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Why a lack of rest is worse for your body than working out too much

Recovery is a vital part of any workout regime, but the reality is that many of us push on through feelings of tiredness and fatigue. Is this culture of keeping on doing us more harm than good? 

Ask any personal trainer what the building blocks of fitness are, alongside advice aboutstrength and endurance, they’ll probably talk at length about the importance of rest and recovery. Alongside the importance of physical health and fitness, adequate rest allows our bodies the chance to repair, rebuild and strengthen themselves in time for the next session, whether that’s a workout or a night out with mates.

“Recovery is crucial to an athlete’s ability to replenish and restore the body,” explains trainer Brahm Gallagher. “During training the body has to adapt to the stresses put upon it by the resistance, intensity and the demand of the exercise in question. During rest the body replenishes muscle glycogen and allows for tissue repair, which in turn helps to develop the muscles and make them stronger.”

But resting and recovery won’t look the same for everyone, and some people will find they can work out every day with no ill effect, while others might find they need a few days “off” each week to prevent fatigue and injury.

While recovery needs are individual, personal trainers agree that “under resting” can be just as damaging to our bodies as overtraining. So, how can we tell if we need to let up on those weights for a while or carry on regardless? 

Is it safe to work out every day?

If you can’t beat the endorphin rush that comes with a great workout, it can be tempting to hit the gym every day. But is this advisable? Well, that depends.

“When you start out on your health and fitness journey you are often full of motivation so it can be very tempting to train every day,” says personal trainer Mari-Carmen Sanchez-Morris. “In my opinion, if your exercise programme consists of intense strength training there is no benefit to training every day. This will only cause symptoms of overtraining as you are not giving your body enough time to recover between sessions.”

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Resting can be more beneficial than training

“There are a lot of different schools of thought around optimal rest time between sessions,” explains doctor and personal trainer Dr Aishah Iqbal. “However, it is well-documented that muscle growth happens through resting after training, rather than overtraining.”

Strength training causes tiny tears in our muscle fibres, which, when they rebuild and repair, makes the muscles stronger. But in order for them to do this – you guessed it – you need adequate rest and nutrition, advises Sanchez-Morris.

However, that’s not to say that you need a whole day off. “If the hypothetical question is, can someone work out every day, then I would say yes, in theory,” argues Gallagher. “But if you wanted to work out every day for a long period of time, adequate rest of the major muscle groups being worked and proper fuelling of the body would be essential.

“I do believe a person can train every day provided they are doing so consciously and not training to extreme failure each time they go out. Additionally, experience and knowledge are key factors in being able to train every day safely.”

In other words, adequate rest will look different to different people, so it’s important to recognise your body’s individual signs of stress and overwork. 

Active rest, such as yoga, can be as beneficial as a day off.

What are the signs of overtraining?

Whether you’re working out every day, or three times a week, your body will tell you if it’s too much. According to Sanchez-Morris, common signs of overtraining include:

Prolonged fatigue

“It is normal to feel tired after an intense workout. However, if you are waking in the morning following a good night’s sleep and still feeling very tired and heavy in the body this could be a sign that you are overtraining and your body needs a good rest,” she says.

Persistent injury and muscle soreness

“DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) is normal following a hard workout, however, normally subsides after 24-48 hours. Persistent soreness and injury are signs of overtraining,” she explains – so don’t ignore them, however tempting this may be.

Decline in performance

“Overtraining can be counterproductive to your performance,” says Sanchez-Morris. “Rather than improving, you may find you have less strength and endurance, which makes it difficult to achieve your goals.”

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Decreased immunity and frequent illness

“Along with feeling run down you may experience a high frequency of illness,” explains Sanchez-Morris. “Good nutrition to support your training programme is crucial combined with adequate amounts of sleep and rest.”

And if you can train every day and not struggle with any of these, then great. But it’s important to bear in mind that lack of recovery and rest doesn’t just affect your physical health. 

Overtraining can be bad for your brain

“Training to high levels of intensity over a long period of time has been shown to affect the central nervous system,” explains Gallagher. This might show up as changes in mood, irritability and mental fatigue, or changes to your menstrual cycle caused by hormonal issues.

“Rest is so important for your mental health, a healthy immune system and improved mental capacity such as better memory, concentration and ability to focus,” says personal trainer Beth Davies. “So it goes way beyond the issue of overtraining.”

Rest isn’t just about doing nothing

Just as we all have individual recovery needs, what this rest looks like will vary too.

“In our hectic culture, there’s a lot of focus on doing, being productive, and using pockets of time that we might usually use for rest for doing something, even if that’s just checking your social media,” says Davies.

“Improved rest might not be anything to do with not working out, it may come from your ability to unplug from the digital world and spend time doing ‘nothing’, which is a challenge in itself.”

Active rest is just as good

The good news is that you don’t have to crash on the sofa all day to recover (although you can do that too, if you want). If you find it hard to stop, you might want to consider an active rest day, rather than seeing it as a day off.

“Active rest days can be as effective as a complete break,” agrees Sanchez-Morris. “Rather than completing your usual strength-based or HIIT workout you could replace this with a long walk or restorative yoga. That way you are still moving but you are also giving your body what it needs to recover fully.”

You do you. 

Images: Getty

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