The case for true relaxation reasonably than “lively restoration”


This article is part of SELF rest week, an editorial package dedicated to doing less. If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that taking care of yourself, physically and emotionally, is impossible without real downtime. With that in mind, we’ll be posting well into the New Year to help you get into the habit of taking breaks, relaxing, and slowing down. (And we follow our own advice: the SELF staff will be OOO during this time!) We hope to inspire you to relax and unwind, whatever that looks like for you.

I used to identify myself as one of those runners. You know them. Those who say they take a day off each week just to replace their usual run with a completely different routine, whether it’s jumping on an elliptical trainer, indoor cycling, swim in the open sea or climb a mountain.

My friends, this is not a day of rest. It’s a cross-training day. And there is a big difference. At one point, « no days off » became shorthand for dedication. A famous mantra in the fitness world that glorified one’s ability to « show off » no matter the physical cost. But there is a price to pay for this habit, as no-day-off practitioners sooner or later discover: injuries, followed by setbacks and frustration.

This has led to a more recent trend: active recovery. This term emerged as a way to combat the “no days off” mentality – a way for athletes to fit some “rest” into their routine by, well, doing another routine. Okay, so you’re not running five miles, but spending the same amount of time hiking, yoga, or « power » walking.

But really, where is the rest in there? What’s wrong with a single day without dedicated physical activity?

To be clear, there’s definitely nothing wrong with active recovery — those lower-intensity exercises we mentioned above like yoga, light cycling, walking, or mobility work to supplement primary workouts. Light activities slightly elevate the heart rate and allow movement, which has many benefits, such as promoting blood circulation and repairing tiny tears in the muscles. So, yes, days dedicated to this type of movement are an important part of a well-rounded training program. But active rest days should not come at the expense of actual rest. Yes, your body can probably benefit from active recovery, but you also need complete rest outside of that.

So please, for the sake of your weary body and exhausted mind, I beg you to bring back the true day of rest. A 24-hour period during which you have permission to do nothing. A time when you eliminate any reason to put on sweat-proof spandex or synthetic clothing. A day when the most physically demanding thing is meeting a friend for coffee or reading a good book.

I grew up as a year-round competitive swimmer who transitioned to marathons in my twenties, running up to 70 miles a week and hitting a PR of 3:19. So while I have the exercise experience to back up what I say above, I’m certainly not the only one doing it: according to the American Council on Exercise, even dedicated recreational athletes need rest days once a week to 10 days. These glorious respites from the gym (or track, trail, field, field) help you avoid a host of bad outcomes, like injury, illness, and burnout. Yet many athletes struggle to consistently schedule honest breaks into their routines. Some fear losing the fitness or habit they worked so hard for. Others crave that daily endorphin rush. And some people mistakenly confuse days off with laziness. I have personally identified with all of these « apologies » at least once.

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