When I first picked up a regular workout routine, I reaped the physical and mental benefits of getting into shape. I reveled in the endorphins and the compliments people were giving me. But then, my newfound love for working out turned into something else, and I stopped nurturing my body with rest days. It turns out a lot of people get to this unhealthy point of working out. So, I talked to local fitness trainer and physical therapist Gina Mancuso of CoreFitness to get the scoop on why it’s not only okay to take rest days, but why it’s essential to a healthy fitness practice.
When I finally lost the 10 pounds that I’d felt had been taunting me, I never wanted to stop. This past year, I started working out more. I quantified my self-worth by the miles I logged on the treadmill; four miles was always the minimum I’d allow myself on an easy day. And on the days I’d told myself I needed to do better, I’d run up to eight miles. Then, I’d toil away in the weight room for another half hour and scowl at my arms that I thought looked like chicken thighs as I did bicep curls.
I stopped taking rest days — but at the same time, I started to hate my body and was just generally miserable. I blamed my misery on school-related stress, but Gina Mancuso tells me depression is actually a sign of overtraining: “If you’re training every day, you’re not taking a rest and you’re pushing your body to do things that it can’t really handle. So, your body’s not meeting expectations, and you’re disappointed.” Plus, Mancuso adds, “If you’re training every day, you’re probably missing out on other things,” which contributes to those unhappy feelings.
But it wasn’t just my mental health that deteriorated when I overtrained. My body definitely took a hit, too. Upping my time in the gym seemed to have adverse effects on my body — I felt sluggish instead of energized, and I didn’t get the same “runner’s high” that had lured me into my intense gym routine in the first place. I also started to feel like my body was tacking on extra pounds — and not muscle weight. Mancuso says none of this is surprising.
Mancuso emphasizes “repair” when she talks about rest days. “Repair is really happening on the cellular level, and when you don’t let your cells replenish their fuel, then they can’t perform to their maximum capacity,” she says. So, since my body wasn’t repairing, it caused some not-so-optimal changes (ahem, weight gain). Mancuso tells me that failing to let your body repair can lead to “breaking down of muscles, injury, and illness.” Putting this into tangible perspective, Mancuso adds, “So, if you’re a runner, and you usually run a 9-minute mile, and you’re training and training, and your pace decreases, that could be a sign that you’re overtraining or not resting enough.”
So, trying to gauge the severity of my self-diagnosed workout addiction, I asked Mancuso if being addicted to working out was even a real thing. Her response? “Yes, absolutely. It can be like any other addiction.” She went on to say, “If working out becomes more of an obligation than something that you look forward to, that might be a sign you’re doing it too much.” Here’s what Mancuso says those obligatory feelings look like, on a pretty relatable level: “I have to go to the gym, and sorry, I can’t go to the concert, I have to workout.”
What’s helped me take my first steps toward banishing the unnecessary guilt for sleeping in instead of hitting up a 5 a.m. barre class is focusing on things I want to do versus what I feel like I need to do. So, now I run when I want to. But if my body only wants to carry me on a two-mile interval run, that’s fine. I thank my legs afterwards and acknowledge that my body still worked hard even though I didn’t rack up the mileage.
Unfortunately, there’s no magic number for how many days a week you should hit the gym, but Mancuso confirms that you should definitely have a rest day worked into your fitness schedule. Mancuso suggests a structured rest day, meaning you go into the week with a game plan for how many days you’re going to work out: “When you go in with a plan, you can see your goal.” And what should these rest days look like? Mancuso says, “Rest days don’t have to mean sitting on your couch eating potato chips and watching the Golden Girls. A rest day could mean taking a hike in the Wissahickon.” But don’t worry, rest days can mean curling up on the couch, if you want them to. Plus, Mancuso talks about the difference between active rest versus complete rest. That leisurely hike in the Wissahickon would qualify as active rest. And, well, the Golden Girls marathon is complete rest. “Your body definitely needs [complete rest], too,” Mancuso says.
So the takeaway? Listen to your body to see if you’re overtraining. Overtraining can have some major consequences. Overuse injuries, fatigue, disruption of sleep cycles, poor performance, and depression are a few of the big ones that Mancuso names. Regardless, whether you’re a workout guru or you just got your first gym membership, you need to take days off. As per Mancuso’s advice, go in with a plan, and rest up.
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