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Why Rest Days Aren't Just for Your Body

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If you work out regularly, chances are you're familiar with the concept of taking a rest day to give your body time to recharge and avoid overtraining. Problem is, out of 18,000 people surveyed for a recent Durham University study, over two-thirds of people felt like they didn't get enough rest. That's a pretty shocking number of people who feel like they need more time to chill out. The survey also asked what activities they find most restful, and people said reading, being in nature, and listening to music are more relaxing than "doing nothing."

The ideal rest day isn't simply about not exercising—it's about recharging your mind, just as much as your body.

If you're curious about the mental effects of not making enough time for rest days, John Mayer, P.D., psychologist, and president of the International Sports Professionals Association, explains why they're so crucial. "Not getting enough rest leads to burnout," he says, which could potentially lead you to give up things in your life that you care about, like your workout program. "Burnout can hinder your attention, memory, and focus, and reduce your concentration, motivation, and energy."

It's also well-established that the body needs rest days between workouts in order for the body to reap the maximum benefits and for muscles to grow, so it's quite possible for your body to experience this burnout phenomenon, as well. Research notes that the amount of physical rest required between workouts depends on a whole host of factors that include everything from genetics to the intensity of your workouts, but one to two days a week of rest is generally recommended. If you feel like you're not performing as well as you could in your workouts, you may want to look at whether you're taking adequate physical and mental rest in between.

In the same way that more exercise is not always better, your mind needs a rest from active brain time. "Just as your muscles may be consistently sore, your brain needs a rest day," notes Stephanie Hartselle, M.D., clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Brown University. "Like going to work, caring for children, and paying your bills, rest needs to be scheduled as a priority in your life," she says. "This is just as important as exercise, healthy eating, or even working and paying the bills." Some ways to make it happen: Set aside an hour before bed to read, use your lunch break at work to take a light walk, and get up a little earlier to enjoy your morning coffee mindfully. If you actually take a moment to schedule this time in your calendar, you're more likely to make sure it happens.

There are many ways to let your mind rest, and what works best totally varies on an individual basis. "What's restful to one person may not be so restful to another," says Jennifer E. Carter, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor and lead sport psychologist at The Ohio State University Sports Medicine Center. "There's nothing wrong with hanging out on the couch or watching TV or surfing the Internet, if those activities indeed restore energy and refresh you."

If you tend to be anxious, though, TV or other electronics might not be the best way to unwind. "These passive activities may feel relaxing, but they often overstimulate the nervous system or interfere with genuine social connection," says Carter. "Using the brain or body actively may help achieve better relaxation." It makes sense then, that for many people the best ways to relax are more like the top-ranked restful activities in the Durham survey. (BTW, here are 7 signs you seriously need a rest day.)

No time? Carter reminds us that "there are 1,440 minutes in a day, and 168 hours in a week. When you say you don't have time to rest or exercise, you're saying that you won't make rest or exercise a priority. Behavior change is hard, and it can start right now.

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