man resting with his dog at home in a hammock

When you’re on a roll with your workouts, the last thing you want to do is take a rest day. But as tempting as it may be to train 7 days a week, rest isn’t just an optional extra: it’s an essential part of your exercise programme…

When we’re working out regularly, beating personal bests and achieving our fitness goals, it’s all too easy to forget that rest days are a vital part of our exercise routine. But the science proves that by taking time out from your fitness schedule, you’ll actually make bigger fitness gains long-term.

As Olympic gold medallist and Vitality ambassador Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill puts it: “There’s no point smashing the workout circuits every single day. To get fitter, you need to factor in rest days every week to give your body the time to go from muscle recovery to muscle rebuilding. 



“As a guide, I do my circuits three times a week but make sure I go hard when I do, then rest properly when I’m in between training days.”

So, what’s the real science behind a ‘rest day’? We ask the experts to explain more…

1) Your muscles actually repair when you rest

As Jess mentioned earlier, it might sound strange but it turns out that strength and muscle gains actually occur outside the gym and on your rest days, rather than while you’re actually working out. 

The reason for this is that physical exercise damages muscle fibres, creating microscopic tears, and it’s during rest periods that your muscles have time to recover and get stronger.

“This may sound terrifying but it’s actually a good thing, as it’s these microscopic tears – and the way they heal – that make your muscles stronger,” says Jamie Monk, Vitality coach and physiologist.

2) You get a psychological break

Having a rest day from your fitness regime benefits your brain as well as your body, with two key positives. First, spending a day away from your typical training landscape can give you a psychological break from exercise and help your mind to relax, allowing it to recover along with your muscles. 

Then, of course, there’s the motivational side of fitness. For many people, a well-scheduled rest day means that you actually look forward to getting back to exercise after a break, so you put more effort in when you do.

3) It helps you to avoid injury

It makes sense that the more you push yourself, the more likely you are to experience injury, so rest periods are a great way to ensure you don’t push yourself too quickly or too hard.

“The risk of musculoskeletal injuries increases significantly when the body experiences a change in either the intensity, volume or type of exercise,” explains Jamie, “so rest days are a great opportunity to take care of all the aches and pains. 

“If you are still keen to do ‘something’ on a rest day, it’s a good idea to incorporate a 15-20 minute full-body stretching routine, as this will give your muscles some love, while ensuring you are helping to boost your flexibility.” 

4) It helps avoid muscle soreness

Finally, rest is not only essential for muscle fibres to repair, it is also necessary to avoid exercise-induced fatigue. “During intense exercise, your muscles demand high amounts of glycogen to function and maintain the demands of what you are doing,” says Jamie. “If you don’t incorporate the right amounts of rest into your programme, you’ll prevent these glycogen stores from being replenished and increase the likelihood of muscular fatigue and soreness.”

So, there you have it. If you have ever felt guilty about taking a day off from exercising, remember: rest is training, and you’re actually helping yourself get fitter by working rest into your week.

Now that you’re incorporating rest days into your routine, are you wondering what to do on your day off? Here are some ways that you can create some me-time at home, and do something that encourages better mental health.