How to start taking rest days in recovery
In recovery, most people need to take a step back from exercise and either reduce their workout load and frequency, or take some time away from the gym altogether. For many, this can be even more challenging and confronting than addressing food intake and behaviours. After all, exercise is glorified in society, elevated to be this symbol of health – and for many of us, it becomes an obsession or an identity. But it’s really important to learn to let that go in recovery, if you want any chance of recovering your period and your health, and achieving full recovery.
Why do you need to include rest days in recovery?
In recovery and beyond, scheduling regular rest days away from the gym is critical. Some of the many reasons for this include:
Stress and hormones.
Exercise is a stressor on your body. But when you’re in recovery, your body is already in a state of chronically high stress, thanks to the fact it’s been deprived of the energy and care it requires for so long. Adding intense or frequent exercise to the equation is often too much for your body, leading to excessively high levels of a stress hormone, cortisol, and other hormonal imbalances. Essentially, it’s working against all the other work you’re doing in recovery to restore your period and/or health.
You need to reset your intentions for movement.
When exercise becomes an obligation or a habit, it’s more difficult to unpack and reestablish your reasons for doing it. Recovery is all about repairing your relationship with your body, and allowing you to choose movement which leaves you feeling empowered, strong and energised – rather than exercise which helps you burn calories and exhaust yourself as much as possible. Without taking some time away from exercise and including regular rest days, you aren’t able to step back and reassess why you’re moving with the frequency, intention and methods you’re using. When you include rest and even take a break from exercise, you have the space to be honest with yourself about the intention behind your exercise patterns, and the opportunity to reestablish healthier, more positive movement behaviours which align with your recovery goals.
You need to restore your body.
A key part of recovery is restoring your body weight, and replenishing your body with all the energy and nutrients it’s been depleted of for a long period of time. This is much more difficult to accomplish when you add exercise into the mix. If you’re exercising without regular rest days, you need to significantly increase your energy intake beyond the baseline recovery requirements, and you’ll likely find the process of recovery and weight restoration takes significantly longer. After all, you’re not giving your body the optimal chance to rest and recover from all the harsh treatment it’s endured.
How do you start taking rest days?
Now you know some of the reasons why you need to take rest days, or periods of complete rest, during recovery, how do you actually put this into practice?
1. Consider your ‘why’.
It may feel scary or uncomfortable to take some time away from your exercise routine – particularly if exercise is somewhat of a compulsion or coping mechanism for you. If this is the case, you need to consider your ‘why’ – why you decided to begin your recovery journey, and why it’s so important to you to achieve full recovery. What do you hope to achieve? What do you want your life to look like?
Then, recognise that taking rest is critical to your recovery. If you refuse to allow yourself to rest, then you also prevent your body from recovering, and you aren’t able to develop the skills and strategies you need to build a healthy body image and relationship with food or exercise to prevent you from falling back into old, negative patterns. Consider some of the reasons we’ve just discussed, and ask yourself: is it worth pushing through the discomfort and fear in taking some time to rest, in order to achieve full recovery? Can you endure the discomfort in order to achieve a life of freedom, happiness and presence?
Put things into perspective for yourself, and remember why you’re making this choice. Rest is productive. It’s essential.
2. Find other ways to fill the time you previously dedicated to exercise.
If you find yourself at a loss for what to do during the times you’d normally spend getting your sweat on, it’s time to fill that time wisely. If you just sit there and feel sorry for yourself, you’re less likely to stick to your commitment to rest, and more likely to despair in the discomfort you’re experiencing.
Instead, find a hobby or something you can do during your newfound “free time” which makes you feel happy or fulfilled, or brings you some joy. It might be reading your favourite book for an hour each morning, or practising gratitude, or sitting down with a hot cup of coffee and watching the sun rise. Whatever it is for you, make it a ritual or a habit which you can turn to for comfort and joy – in the same way you’d once have done with exercise.
Let these replacement hobbies become something you look forward to! Fill your extra time well, and soon you’ll forget all about the discomfort of resting, and learn to embrace the new opportunities, and mental space you have to dedicate to new hobbies and passions.
3. Redefine your identity away from the gym.
If you’ve come to see your identity as a “fit” person or a “strong” lifter, or you largely identify yourself by your passion for fitness and your workout habits, it’s time to rethink this perception of yourself.
Put things into perspective: for most of us, workouts are a hobby. They are not who you are. They do not define or identify you. So don’t allow them to.
Brainstorm the things which truly make you who you are. Your values, your qualities, the things your friends and family would recognise you for, your achievements, your interests. Invest the time and effort into getting curious about yourself, and considering who you want to be.
And then go a step further, and make it a reality. Instead of saying “I want to be a kind person,” what small action can you take each day to make that true? Can you help an elderly person across the street? Can you stand on the bus to make room for a child?
Think about yourself as more than simply a person who goes to the gym, and identifies themselves as fit, healthy or dedicated to exercise. You’re so much more. Embrace that, get curious, and lean into all the other facets of yourself. Once you’re more than just your fitness routine in your own mind, you’ll find it far easier to rest and take a break from those rigid patterns of movement you’ve become prisoner to.
4. Find mindfulness practices which offer you the same mental respite you may have relied on exercise for in the past.
If exercise is a form of mindfulness, calm, or anxiety and stress relief for you, you’re not alone. Sometimes, it begins as a really healthy relationship, where exercise offers a timeout, a moment of peace away from the demands and busyness of daily life. But over time, when exercise becomes overly relied upon as a coping mechanism, or a way of running away from your emotions, it’s time to reassess your relationship with it.
Instead, look to discover methods of mindfulness which you can use to help you get through difficult times, or emotions, whenever you need it – in place of exercise. This could be journaling, gratitude, meditation, breathwork – the list is endless. The main requirement is that you find a practice which helps you feel grounded, and able to sit in difficult emotions and situations, trusting that they will pass and you’ll be okay.
The less you need to rely on exercise to offer this respite, the more able you’ll feel to take rest days, or time away from your fitness routine. So developing healthier coping strategies is a key step in learning how to take rest days in recovery.
Want some support repairing your relationship with exercise and food, and finding full recovery from disordered eating or hypothalamic amenorrhea? Sign up for our 1:1 coaching today for all the help, strategies and guidance you need to make this your reality!
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Sarah King is an Exercise Physiologist and Health Coach specialising in helping women reconnect with their bodies and improve their relationship with food and exercise.
Through her 1:1 Health Coaching Sessions clients learn to nourish their bodies without guilt, move for joy, improve body image and self worth, plus recover from Hypothalamic Amenorrhea and get their period pack if it’s gone missing.
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Hi future friends, I’m Sarah King, an Accredited Exercise Physiologist and health coach.
Science, not trends is the foundation of my approach. By nourishing the body and mind with scientific facts we can build foundations for a life of realness, not just wellness.