You wake up to that familiar aching and tenderness in your muscles, reminding you of that killer workout you nailed yesterday. You know that you deserve (and need) a day to reboot before the next session. But, chilling on the couch all day seems counterproductive when it comes to your fitness goals.
So you’re probably wondering if you should do cardio on rest days…
Rest days are essential to a successful fitness program, but evidence shows that light to moderate levels of cardio can improve overall health, decrease muscle soreness, and speed up the recovery process which can set you up for success next time you train.
So as you’re debating between a marathon of Netflix or a run around the neighborhood, scroll through this article to learn why you should do cardio on rest days and what types are the most beneficial.
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Doing More Physical Activity Is Better Than Less
Before we chat about the specifics of cardio and why it’s so good to do on rest days, we’ll first review the benefits of regular activity — hence why it’s good to keep moving even while you recover.
If you want to run, jump, and skip ahead to the cardio on rest day details, feel free to go to the next section.
Related Article: Cardio for Beginners: 6 Mistakes to Avoid (Plus 3 Workouts)
JUST KEEP MOVING
According to leading health authorities, such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), keeping active on most days is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Regular physical activity has been shown to improve brain health, help manage weight, reduce some diseases, and strengthen bone and muscles.
So even when you do some mild cardio on rest days, you’ll be reaping these amazing benefits.
Studies show that exercise can help with learning, memory, protection from neurodegeneration, and helping alleviate depression. Some brain health benefits of exercise happen right after the session, including improved thinking and cognition. It also helps reduce feelings of anxiety, helps boost mood and improves sleep quality.
The combination of a healthy diet and physical activity are the key ingredients for maintaining a healthy weight. In general, when you take in (eat or drink) more calories than you burn (physical activity) you’ll be prone to gaining weight. So it’s important to balance calories to regulate a healthy weight.
According to the CDC, to manage your weight, it’s good to work up to about 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, biking, or tennis doubles. This can vary greatly depending on each individual person and their bodies.
Heart disease and stroke are two of the leading causes of death in the United States. Getting regular activity can put you at a lower risk for these diseases. This is in part because exercise can help lower blood pressure and improve blood cholesterol levels. It also helps lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and related blood sugar issues. In fact, studies suggest that diabetes can be controlled with physical activity.
BONE AND MUSCLE STRENGTHENING
Doing regular aerobic, muscle building, and bone-strengthening activities can help slow the loss of bone density that naturally happens as we age. Weight-bearing activities, such as running, jumping jacks, and strength training put force on the bones, helping them grow strong.
Why Rest Days Are Important?
In this section, we’ll review what happens to the body during intense exercise and why it’s important to incorporate rest days (including active recovery) as part of a well-rounded fitness program. Active recovery is simply doing a different activity from your usual workout, done at a slow pace and not working at maximum effort.
EXERCISE STRESSES THE BODY
Metabolic stress happens as a result of using up energy stored in muscle cells. The preferred fuel source for your muscle cells is glucose. You mainly get glucose from eating carbohydrate foods. Any glucose that isn’t used will be stored as glycogen for later use.
During an intense workout, your body will use up the glycogen stores then switch to alternative fuel sources that can result in the accumulation of metabolites like lactate — one of the factors that makes you sore.
Mechanical stress is created by physical damage to the structures of muscle proteins. Your muscles get bigger (muscle hypertrophy) when the fibers get damaged. It may sound like a bad thing, but this process is normal. Your body repairs the damaged fibers and as a result, increases the muscle size.
Allowing your body to rest allows for repairing the muscle proteins and replacing glycogen that was used during the workout.
EVERYBODY RECOVERS DIFFERENTLY FROM EXERCISE
The amount of recovery time you need is individual. If you’re new to exercise, your body will need longer to get used to the wear and tear of your workouts. When your body is accustomed to a good workout routine, your muscles will know what to do.
Keep in mind that if you’re doing light cardio (walking, biking, light hike) then you don’t need to take a rest day. Your body will need more recovery time after intense workouts such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
Learn more here: Should You Do HIIT Every Day? (5 things to Consider)
PERIODIZATION IMPROVES PERFORMANCE
According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), in order for exercise to have the greatest effect and create change, the level of intensity should vary on a regular basis. This includes what’s called periodization, which alternates between moderate- and high-intensity workouts.
One of the most important aspects of periodization is proper rest between difficult or high-intensity workouts.
Doing light cardio on rest days is a prime example of practicing periodization.
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Benefits of Cardio on Rest Days
There are 3 main benefits of doing cardio on rest days:
Cardio can increase blood flow to muscles helping bring more nutrients
Cardio can clean-up byproducts of exercise
Cardio can decrease muscle soreness
MORE NUTRIENTS TO MUSCLES
The cardiovascular system is what delivers nutrients and oxygen to all the cells in your body.
When you breath in, fresh oxygen enters the blood as well as other vital substances. Getting your blood circulating can help increase the delivery of nutrients (amino acids, glucose, oxygen) to muscles to help them repair and replenish for your next workout.
CLEANS UP THE WASTE
Cardio on rest days also helps act like a waste management system.
The cardiovascular system also works to rid of waste or by-products from your body. When you breathe out, you’re getting rid of carbon dioxide. It also brings out waste products such as lactic acid and hydrogen ions. These are normal byproducts of exercise but can contribute to muscle damage and fatigue.
Sore muscles that creep up on you after a day or two of a rocking workout is known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). As the UK National Health Service (NHS) explains, muscle pain is often mistakenly believed to be caused by a build up of lactic acid, but this is more of a mechanical result of exercise damage.
When you get hit by these aches and pains, you may find a bit of a decrease in your motivation to keep moving. To help soften the blow of DOMS, a bit of cardio on rest days can be helpful. You can exercise with DOMS. It may feel uncomfortable at first to get started, but the soreness should go away once your muscles warmed up.
Related Article: Should You Do Cardio With Sore Muscles?
The Intensity Of Cardio On Rest Days
On your rest days, you should aim for active recovery. This means going low and slow – low-intensity and a slower pace. You can gauge this by how you feel or by your heart rate.
HOW YOU FEEL
According to Mayoclinic, you can base exercise intensity off of how you feel, also called the rate of perceived exertion. The rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale is used to measure the intensity of your exercise. It runs from 0-10, depending on how easy or difficult you find an activity. For example, 0 means nothing at all and 10 means very, very, intense exercise.
When it comes to slow and low cardio on rest days, aim for up to a 3 or 4.
YOUR HEART RATE
In general, your heart rate gets higher with more intense exercise. You can calculate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. For example, if you’re 35 years old, subtract 35 from 220 to get a max heart rate of 185. This is the max number of times your heart should beat per minute while you’re exercising.
Now to find out if your rest day cardio is slow and low enough, aim for a max percentage of 50% to 70% of your total maximum heart rate, which is a moderate intensity.
Related Article: Cutting Without Cardio: Is It Possible? (Yes, Here’s 8 Tips)
Best Types Of Cardio For Rest Days
Exercising everyday is totally fine, and healthy, as long as you mix it up. Meaning don’t do the same exercise every day. Try out these slow and low-intensity exercises. Some offer an extra benefit by getting you to stretch.
WALKING OR JOGGING
Nothing beats a classic stroll. It’s what our bodies are made for. Steady state cardio such as walking or jogging at a low or moderate pace is great for cardiovascular health and circulation which can help improve recovery on rest days.
Rest days are a perfect opportunity for LISS cardio, or low-intensity steady-state cardio. This is a form of cardio where you maintain the same low-intensity pace for a set period of time. Typically it calls for a minimum of 30 minutes, but when it comes to doing it on rest days, 20-30 minutes is a perfect goal.
Yoga is a perfect rest day activity because it increases flexibility, warms muscles, and helps improve the mind-body connection and breath control. According to Mayoclinic, bringing movement into stretching, such as with tai chi or yoga, can also help improve flexibility and range of motion in joints.
Keep in mind that some yoga classes can be very intense on the body, which wouldn’t give you adequate rest. Focus on the more mellow classes such as Iyengar and Yin yoga.
According to an International Journal of Sports Medicine study, athletes who swim on recovery days were able to work out longer than those who stayed sedentary. So when the athletes dove into the water for an easy swim on their rest day, they were able to go significantly longer when they worked out the next day. The researchers explained that this could be in part due to the properties of the water and how it can help decrease inflammation.
Hopping on a bike, either stationary or outdoor, can offer a low-impact form of exercise. It helps you get some cardio in without making your joints and muscles work too hard.
Research from the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that low-intensity bike rides on rest days can help improve recovery and limit muscle damage. When you bike, go for a slow and steady state rather than intense rides such as on hills or spin classes.
Hiking is a great way to keep your muscles moving on rest days as well as deliver a dose of oxygen from the fresh air. Hiking may also help to boost your mood, which can be helpful when you’re feeling sore and uncomfortable from those DOMS struggles.
A systematic review of research suggested that natural environments can have a direct and positive impact on wellbeing. And other studies show that it can even be vital to get activity in rural areas for mental health.
Myofascial release is a hands-on approach to managing muscle pain and discomfort. This technique involves applying pressure to tight or sore areas to get muslces to relax. “Myo” is short for muscle tissue and “fascia” is a web of connective tissue. This can be done by yourself (with foam rollers or self massage) or by a trained massage therapist or trainer.
A literature review on nine studies using self myofascial release (SMR) with a foam roller or roller massage, found that it tends to have a positive effect on range of motion and soreness and fatigue following exercise. But more research is needed to define optimal timing and duration of use.
Some research also suggests that it can improve arterial function. Your arteries are what carry oxygenated blood away from the heart to the tissues, so this can improve overall circulation. SMR is also suggested to increase parasympathetic nervous system activity. The parasympathetic nervous system, also called the rest and digest system, allows for energy conservation and slowed heart rate, which helps you chill on rest and recovery days.
Final Thoughts: Your Body Is The Boss
There may be some weeks that you feel you can slam more intense workouts and others maybe only one is enough. It’s most important to listen to your body and adjust your workouts to adapt to how you feel.
For instance, if you’re having a particular stressful or sleepless week, you may want to limit the amount of HIIT or intense cardio that you do. More intense workouts can be stressful on the body.
While it’s important to be active on most days, don’t forget that it’s equally important to give your body a break. Pay attention to signs and symbols of overtraining, such as trouble sleeping and feeling physically exhausted.
And most of all, enjoy your workouts!
About The Author
Lisa is a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) with over 15 years of experience in nutrition, fitness, and mental health coaching and education. She studied Foods and Nutrition at San Diego State University and earned a Master of Science in Holistic Nutrition at Hawthorn University.
Having certifications and experience in group exercise, intuitive eating, coaching and psychotherapy, and digestive wellness, she’s enthusiastic about the relationship between the body and mind.
She’s dedicated to helping people understand how to implement healthy habit change, while gaining a deeper understanding of what makes them feel their personal best.