Workout programs are typically organized by the week. You might lift weights on a three-day program, or a five-day program, for example, leaving the days in between as “rest” days. But what does resting really mean? You don’t have to just chill on the couch those days; you have options.
Why rest days exist
You might think that so many workout programs take a three-day approach because frequent rest is necessary for fitness. But that’s not exactly true. Plenty of professional and elite athletes work out every day, often twice a day. And people who have a job that requires manual labor still show up to work every day; it’s not like everybody who works in construction takes every other day off.
There are two main reasons, I think, why three– and four– and five-day programs are so popular. First is scheduling: not everybody can make time literally every day to exercise. Most of us can manage three days a week, though.
The other reason for rest days is that they are a tool to manage the total amount of work we’re doing. Take the couch-to-5k running program, for example. It eases you in, with just three days a week of short runs. Increasing your running mileage too quickly can set you up for injury, but three days a week is a good place to start for most beginners.
Or consider lifting programs: some programs manage workload by giving you a different body part to focus on each day (leg day, chest day, and so on). Others will have you work out your full body with heavy weights, but only a few times a week. The days in between are your rest days.
If you aren’t following a specific program, you’re on your own to decide if your workload is too much (or not enough). In general, if you’ve been doing a certain amount of exercise for a while and you’re feeling good, it’s okay to add more. Our bodies adapt to hard work. Rest days aren’t mandatory, but they are a handy tool.
You can exercise on your “rest” days
I don’t like to think of the days between workouts as rest days, because you don’t necessarily have to rest. But you probably don’t want to do more of the same thing you’re resting from either, since that would defeat the purpose. Instead, think of those days as yours to use for any other purpose as you see fit.
For example, if you’re doing a three-day running program, you can use the days in between for strength training and mobility work.
If you’re doing a three-day lifting program, you can use the days in between for cardio or yoga.
If your three-day lifting program focuses only on heavy, full-body lifts (like squats), you might use one or two of the days in between for lighter accessories (like bicep curls).
In fact, we need both cardio and strength training to be healthy and well-rounded, so if you aren’t already doing both, you should find some places in your schedule where you can fit in whatever you’re missing.
Keep it easy, though
The caveat for all of these is to make sure you’re not doing so much that it will interfere with your main workouts. Want to go for an easy 20-minute jog between squat day and deadlift day? Sure, no problem. A 10-mile hard run? That might be a bad idea.
The amount of work that’s appropriate will depend on what your body is adapted to. If you’re a longtime runner, maybe you can run 10 miles without wrecking yourself. If you bike to work every day, you don’t have to drive in just because today is a “rest” day. Use your judgment.
You can rest but still keep your routine
Now that you know you can be active on your “rest” days if you want, I want to make clear that you don’t have to. Resting is good, too.
Sometimes it’s easiest to keep a routine if it’s the same every day. So if you’ve carved out some time to exercise—perhaps before work every morning—you may want to do use that time every weekday instead of only on your workout days.
So, use your “workout” time for something else that is beneficial to your body. Maybe you’d like to spend some time stretching or foam rolling. Instead of going for a run or bike, you can take a leisurely walk. Or spend some time meditating or doing something else that helps your mental health, like journaling or reading a book. After all, exercise isn’t the only thing that’s good for you.