Rest Week: Why Taking Breaks From Exercising is Crucial

Does the thought of skipping out on regularly scheduled workouts bring on a sense of guilt? Get-Fit Guy, Dr. Jonathan Su, explains why regular week-long breaks from exercise can actually help improve your fitness.

Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT
4-minute read
Episode #560
The Quick And Dirty

It's easy to feel guilty over taking a break from exericisng, but regular rest weeks can actually help reduce injury risk, improve your fitness gains, and increase your motivation to exercise.

It’s the week of Thanksgiving and I know that many of you are looking forward to spending quality time with loved ones and feasting on turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie. The last thing you want to think about is exercise!

But if you’re like me, the thought of skipping out on regularly scheduled workouts may bring on a sense of guilt that makes your stomach hurt more than overindulging on Thanksgiving. 

So this time each year, for as long as I can remember, my solution was to compress my workout week by exercising on back-to-back days with the goal of being done by Thanksgiving day. It’s a bit tortuous and those of you who follow this practice know exactly what I mean!

Until one day, I discovered that there are actually really important benefits to taking regular week-long breaks from exercise.  Now, I can spend Thanksgiving week with loved ones, feasting on great food, and not feeling guilty about taking a break from exercise! 

Benefits of regular week-long breaks from exercise

Over the last several years, I’ve incorporated week-long breaks from exercise roughly every six to eight weeks. I find that somewhere within this time frame, I start to notice one or more of the following:

  1. Less motivation to exercise

  2. More fatigued during exercise

  3. A plateau in fitness gains 

  4. Onset of new aches or pain

These are signals to me that a break is needed. Everyone is different, so you may notice shorter or longer time frames, as little as four weeks and as much as twelve weeks, for the onset of similar signals. 

You would think that taking a whole week off from exercise would result in a loss of fitness, right? Surprisingly, not only is this not true, if you’re pushing yourself during exercise on most days of the week, there are actually benefits to taking a whole week off now and then. 

Reduced injury risk

Strength and aerobic endurance exercises impact many different structures in our bodies. We most commonly think about exercise impacting our muscles, but bones, tendons (whose job is to connect muscles to bones), and ligaments (whose job is to connect bones to each other) are also affected. 

Each of these structures has different levels of blood flow going to them, with the most blood going to muscles and less blood going to bones, tendons, and ligaments, generally, in that order.  

Structures that receive more blood recover from exercise quicker than structures that receive less blood. So while your muscles might be fully recovered and ready to exercise again after a day or two of rest, your bones, tendons, and ligaments may not be fully recovered yet.

This is a very common way that overuse injuries occur. You keep exercising because your muscles are feeling great, but at some point several weeks down the road you start feeling aches and pain in your joints because your bones, tendons, and ligaments are not so quick to recover.

By taking a week-long break from exercise about every six to eight weeks, you give the structures with less blood flow time to recover, which helps you avoid overuse injuries. 

Improved fitness gains

Exercise is the stimulus for your body to get stronger, but it’s during rest that your body has the opportunity to repair and actually get stronger. If you’re exercising hard every single day for months, you’ll likely get weaker over time—if you don’t suffer from an injury first—because your body doesn’t have adequate time to recover. 

I know that my biggest fear was that taking a week-long break from exercise would have a negative impact on my overall fitness. But I found the opposite to be true and found the breaks to be beneficial to my strength and aerobic endurance. 

If you’re pushing yourself during exercise on most days of the week, an occasional week-long break will do wonders for boosting fitness gains. Yes, the additional rest will actually allow your body to get stronger!

Increased motivation 

Taking a break from exercise is essential for the body and mind. Exercise is hard work that takes a toll on us mentally and emotionally over time so we need a periodic break from it to avoid burnout. 

Try it and you’ll notice that you come back feeling re-energized, motivated, and ready to hit it hard. 

Alternatives to taking a whole week off

I know that taking a whole week off of exercise may be a leap for some people. So here are some alternatives to taking a whole week off. 

Make it a week of only essential exercises 

One way to do this is to perform one day of strength training that targets all of your major muscle groups and one day of aerobic endurance training. This will provide your body with all the essential exercises during the week but still allow your body more rest than usual. 

Make it a week of stretching 

If you feel like you want a break from strength and aerobic endurance exercises but you still want to do something for your body, try performing stretching exercises instead on most days of the week. Your body will get the rest it needs while also benefitting by becoming more limber. 

5-day break from exercise challenge

Let’s put this knowledge to use with a 5-day break from exercise challenge! Over the next five days, your challenge is to take a break from exercise and enjoy Thanksgiving week. Give it a try and let me know how you feel by emailing me at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leaving me a voicemail at 510-353-3104. I’m especially interested in knowing how you feel about getting back into exercise the week after the break. 

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT

Dr. Jonathan Su is the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast. He is a physical therapist and fitness expert whose mission is to make fitness accessible for everyone. Dr. Su is author of the bestsellers Six-Minute Fitness at 60+ and Six-Minute Core Strength.

Got a question for Dr. Su? You can email him at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leave him a message at the Get-Fit Guy voicemail line at (510) 353-3104.