The Most Important Part of Your Fitness Program

Medically reviewed in February 2022

Photo Credit: Ian Sanderson, via Flickr Creative Commons

The human body is an extraordinary machine, able to withstand tremendous amounts of physical stress such as marathon running, football and long days of physical labor. Exercise and training can do wonders for endurance, strength and athleticism, but without proper rest and recovery, physical challenges will begin to take a negative toll on the body.

To get the maximum benefit from the effort and time you spend exercising, rest and recovery need to be an integral part of your fitness program. The more time you spend exercising, and the higher the intensity of your exercise routine, the greater your requirement for periods of rest and recovery.

For instance, if you take a brisk 30-minute walk five to six times per week, you may need very little rest or very few days off. But if you’re following a training program that includes cardio and strength training (and possibly running an occasional 5k or competing in a tennis or basketball league) you will want to schedule days of rest and recovery.

What is rest and recovery?
Rest and recovery can simply mean decreasing or eliminating the intensity, time and frequency of exercise. For instance, if your normal routine is to run five miles at a 12-minute per mile pace, you may choose to substitute running with a three-to-five mile walk for a day or two. This will allow you to stay active while significantly reducing the overall workload on your body, giving your muscles a chance to repair and recover from the days of more intense activity.

Muscle repair and recovery primarily occur after exercise, when your muscles release waste products from exercise such as lactate. Rest and recovery also help to promote blood flow and oxygen delivery to the muscles. This process promotes the replenishment of phosphocreatine stores, restoration of intramuscular pH (acid/base balance). It also helps to the regaining of muscle membrane potential, which is the balance between sodium and potassium exchanges inside and outside of cells. By allowing periods of rest and recovery, these processes lead to restoring the physiological and chemical balance within our bodies. You’re muscles will love you for the rest—and when you come back a day or two later, they’ll be stronger and you’ll feel more energetic.

Recovery is typically very light exercise at a much lower intensity than usual, or days off from any kind of exercise. If you’re training for a sport or a race, a rest period may be a day or even a week of low or no physical activity. You could also replace a training day in the weight room with an hour in the pool.

Key components of rest and recovery

Listen to your body
One of the simplest things you can do is listen to your body. If you’ve been exercising regularly without rest days and you encounter a day where you’re feeling run down, extra tired, sore and maybe even struggling to keep up with your normal workout, your body may be telling you, “I NEED A BREAK!” Don’t ignore these symptoms of overtraining and take a day off, whether it’s active recovery exercises or total rest.

Nutrition and hydration
Full rest days or days that include active rest should provide a great opportunity to focus on proper hydration and nutrition, both of which are critical for recovery from the stressors of exercise. Proper nutrition and hydration immediately after an exercise session, as well as during days of rest, help to replenish vitamins, nutrients, carbohydrates and proteins essential for the repair and health of muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints.

A good night’s sleep (at least 8 hours) is critical to allow both your mind and body to recover from both the physical and psychological demands of exercise stress. (See Ornish Living articles, How to Get Your Most Restful Night of Sleep and Tips for a Good Night’s Sleep.)

Meditation and yoga
Both meditation and yoga practices help to focus our attention inward, which allows us to better sense our body, how we feel and our need for rest and recovery. Adding time for meditation and yoga during our rest and recovery days is a way to effectively enhance this time as well as improve our energy level.

A 2005 study in the journal Sports Medicine found that massage has shown physiological, neurological and psychological benefits. Incorporating massage into your fitness plan will pay huge dividends. Massage will help to circulate blood and fluids into and out of the muscles and joints as well as circulate waste products from exercised muscles.

Regardless of your fitness level, age or exercise experience, periods of rest and recovery are critical for longevity, physical health and effective exercise. If you don’t currently include any rest periods in your fitness program, get started soon and reap the benefits. You body will respond wonderfully!

Ready to incorporate rest and recovery into your fitness plan? Check out the Ornish Living article, How to Prevent and Treat Overtraining.

This content was originally published on Ornish Living.

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