Rest days (can be) the best days.
Q: I am struggling with taking days off of exercise. Do you take regular rest days? If you do take rest days, do you eat less when you do? How do you deal with the lack of endorphins and get through the day?
A: First and foremost:
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s move forward.
There is a very special slice of the population that actually struggles with taking days off from exercise, as opposed to getting in the gym and working up a good sweat. I am TOTALLY, 100%, COMPLETELY one of these people, and I am here to tell you that, YES, I take 1-2 days of rest per week, but that has definitely not always been the case.
Let’s flash back to the year 2009. I only took two days off of exercise for that entire year. Those two days were because 1) it was Christmas and 2) I had food poisoning. In that year I lied to exercise, I skipped out on hang-outs with friends to exercise, I did crunches on bathroom floors, I prioritized exercise over adequate sleep. (I also exclusively exercised for one hour exactly, on the elliptical only. FUN TIMES). I can count that year as the most isolated and miserable time of my life, as well as the year that my quads were always cramped in a claw of tight pain and my arms were like string beans. I was basically having no fucking fun whatsoever because of my obsession with exercise, and I let the belief that I “had” to exercise in my very specific way EVERY SINGLE DAY govern the structure of my life.
At first, my struggle was simply to get off the elliptical because I hated it with a firey passion that could not be paralleled. Spin classes helped, running helped, hiking helped, the Insanity workout helped. Just getting out of my routine and discovering ways to use my body joyfully snapped me out of the elliptical hell that had become so normal. That was the first step toward waking up.
Slowly, from there, I took baby steps toward rest days. Sometimes the spin classes I wanted to take didn’t fit into my school schedule (It wasn’t until I entered graduate school that I made myself a promise that I would not, under any circumstances, ditch class to exercise. Sorry undergrad!). The Insanity workout (which I eventually followed religiously) had a chill yoga day and a rest day built right in to the program, which admittedly horrified me.
In the beginning, these days that I was forced to rest kicked up my mental calculator. I would try to dwindle down my eating, I would make myself food plans that included a whole lot of r-e-s-t-r-i-c-t-i-o-n. My rest days would totally freak me out. I would cry, and I would snap at my loved ones. That was probably the worst thing of all.
Eventually, I figured out that actually, what I had going on was a serious problem and it had a name. I was an exercise addict, and I wasn’t okay with that. I had seen addiction unravel my family (alcohol and drugs with my father, chronic negative body image and dieting with my grandmother) and I didn’t want to be another cog in that wheel. Once I categorized my obsession with exercise as an addiction, I could take steps to replace the compulsion with more positive, self serving expressions of my self. The shift in my mindset was huge.
At first my rest days were all about walks and yoga, which is still, you know, exercise. I considered that time to be my weaning off period, knowing that I didn’t want to quit my daily habit cold turkey, but that I wanted to start building a path away from my addictive behavior. I started to ask myself “what would I do if I wasn’t an exercise addict?” and surprisingly, I had a ton of things that could be taking up my time. As a person who identified almost primarily as a person who exercises, this was a revelation.
Through trial and error I discovered that I could take days off of exercise without much physical change. Bodies are smart and bodies are also resilient, not to mention that if the body I had (which I chronically hated, by the way) meant that I had to do something I despised every single day, than I supposed I didn’t want that body. Huh. Go figure.
Today, I still walk or do yoga on rest days sometimes, but now only if it feels nourishing to my body and my mind. (It has to be both. If I think yoga will just soothe my mind’s anxiety about not exercising, but my body is exhausted, then I don’t get to do it. Thems the rules.) Eventually, my rest days became all about devoting myself completely to my projects, so much so that I don’t even remember that at one point I thought I absolutely had to exercise daily. I was never able to lose myself in writing or making things when exercise was running my life. Finding the ability today is a generous gift that I gave myself through doing some seriously hard work. I do not take it for granted.
In addition to making things, I try to see people I care about, make phone calls to people who I can’t easily see, smooch my dude, or scheme something cool. If I am feeling particularly antsy, I try to help someone else. Sometimes just offering a listening ear to a friend takes me out of an impulse to sprint (or lift, or backbend, or bike). Quitting it with the exercise addiction made me a significantly better friend.
On rest days, I sleep in. I get massages. I smell my neighbors roses. I play in my garden.
My body consistently thanks me for rest days. Once I got to the schedule of taking a couple of them per week inflammation went down all over my body. I wasn’t hobbeling around all the time, crippled by soreness. I looked more toned, and my body fat percentage went down. Exercise is stress on your body, and when you’re doing it constantly without giving it the ability to recover, your body will inevitably get pissed off and confused. Everything will work better when you chill, even aesthetically.
Lastly, I no longer feel the need to forcibly change the way I eat on rest days. I consistently eat in a way that I am proud of (delicious, nutritious, nourishing, calorically-dense-enough food that is often grown right in my neighborhood) and by golly, any time is a good time to eat those foods. If I take a more extended time off of exercise, I am less hungry without needing to try to be, and I eat less naturally. The idea of restricting yourself after one day of rest won’t be helpful and is kind of like flipping your body the bird. Your body will tell you what it needs, I promise. Just trust it!
Exercise addiction is seriously scary and painful. Obviously, I still exercise, and I still consider it an important part of my life. The difference is, I don’t exercise because I’m scared not to anymore- and seriously, you don’t have to either. Life is chock full of amazing shit to see and do, and anything keeping you from experiencing these things fully is not worth keeping around. Now get out there into the world, and own it. Your life is worth significantly more than how much you sweat.