at CrossFit.

Plus, the research is clear: Active recovery can be better for your bod than spending the whole day on the couch. Low-intensity movement, like a super-easy bike ride, walking your dog, or—yes—hitting the yoga mat, can increase circulation, which helps bring key nutrients to your muscles so they repair faster. By getting your heart rate up a little bit, those tight muscles can snag a little extra help loosening up. Don't just take my word for it, either. Science agrees: Active recovery can make you recover faster, according to a study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine.

Still, watch out for signs that your body needs a break. Excessive tiredness (like, four snooze alarms), joint or muscle pain, or skipped periods can be telltale signs that you've overdone it. (See: Seven signs that you seriously need a rest day.) The goal here is to make activity and movement part of your lifestyle, not an obsession with exercise that you can't shake. It's about living your best strong, active life.

So today, I challenge you, rest day traditionalist who swears off of activity: See what amazing things you can do with your "day off." Try a new low-impact activity—Rollerblade with a girlfriend along the water or give aerial yoga a whirl. Use your extra time to laugh with friends on a long walk on a local trail, getting an extra endorphin boost in the process. Heck, try out a new meditation and give your mind a little exercise of its own. Whatever you choose to do, just promise me this: It's off the couch.

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