In my mind, a workout break is essentially a rest day. It’s those 24 hours when I luxuriate on the couch as my muscles recover, and it’s typically never more than three days before I’m HIIT-ing the gym once more. However, recently, a few days out of the gym melted into a week, which then extended another, and then another. It made me wonder if I was going too hard…at resting. In reality though, it’s just what my body —and my mind—needed.
We know the importance of proper rest and recovery in a healthy fitness routine, sure—but an actual, lengthy break from regular workouts does more than just allow your muscles to repair themselves. “The human body is a totally adaptable machine, but it needs time to heal,” says Cat Kom, founder and head trainer of Studio Sweat onDemand. “Cranking it up to the red zone and going full bar every day, all year-round is simply unhealthy and you can really hurt yourself. Having good rest periods in your routine is key to your overall health, healing, and progress.”
If you’re a fitness devotee like me, Kom points out that while a proper break—a true week or more off of working out—may feel like you’re somehow slacking or failing yourself, it’s actually necessary to properly meet your goals.
“Giving your body a rest is essential so that you can exert yourself at a higher level, which you can’t actually do if you’re just continually going all of the time.” Naomi Arbit, PhD
“Giving your body a rest is essential so that you can exert yourself at a higher level, which you can’t actually do if you’re just continually going all of the time,” says Naomi Arbit, PhD, a behavioral scientist and wellness coach. Fair point. Think of your body as a machine: It simply can’t be in go-mode 24/7. If you treat your body accordingly—with workout breaks—it’ll be happier, healthier, and better able to perform in that go-go-go mode when you’re in the gym. All it really takes is about a week, which Jonathan Leary, DC, a chiropractor and founder and CEO of Remedy Place, highly recommends as the break-length sweet spot.
“I believe a week is a good reset—I wouldn’t let it go much longer than that,” he tells me. “Based on research, an active person can go up to three weeks without working out and it will not have too much of an impact on their muscle size or cardio output. Take the vacation—when you’re in a relaxed head space, it works wonders on the body, too.” So yeah, that break is about so much more than recovery. Here’s what it can do for you.
What taking a break can do for your body
1. Avoid workout burnout: Experiencing “workout burnout” is something that can happen to you if you put true rest on the back burner. “For a lot of people who push themselves really hard several times a week, they may actually be a little burnt out and not even know it,” says Dr. Arbit. “Taking a break for a few weeks really allows for the system to reset, and in a way, they can start from scratch.”
I hear the record scratch sound going off in your mind at the thought of starting over in your fitness game (I feel you), but she stresses that it’s not like that—your strength isn’t going to fall by the wayside. “Many studies in many different settings show that when people take a break [from working out], they can improve their fitness a lot more on the other end of things,” Dr. Arbit explains. “It’s like a pause and reset, and allows you to push things harder than if you were to just continually running a marathon.”
2. Combat stress overload: Chances are you work out on the reg to reduce your stress. I feel you. But the thing is, exercise is stressing you out in a way, too. “People need to know that exercise, though often good stress, is still a stress on the body,” says Dr. Leary. “Stress means you need to build in time to recover—so recovery should be an equal part of your self care.” Dr. Arbit echoes this, noting that if you’re the type who wakes up early, hits the gym, and goes to work, your system is likely full of cortisol (the stress hormone). “So many of us are sleep deprived, pushing ourselves all day, with not enough time to recover, which is so bad for long-term health and fitness,” she says. “A workout break allows your cortisol to reset and get you out of that chronically stressed state.”
3. Your willpower could use a break, too: Being on top of your fitness game obviously means you’ve got a functioning level of willpower. Dr. Arbit points out that willpower isn’t an infinite well, though. “Roy Baumeister wrote an entire book on willpower depletion,” she explains. “This doesn’t happen on a short-term basis, but if we’re used to pushing ourselves and disciplining to work harder, a lot of the times we wind up with our willpower depleted.” If you’re in a constant state of discipline (especially in terms of working out), you can wind up at a point where you’re looking to rebel. “You’re not in a state of balance, so taking a break can allow us to reset our willpower, and refill that bucket so that you can then hit the grind again pretty hard,” says Dr. Arbit.
4. A break will boost—not weaken—your strength: Professional athletes that have the actual job of training really hard are well aware of the importance of workout breaks. “If you’re going to train like them, then you will need to start recovering like them,” says Dr. Leary. “Pros know how to properly recover after a workout, which is vital. The more recovery you start implementing, the more you’ll find that your body feels better and you won’t have to put in a huge amount of work in the gym.” Hence why you’re seeing the recovery industry rise—fast. If your days off from the gym turn into a couple of weeks, enjoy it, because you’ll be better off when you return—mentally and physically.