Here's a fitness rule you shouldn't follow: "Never skip a workout."
Forcing yourself to stick with an extreme program that tells you to "never, ever deviate" (we're looking at you, restrictive diets and aggressive fitness plans) isn’t sustainable. And, at R29 Wellness, we believe that living healthfully and staying active is a lifestyle — not just a month-long commitment.
With any regular training program, you should be taking one to two days off per week to allow your body to recover, explains performance coach and exercise physiologist Pete McCall. This helps prevent burnout and ward off injuries by giving your muscles time to heal. As McCall points out, a rest day doesn’t have to mean spending hours on your couch; you can recover actively by taking a low-intensity walk or scheduling a restorative yoga class.
But, there are times when doing nothing at all is your best bet for mental and physical health. (Unfortunately, having just bought a bottle of wine doesn’t quite make the cut.) Ahead, five common scenarios where sleeping in (and/or eating the damn cookie) will leave you more refreshed and energized than pushing through your regularly scheduled sweat session would.
After a Bad Night's Sleep
Sleep and exercise have a delicate, sometimes tumultuous relationship. Studies have shown that regularly working up a sweat improves sleep quality over time. But, you need to clock the recommended seven-plus hours per night in order to reap those benefits.
“If you skimped on sleep a few nights in a row and feel like you’re dragging, go ahead and take the nap instead of forcing yourself to work out,” says McCall. Sleep is when your body repairs and resets itself, restoring hormone levels and repairing muscle tissue. “Exercising on top of exhaustion and extreme fatigue will cause additional stress for your body,” he explains.
An interesting study published last fall in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine looked at women suffering from insomnia who did 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three times per week. While exercise has been previously linked to improving sleep quality among insomniacs, the researchers found that insufficient sleep influenced the participants' next-day exercise — instead of the other way around. After a poor night’s slumber, the women tended to shorten their workouts.
If you train when you’re really, truly exhausted, you’re not going to have a great workout. And, you’re increasing your risk of injury by pushing too hard when your mind and body aren’t completely focused on what you're doing, explains McCall. Rest is essential to any exercise program, so if you’re totally wiped out, enjoying an extra day of recovery is better than logging a “meh” workout.
With a Case of the Sniffles
Regular exercise has been linked to warding off colds by boosting your immune system. But, if you've already got the sniffles, it’s OK to skip your workout to recuperate. “Give your body the time it needs to heal,” McCall says. “The stress of working out can wreak havoc on a weakened immune system, so allow your body to do it’s job and focus its energy on fighting the illness.” Plus, bringing germs into the gym is just bad mojo.
If you're really torn about ditching a previously booked class, follow the "neck rule” — if your symptoms are above the neck only, it’s OK to stick with your workout. If they manifest below, however, wait until you’re fully recovered before heading to the gym. And, always use common sense; you know when your body is just not having it.
Choosing to skip a workout because of a headache, however, is completely personal. “[For some people], exercise will exacerbate symptoms," explains McCall, "whereas light exercise can help others.” Of course, if you're working out while under the weather, you should proceed with caution, scaling back your intensity and effort. What's the American Council on Exercise's recommendation for a sniffle-proof activity? Moderate walking.
Because of Stress
One of the best benefits of exercise is stress relief. But, when it's one of those weeks (the ones when it seems like everything is falling apart), skip the gym. Instead, focus on handling what you need to get done, so you can give 100% during your next workout, McCall explains.
“Exercise is stress on the body. Positive stress, but still stress,” he says. If you know you have a few extremely busy days ahead, plan on cutting back on your training or find a way to sneak in more movement throughout your day — whether it’s a few 10-minute walks or even just standing up more. It's best not to do a high-intensity workout, but a little physical activity can help you feel better.
A recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that chronic stress affects your body’s ability to recover after exercise. The most stressed participants experienced more fatigue and soreness after a tough training session.
Of course, stress isn’t completely avoidable, so it’s important to understand how it affects your individual workout performance and recovery. If you feel it over-stimulates your body, go ahead and cut back during your most hectic weeks. Or, if you find exercise to be a great way to take your mind off everything, just be sure to add an extra day of recovery between workouts during those high-stress times.
For a Friend's Birthday Dinner
Taking a mental time-out to enjoy a special activity, such as a friend’s birthday dinner or an anniversary celebration, is just as important as giving your body time to recover. Working up a sweat is essential to feeling good and warding off disease, but ultimately life isn’t just about working out. Healthy living is a commitment that needs to be sustainable.
McCall points out that social activity is part of the wellness wheel, which recognizes a need for fun. “Laughing and enjoying yourself can be just as healthy as a workout,” He adds. But, that doesn’t mean you have a free pass to turn every happy-hour invite into a special occasion; you still need to exercise. If skipping your workout for [insert any social event here] turns into a regular activity (a.k.a. more than once a month), it's time to adjust your schedule. Try exercising in the morning or sneaking in more mini-bouts of activity throughout your day.
(MORE: Don't Make This Ab Mistake)
When You're Injured
Feeling a little achy after a workout is normal. If you're just slightly sore, it’s OK to exercise as planned. Do a cross-training routine that uses different muscles, or go for a low-intensity walk. “It will feel good to move around,” McCall says. “Activity helps increase circulation.” There is, however, a difference between active, recreational movement and full-on, hard-core working out; when you’re sore, go for the former.
If you’re extremely sore, experiencing pain, or already injured, hold off on exercise entirely. If you forge ahead in a workout in this case, your body will try to avoid the area(s) of pain and will adjust your movement patterns accordingly. Compromising form in this way can increase your risk of serious injury, leaving you sidelined for even longer. “Injury is stress to the body, and if you’re not feeling good, exercising on top of that won’t make you feel any better. So, take a few days off,” McCall says. If after a few days of rest you're still experiencing pain, see a doctor.
Each injury is different, and it’s imperative to listen to your physician about what you can and can’t do while recovering. Allowing your body to rest is necessary to its natural healing process. While you may not be able to keep up with a particular sport (for example, running with a knee injury), you can use this as an opportunity to explore different activities that don’t place the same stress on your body. Of course, follow your doctor's orders on integrating movement back into your routine.