“Rest isn’t a reward… It’s a necessity.”

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Illustration by Wenzdai Figueroa

With one simple sentence, Peloton’s Rebecca Kennedy somehow seemed to personally target my Type-A brain and attempt to shake some sense into it.

Kennedy, a former NFL Cheerleader, USA gymnast, professional dancer, Barry’s Bootcamp master trainer, and Nike Elite Trainer is one hell of an athlete, to say the least. With the palpable passion and effervescence of a sporty Energizer Bunny, Kennedy quickly became one of my favorite strength and running coaches when I declared myself a full-fledged Peloton addict during the COVID-19 pandemic (her 20-minute Miley Cyrus run remains one of my top go-to classes).

But with a jam-packed schedule that has her teaching multiple classes per week, and the jaw-dropping flexibility and power to make handstands, burpees, and tuck jumps look oh-so-simple (spoiler alert: they’re not), I naively assumed Kennedy must be putting in an uncanny amount of hours at the gym to maintain her strength and stamina.

Her Instagram post from May 12 proved me wrong — especially the part where she emphasized, “You won’t reach your goals faster by training 7 days a week, but you may certainly overtrain and that will actually set you back!”

As if a hardcore athlete telling me to take it easy weren’t surprising enough, she added, “P.S. I take 2 to 3 rest days per week, with no regrets.”

It’s not that I didn’t know rest and recovery are important components to a well-balanced workout regimen — it’s just that I didn’t realize professionals on Kennedy’s level could allow (and in fact mandate) ample time off for themselves.

Rest is a funny thing because it feels as though it can be synonymous with being lazy, when they’re wildly different.

So, I reached out to Kennedy to learn more.

After I proclaimed my admiration for her commitment to fitness education and confessed my own compulsive attitude toward tough workouts, she gave a candid and clear explanation behind a lot of aspects of human physiology that I hadn’t considered. And she helped me see that pushing hard every single day can do far more harm than good when it comes to workout gains and longevity.

“Rest is an under-the-radar topic that’s not talked about because it’s something we feel like we should already know about,” Kennedy says. “Or, we just want to ignore that instinct because we’re pushing ourselves in pursuit of a certain goal, and we feel [getting too much] rest is going to hinder that.

“Rest is a funny thing because it feels as though it can be synonymous with being lazy, when they’re wildly different — even ‘rest’ and ‘recovery’ are wildly different,” she adds. “Also, lazy gets such a bad rap. I think being lazy every single day is probably not going to be beneficial to most of us, but I love a good lazy day. I feel like they’re really important because we’re talking about our mental, emotional, and physical health all needing their own kind of care.”

As Kennedy points out, rest and recovery are two different but equally essential components to physical fitness. To understand both, it’s important to first grasp the concept of homeostasis, i.e. the state of internal balance that your body maintains for optimal functioning, despite any external changes or pressures (think: the way your body temperature typically stays within a narrow range, even in extreme weather).

[Rest] helps you mentally check out for a second, be proud of the work you’ve done, and be very clear and focused on what’s next.

Stress is a stimulus that can threaten your body’s ability to maintain homeostasis, but not all stress yields negative results. Exercise, for instance, is a form of acute stress that can induce immediate physiological effects like muscle tears, dehydration, and pain.

So why is exercise considered a good thing? Because our bodies are designed to handle intense, acute bouts of stress — as long as they’re given adequate time to adapt and return to homeostasis following the stressful event. That necessary return to homeostasis can be bucketed into two categories, according to Kennedy: “rest” and “recovery.”

“Rest means no workout — you could veg out on the couch, have a really great long, restful sleep, you could stretch, you could read a book, you could write,” she says. “I use my sauna blanket, I use my Hypervolt, my trigger point tools, and I rest by really just allowing my body to be in a static, very relaxed state. I don’t put any stimulus on it that it has to compensate for.”

According to Kennedy, rest is essential during workouts, in between sets for the following reasons:

  1. It helps us maintain good form. “Form is number one. If we lose that, we have this whole slew of potential risks that come into play.”
  2. It helps us to keep pace. “[Resting during workouts] helps us design our progressive overload, or how much we’re able to take on over time while keeping good form.”
  3. It helps the recovery process. “In between sets, we need to be able to clear fatigue because what we’re doing when our body is working out is we’re creating all these micro tears in our muscle tissue. And during that recovery phase, oxygen comes in, we’re clearing lactate, and then fibroblasts and they actually help repair our muscle tissue.”

Kennedy says there’s also a major psychological perk to bouts of rest during exercise. “It helps you mentally check out for a second, be proud of the work you’ve done, and be very clear and focused on what’s next,” she says.

Recovery, on the other hand, may involve a bit more fluidity.

“Recovery days can happen on training days or nontraining days,” Kennedy explains. “Those might not necessarily be lying on the couch all day, but they may involve getting acupuncture or physical therapy or massage therapy. If I feel up for it, I might do an active recovery miniature workout like a restorative yoga class or I might dance around my house a little bit or do a short, low-key 15-minute mat Pilates class and take it at my own pace and really focus on my breathing.”

Like rest, post-workout recovery is a nonnegotiable aspect of optimal performance.

“We allow our glycogen storages to replenish, our hydration storages to replenish, and for protein synthesis to happen over the next several days,” Kennedy says. “It’s really important right after a workout for part of our recovery to be replenishing our fuel sources through food, water, electrolytes, and recovering our body through rest.”

So how do you know if you’re in need of an all-out rest day or more flexible recovery day?

You’re the keeper of your own body and you’re making your own right choices

Kennedy says that even though the details may change from week to week, the actions need to be routine:

  • Make personal check-ins. “I like to ask myself, ‘okay, how much sleep did I get last night? Did I get 6 hours? Did I get 8 hours? And even if I got 8 hours, how do I feel? Do I feel clear-headed or fatigued?’ And that helps me direct myself on whether I need full-out rest — meaning I don’t do anything — or a recovery day, where I can do a little bit of something that helps my body continue to prepare for its next workout.”
  • Mandate a set numbrer of rest days. “I take at least 2 rest days per week. I really just have to take inventory of where my energy levels are and how I’m doing mentally.”

Kennedy also makes room for a third rest day each week to let her body tell her what it’s craving.

“Do I need a little bit of stimulation to help myself emotionally? Sometimes dancing around your house on a recovery day actually helps a lot from an emotional standpoint — if you like dancing!”

But for those of us who have bought into the messaging that more is inherently better when it comes to exercise, it can be tough to entertain the notion that intentionally not exercising can be a good thing, let alone a necessary. As a long-time subscriber to that mindset, Kennedy gets it.

“[It’s easy to feel] pressure,” she says. “Imagine you’re walking down the street on your rest day and you see someone headed to or from the gym or out for a run. [You might feel] a twinge of guilt like, ‘I wish I was doing that.’ That’s a moment where you can re-pattern your thinking and say, ‘No, I’m giving myself exactly what I need right now.’

You’re the keeper of your own body and you’re making your own right choices. Every time we go through a moment like that is a really great chance to rewrite the conversations we have with ourselves.”

If you’re wondering how an elite athlete like Kennedy managed to reach such a Zen headspace with her workout regimen, it wasn’t an easy or overnight transformation.

Overtraining is a real thing; and your body actually needs time to process your work.

“It took me [several years],” she says. “I thought because I was in the fitness industry — first a fitness model and then a fitness instructor — that no one would come to my classes if I didn’t look [a certain] way. I would push myself, teaching 30 classes a week while working out 6 to 7 days a week. I had several injuries and thought it was because I wasn’t strong enough in a certain muscle group or I did too much of something and I had to even it out with something else.

“Overtraining is a real thing; and your body actually needs time to process your work. You have to be able to feed and hydrate your muscles, your nervous system needs to time to calm down, your hormones need to be balanced. All of that can be thrown out of whack because the more you train and the less you recover, every single one of those systems freaks out [from a lack of support.]”

What overtraining means for you

Experts define “overtraining syndrome” as a clinical diagnosis that essentially means training way too hard with way too little rest and recovery. It can come with a whole host of unpleasant issues like systemic inflammation, depressed mood, fatigue, and much more.

But there’s no real way to put a hard limit on what constitutes overtraining, since each and every person is different. But there are some telltale signs to indicate you’re pushing your own body too far for its own good.

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“Each individual has their own energy level thresholds when it comes to supporting the stimulus they’re placing on their bodies,” Kennedy says. “You’ll see overtraining when you’re quicker to fatigue in your workouts, when your intensity starts to drop, when you’re not able to lift as heavy loads, or when you’re potentially at risk for injuries. At best, you might just see a decrease in your performance.”

Kennedy acknowledges needing the wisdom of professionals in order to overcome her own overtraining habit.

I’m finally at a place where I can say rest is just as great as working out.

“I was talking with my naturopath, who is also a registered dietitian and an incredible athlete, and she helped me realize that I had to find balance and I couldn’t live in the extremes anymore,” she says.

“I was either always working out as hard and for as many days as I could or I was doing nothing because I was injured. It’s not healthy for our bodies to constantly be pushing in one direction or another in these extremes — there has to be a balance.

“I’m finally at a place where I can say rest is just as great as working out. You have to give yourself permission to say that and to also believe that.”

For those who might still be struggling to find balance or intuition around exercise, Kennedy has a couple of tried-and-true tips:

Practice self-compassion. “Know that you’ll feel different things at different times,” she says. “[If you’re goal is to run a marathon, you’re going to have a different training schedule than if you were trying to put on 5 pounds of muscle. There has to be a level of open mindedness and self-compassion where ever you are in your personal journey.”

Practice self-affirmation. “I will literally have a conversation in my head, or even out loud where I say, ‘I love my body, I love what it can do for me, and I’m doing exactly what I need to do right now,’” she says. “[These reminders] have to be constant.”

As you’re working toward real, consistent rest on your workout journey, consider adopting some of Kennedy’s own mantras and trusting the process.

“Be grateful for the workouts you’ve had, the ones that will come up, and be grateful for the time you get to be with yourself in that moment,” she says. “Be patient with yourself and know that a lot of the things we’re being told might be a little outdated. We can change that script with ourselves even before it’s changed in society at large.”

Michelle Konstantinovsky is a San Francisco-based journalist, marketing specialist, ghostwriter, and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism alumna. She’s written extensively on health, body image, entertainment, lifestyle, design, and tech.