Back in the 1970s, my older cousin introduced me to the hilariously irreverent Mad Magazine. Forty years later, I found myself flipping through my teenager’s current issue of Mad (which spoofs Donald Trump). It was spring break and I spent several days basking in the sun on Miami Beach (smeared head-to-toe in sunscreen). While I could’ve been working out at the condo’s gym, I was relaxing and chuckling. A few short, early-morning runs and one light workout in the gym was all I did that week. I didn’t feel guilty. Instead, I posed the question that Alfred E. Neuman – Mad’s fictitious mascot – has been asking for decades: “What, me worry?”
Rest is one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental well-being. A question I’m frequently asked is, “How many times per week should I work out?” Whether you’ve recently made a personal commitment to a healthier lifestyle or you’re already fit and athletic, pushing yourself hard every day does not yield optimal results. Sometimes less is more.
The Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for adults recommends strength training at least twice per week on non-consecutive days and a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise per week.
What’s wrong with working out every day? When you engage in weight-bearing exercise, muscle fibres break down – a process called catabolism. You also experience fatigue and depletion of key nutrients.
To strengthen your muscles, you need to 1) stimulate them with exercise; 2) fuel them with nutrition; and 3) rest them. Adequate rest between workouts allows the muscles to rebuild. The rebuilding process – called anabolism – leads to muscle development. If you don’t get adequate rest, you can end up with injuries, psychological burnout or a plateau in your performance. When you exercise, if your muscles are still sore from a previous workout, you haven’t allowed for adequate rest.
If you continually challenge your body at appropriate levels and you have adequate recovery from your workouts, your body experiences an adaptive response called supercompensation: the post-training period when your muscles have a higher performance capacity. You can lift heavier loads or do more reps.
Now that you know that rest is an important component of your fitness plan, this is not your licence to become a slacker. Too many days off can set you back and interfere with your fitness results.
An alternative to passive rest (doing nothing) is active recovery. For example, light aerobic activities on your days off from strength training. Doing lighter weightlifting is not an appropriate strategy for strength trainers as it doesn’t allow your muscles to recover. Cross-training – exercises that are different from your normal routine and give your muscles a break – is ideal. Riding a bicycle, jogging, walking, or gentle yoga are a few suggestions. You should perform recovery activities at a low intensity, no more than 40 to 60 per cent of your maximum heart rate. Your heart should not be pounding and you should not be out of breath. If you’re a runner and rarely do strength training, light weightlifting is a suitable recovery activity.
Active recovery helps reduce post-exercise soreness known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Experts used to believe that lactic acid buildup caused DOMS and that stretching would provide relief. Current thinking is that DOMS is the soreness caused by normal fibre breakdown of the exercised muscles, and that the recovery benefits of post-workout stretching are anecdotal. The body’s response to muscle fibre breakdown is a biochemical healing process characterized by internal inflammation and swelling. The healing process is slow. That’s why you typically feel the soreness a day or two after an intense workout or new exercises to which your muscles are unaccustomed. Active recovery increases blood flow and helps with the clearance of metabolic waste products responsible for muscle damage and residual fatigue. Active recovery also delivers more nutrients to the affected tissues.
Muscle soreness should neither be regarded as a badge of honour nor something to try to achieve. Instead, avoid DOMS by easing into new exercises and increasing the weights slowly over time so your muscles can adapt. If you experience soreness and it doesn’t go away after a few days, you may have an injury.
In addition to an appropriate exercise program, sound nutrition and the right balance of passive rest and active recovery, getting sufficient uninterrupted sleep on a regular basis is sometimes overlooked as key to building strong muscles.