For most people, the concept of rest is relatively one-dimensional. It mainly consists of sleeping in some mornings and taking a day off here and there to watch Netflix.
According to one study, at least 55% of people have suffered from excess soreness and tiredness post-workout. The team behind the study proposed that the cause of the extra fatigue was that 60% of the participants didn’t know enough about dietary and recovery processes to rest effectively.
We have much to learn about giving our bodies opportunities to rest and recover. If you want to wake up feeling rested, build muscle steadily, and find that perfect balance between rest and activity, you may need to integrate some active rest into your routine!
What Is Active Rest?
It can be easy to get carried away with your health and fitness routine as an active individual. Exercising and pushing your body feels great, gives you time to think, and is incredibly empowering!
While this is the case, it is essential not to get overzealous with your routine and cause your body to be physically exhausted! Overtraining is a real thing. If you don’t allow your body enough time to rest, you’ll be missing out on hard-earned strength, endurance, and cardio benefits.
When we rest, our bodies perform essential healing processes that help keep our minds sharp, bodies in tune, and energy levels up. While sleep is necessary, active rest is also for maintaining balance and giving your body time and space to recover.
Think of it this way: If you don’t give your body time to adapt to the physical demands you place on it, it will never get a chance to “catch up” and strengthen. However, this doesn’t mean you need to avoid all activity on your rest days. It means that you still need to be active and present on your rest days by staying in touch with your body and giving it some light activity.
Not all rest is created equal.
After all, studies tell us that binge-watching TV harms your health and prevents your body from healing to its full capacity due to harmful blue light exposure. These binge sessions often just make you feel exhausted.
There are two primary forms of rest:
Passive rest includes those lazy days of watching TV and lying around. While this is good in small doses, marathon TV sessions can cause you to feel tired and result in less blood flow to your body during the day. To be clear, we are not advocating for excess passive rest–you really should be moving EVERY day, but taking some time to “zone out” may be beneficial.
Active rest means resting your body while still engaged in an activity. Forms of active rest include walking, hiking, stretching, meditating, playing a sport recreationally, and more. The key is engaging in mental and physical activity but in a calmer and more relaxed manner. These active rest days help your body get physical rest, emotional rest, and mental rest.
The key is to find the right balance between these two.
Some people opt for passive rest days that still involve at least a little active rest, which can be as simple as meditating or going for a walk with your dog throughout the day. Try to listen to your body and notice what you’re feeling for cues on how much rest you need.
We’ve all felt that brain fog and mental sluggishness that results from sitting around for hours on end, and this indicates the body isn’t healing adequately. Using HRV measurements can be a helpful tool to understand if you’re training too hard and getting enough active and passive rest.
What Active Rest Does To The Body
Working some active rest days into your weekly workout schedule can help you add an essential layer of health into your life. Perhaps most importantly, it enables you to stay more engaged in your days and enjoy your time rather than just writing off rest days as days of nothingness.
One of the simplest and most important effects of active rest is that it helps improve healthy blood flow. When you get your body moving even slightly, your blood circulation increases.
Improved circulation means your body can transport important recovery compounds such as amino acids and oxygen to recovering tissues throughout the body. It also helps flush out the build-up of residues such as lactic acid after exercise.
While the physical benefits are significant, the mental importance of rest days is just as vital for your well-being. Being mentally motivated is excellent when you crush workouts, but rest days to lower stress levels and provide mental breaks are essential, too.
Giving your mind a chance to heal and de-clutter can work wonders for your mental and physical health. It has also been shown to improve the health of your immune system.
Another reason meditation is an essential part of your active rest routine is that it helps lower stress and improve your body’s ability to engage in healing mechanisms. Meditation alters autonomic nervous system functions by decreasing sympathetic tone and increasing parasympathetic tone. It balances cortisol levels and improves the body’s ability to engage in repair. Breathwork exercises and yoga sessions encourage a mind-body connection.
Using HRV To Assess Active Rest Needs
As we can see, adding some active rest to your routine helps to provide some much-needed rest and de-stressor modulations to your autonomic nervous system. If you want to keep track of how well your body is bouncing between triggering activity and rest, analyzing your HRV readings can be highly beneficial. You’ll discover if you need to incorporate more active rest days into your routine.
Switching up your daily routine and adding in some active rest can help expose your body to more variability, which will help your body be more able to modulate between activation and rest.
HRV can be an excellent proxy to determine the extent of active rest needs. Hanu is currently the only personalized platform for helping you to identify nervous system needs. During continuous periods of HRV monitoring, chronically low HRV periods can indicate a taxed nervous system, which can lead to a risk of developing high blood pressure and mental health issues.
Low HRV periods can mean that rest is needed. We recommend using breathwork, meditation, or NSDR as a mechanism for nervous system reset. HR and HRV recovery after light activity (active rest) can also provide insight into nervous system adaptability/resilience.
If you find that it is taking HR and HRV a significantly long time to recover, even with active rest, then this may be a sign that you need to dial down overall activity.
If you have a less variable HRV, especially if you see downward trends, after a couple of months of training, this could indicate that your body is not modulating between rest and action enough. If you add in some active rest days throughout the next month or so and notice that your HRV data has improved, this indicates that your body is engaging in more deep rest and healing in your time off.
How To Take an Active Rest Day
An active recovery day generally features easy workouts with low to moderate intensity and some leisure activities such as getting fresh air with some casual walks, hikes, or just listening to some soothing music.
Here are some of our favorite activities that you can do on active rest days:
Yoga is a powerhouse active rest day activity that can help you re-center your mind and body. When you are building muscle, you create tiny tears in the muscles. This causes lactic acid build-up, causing soreness and stiffness.
Practicing yoga and stretching lengthens muscle tissue and increases flexibility, allowing you to perform strength-building moves with a greater range of movement after recovery. Overall, the deep stretching and breathwork in yoga help improve blood flow and engage your parasympathetic system, which is responsible for triggering important healing mechanisms.
Tai-chi is an excellent example of an active recovery exercise that focuses on the body’s slow, steady, mindful movements. Engaging in tai-chi helps you slow down and find a new way to move and engage your body, which is excellent for blood flow. It also helps create new neural pathways in the brain that complement standard strength or endurance training routine actions. Those who practice tai-chi regularly say it helps with flexibility, stress, and muscle strength.
Meditation is a necessary part of a healthy, balanced rest routine. It helps give your body a much-needed break from stress and reduces the mind’s constant activation on even our busiest days. Engaging in meditation practices and deep breathing daily has been shown to improve the release of joy and pleasure-inducing hormones that help facilitate a healthy outlook on life.
Since meditation lowers cortisol, it enables your body to focus on muscle recovery and growth, maximizing your strength training benefits. When your body is under stress, it prioritizes the stress response over other functions, making it harder to recover from muscle tears, inflammation, and respiratory stress. Meditation provides a counter to the stress response. It enables your body to have a break from stimulation for a few minutes – which is something it desperately craves during the day, especially when recovering.
Meditation can become a powerful ally to counterplay the effects of high cortisol levels on your body caused by consistent stress and training. This hormone can sometimes break down muscle tissue, which is a bodybuilder’s worst nightmare!
After spending five-to-six weeks on a specific training schedule and upping your weight and intensity, you will undoubtedly start to see some progress.
However, you may also notice that you are fatigued and struggling to get in the zone for your training sessions. This is a surefire sign of burnout.
A de-load week is a period of lighter lifting focused on reps and form over strength and intensity. A de-load week might cut the volume in half if your regular weightlifting routine consists of 80 hard sets per week. Lifting 50% of your average heavy set weight is common.
Not all parts of the body recover at the same rate.
Your central nervous system, for example, recovers from a heavy workout within a matter of minutes, whereas your muscles typically require a few days of rest before they’re fully repaired. Other tissues in the body take much longer to heal, including tendons, ligaments, and bones.
If you’re lifting heavy weights regularly, these tissues suffer from small microtraumas and tears. If they don’t have time to heal appropriately, these tears can eventually accumulate and lead to strains or injuries.
Implementing occasional de-load weeks allows your body to clean up the various residual stress accumulated over weeks of hard training. If you train hard for weeks or months without a break, you eventually reach a plateau that will stifle your results and cause you to spin the wheels with little results to show.
Stick to a Schedule
Another good thing to check in on during your active rest days is to ensure that your sleep cycle is in sync. Your body has “internal clocks,” which include muscle clocks, to use information about the timing of events to align the body’s processes with your schedule. Sticking to a regular workout and sleep schedule generates a circadian rhythm that prepares muscles and other body systems for daily activity and rest.
Additionally, taking a walk in the morning, exposing yourself to sunlight upon waking, and enjoying the sunset before you wind down for the night helps your body switch into rest and repair mode and suppress hormones that keep you activated and ready for action.
Active Rest for Better Performance and a Healthier Life
There is more to getting your body in great shape than lifting weights and eating protein! Active rest days can allow you to explore more relaxing activities while your body is enjoying the much-needed rest and recovery benefits. After all, the health benefits of happiness and joy are crucial to living a long and healthy life.
Balance is key to feeling your best.
Incorporating lighter and more mindful activities into your rest days can help you achieve more profound results from your training regimen over the long term. If you want to keep an eye on how your body is recovering, monitoring your HRV trends over time can help you see how your body shifts between activation and rest.
When it comes to active rest days, remember to keep the intensity low and focus on spending time slowing down your pace, checking your stress levels, and having some fun! Try using a biofeedback device such as Hanu to keep track of how well you are balancing rest and activity and stay connected with the health of your body’s crucial stress response system.