Why rest is key for exercise recovery

How sleep and taking it easy can help you get the most out of your workouts
Published February 1, 2021

You’ve probably heard fitness pros talk about rest days, but what does a rest day actually look like? And why is it so important anyway?

Yoga Medicine® instructor Annie Woods has some answers.

How does sleep/rest work when it comes to exercise recovery?

Basically, rest is when your body can recover and regulate itself. It can take the time to repair your muscles, get your nervous system back in check and do all the maintenance work it can’t do when you’re awake and running around.

“Your autonomic nervous system is a major regulator for your body and when it is out of whack, nothing works quite right,” she explains. “A good balance between your sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight response) and your parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest response) is optimal for your body’s ability to repair, strengthen and enhance.

When you’re asleep, that’s when the body can do all that enhancement work – like repairing those sore muscles from your recent workout.

“During the sleep cycle, you enter REM sleep and your body has the chance to clear the information you don’t need, then sort and process the information you do need,” she says. “When you enter the non-REM sleep, your parasympathetic [nervous system] is allowed to take over the good work of repair and regeneration throughout the body.”

A good night’s rest helps balance these nervous systems so they can carry out their work and repair muscles, organs and other cells. And in addition, they help strengthen the immune system while you’re resting, subsequently fighting inflammation throughout the body, Woods explains.

What does a proper rest day look like?

You may be wondering what a rest day looks like. Should it be a day spent on the couch? A day with gentle stretching? A walk? What counts as a rest day?

“You don’t have to be completely sedentary to achieve your body’s ideal recovery, in fact it’s quite the opposite,” explains Woods. “Gentle, healthy stresses and movements are great ways to achieve balance. If you ask a lot from your body, it’s better to do a little bit of recovery every day rather than none at all. But if you’re more interested in taking one full day to recover, think of ways you can engage the relaxation response.”

She suggests gentle movements and mindfulness techniques to elicit this response.

“Yin yoga, restorative yoga or gentle yoga, breathwork, myofascial release techniques, meditation, walking are all tools one can use to achieve this physiological change. When this occurs, the heart rate lowers, blood pressure lowers, respiratory rate lowers, and your brain alpha waves increase. The benefits of rest and sleep are exponential.”

Perhaps the most important thing to remember when it comes to rest and sleep for exercise recovery is just the fact that it’s important. Don’t skip your rest days, and don’t skimp on your sleep.

“Unfortunately, those who need the rest/repair day most are the ones who find it the most challenging to take them,” says Woods. “My clients with the ‘go-go-go’ mentality sometimes find it’s near impossible to take time to relax, focus on breath work and strengthen the brain through meditation.”

But taking rest days and getting good sleep is all part of maximizing your longevity, she explains.

“I look at the slow-down component as longevity work. We take the time to down-regulate and repair in an organized, focused manner. That healing care, in turn, will support the activities we enjoy and love throughout life.”