Physical Fit: And on the 8th day she rested… or was it the 3rd day… maybe the 6th?

Lately, I have been investigating the various opinions and versions of the “rest day” or “skip day”. I shall endeavor to summarize and synthesize what I have gathered… and maybe by the end of it, I’ll have some clue about it myself.

I recently experienced a plateau that set me back and made me reconsider the wisdom of my fit of mad fitness. I started feeling fatigue and felt myself slowing down. That wasn’t supposed to happen. I should have been noticing changes and improvements and things getting easier. Instead, I saw the numbers on the scale not moving or changing in any way, and I felt that somehow things that were previously getting less arduous were starting to require more effort.

It was disheartening, to say the least. This prompted a good many conversations with people I considered more knowledgeable, especially with regards to the gym and fitness routine, than myself. Many, many helpful tips were given. Several plan suggestions were outlined. And one rather vehement admonishment was presented. This last bit, I will say, was the most difficult for me to actually appreciate or believe. It came upon the headwinds of an Autumn cold, and it went something like this:

Friend: You need to take it easy.

Me: I’m ok.

Friend: You want to stay that way… You need to take a break. You push too hard, and you are going to compromise your immune system.

Me: I’ll be fine. I just don’t want to lose my momentum…

Friend: Um… yeah, you will lose more ground if you make yourself sick.

Me: Ok, I’ll take it easy.

Friend: I don’t believe you…

Whereupon, I proceeded to ignore the sage advice (I didn’t want to lose my positive inertia). It wasn’t really that I discounted the advice as untrue or ill founded. It was that I had gotten myself into a panic that if I slowed down, even slightly, I would lose valuable ground… or worse, I would backslide into furniture-tuberness (yes, I made that up). I knew my own weaknesses and my tendency to come up with excuses to avoid the gym. I strongly suspected that given any opportunity, the devil on my shoulder would dig in and convince me to give up this whole silly idea of getting healthy and persuade me to embrace some old, bad habits. The point being is that my brain could not really grasp the idea that taking a break could, in any way, be beneficial towards improving my training.

And then, the elephant seal took up residence in my chest. How do I know it was an elephant seal? It barked… sometimes all night. I coughed, I hacked, and I certainly did not sleep. My immune system said “You didn’t listen? Fine, now see what we can do.” I suspect I was very lucky that it wasn’t worse. A few years ago, a compromised immune system resulted in a bout of the shingles that rivaled close communion with a blowtorch and made a burn unit look like a resort spa. At any rate, on this occasion I was forced to slow down by mere fact that I couldn’t expend much effort without being immobilized by a coughing fit that made complete strangers want to leave town and call the CDC.

So, I took it easier. I stopped looking to set any new speed records for myself. I focused on just staying active, but I tried not to push very hard. About this same time, the other aspects of my life decided that the health crisis intervention was just not doing the trick and decided to hit me in some other particularly unpleasant ways. The upshot of it all was an unexpected, unplanned, and entirely unwanted break from what had become my rather comfortable routine and a trip out of town in order to put some things back in order. It was not a mere decrease in intensity of activity. It was a complete absence of any of my usual cardiovascular or strength training or even flexibility exercises. This is not the way I would suggest that any of you who are currently reading this be introduced to rest or skip days.

When I was finally given opportunity of getting back to the gym, I dreaded how my body would respond after the forced decrease in activity. True to form, the first day back, my mind started concocting all manner of excuses and reasons to postpone my return to the gym. However, I am happy to say I countered the internal arguments and pushed myself back through the doors to face what I was sure would be “starting over.” Much to my surprise, the first thing I did was break my own record to run 3.37 miles in 25 minutes, and I did it without keeling over. This was astonishing. I was genuinely dumbfounded that being away from my workout for several days had not completely undone all the good work of the previous months and set me back firmly in the realm of inactivity. And… so… I started considering (and reading about) the importance of rest, routine, and muscle confusion in any plan to improve health and well-being.

What my friend said is true. Over-exercising can negatively impact the immune system resulting in illness, and overworking certain muscle groups and body parts can result in fatigue and injury. However, fatiguing the muscles is part of the strength training process, and how is this related to rest days or staying on track with the formation of healthy habits? Well, I’ll tell you what I’ve found…

  • According to most sources it takes about three weeks for a behavior to become a habit. So, try to still with a consistent (no rest/skip days or weeks) routine for at least a 21-day cycle when starting.
  • Most health journals and online medical information sites indicate that exercise promotes good health, prevents illness, and wards off disease and depression.
  • Overtaxing the system, even with health-promoting fitness regimen, can impact the immune system in a negative way and overstrain muscles and connective tissues resulting in injury. Incorporation or recovery time is important to the overall efficacy of physical activity.
  • Most physical fitness recommendations are to engage in some sort of exercise at least three times per week, but it is also recommended that for good health, people should have some sort of physical activity (even just taking a walk) each day.
  • Many fitness programs recommend one or more day of rest per week… Not necessarily zero activity, but less intense activity.
  • Some training plans advocate for a rest week (again, not quality time with your couch cushions… but instead taking a break from your regular workout intensity or type). The recommended frequency depends on your routine and chosen focus, but no more than every other month.
  • Often a break now and then from the usual workout routine will give a kick start to training goals and can help get past a plateau.

The point to all of it is that pounding away at workouts non-stop is not always the best approach to a healthier lifestyle or to reaching physical goals. Additionally, taking a break (planned or not) doesn’t mean that you are slacking, that you have failed at physical fitness, or that you will lose hard-earned ground in the pursuit of better physique or better health. In fact, inserting a rest day or two into the workout plan can boost the efficacy of training. If nothing else, it is important to remember that a day or two away from the gym doesn’t have to result in a derailment of healthy lifestyle. Now that I have experienced it for myself, I can say with sincerity that my body responds better and benefits more when occasionally I remember to take time out to rest.

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