Cardio on Rest Days: Find The Right Balance

Rest days play an important role when you exercise regularly. But some may wonder, can you do cardio on rest days? 

In this article, we’ll explore the potential advantages of doing cardio on your day off. 

As a certified personal trainer, I’ll help you discover other considerations, like choosing the best recovery type for you. 

At the end you’ll be able to find the right balance between exercise and recovery. Here’s what’s coming up. 

Can You Do Cardio On Rest Days? 

Yes! Cardio on rest days is totally possible. 

It’s actually a proven part of active recovery (the opposite of passive recovery). 

You can learn more about these recovery types later on in the article. They play a crucial role in recuperating from exercise. 

Doing cardio on rest days completely depends on your fitness level and the intensity of your workouts.

If you recently had an intense training bout, then taking a full rest day may be more beneficial. Just listen to your body. 

An important point to doing cardio on rest days is that it has to be of light intensity and low impact.

You do not want to interfere with your body’s recovery process. There can be potential for illness or injury if you don’t allow your body to heal. 

If you still want to be health conscious, there are many everyday activities that burn calories.

Cardio on rest days should be light hearted. It can be fun, laid back, and a way to get moving. Any movement is better than no movement at all. 

Maybe you’re more for a traditional rest day where you do no physical activities. But cardio on rest days can actually speed up recovery! 

What’s The Point of Doing
Cardio On Rest Days? 

Light cardio on rest days is a great contrast to the intensity of your regular workouts. 

Fitness studies have shown that exercise can be more beneficial when you vary the intensity.

Varying intensity with sets, reps, and loads is a concept called periodization. Periodization allows you to reduce the risk of injury and keep the exercise fresh.

The goal is to maximize gains as much as possible. With light cardio on rest days, you will be able to increase gains by varying intensity. 

For example, in your regular workout routine, you may have fitness goals you want to reach. You may also be training for a special event, or even weight loss. 

Whatever the case, you’re probably pushing yourself. Since you’re going hard on your exercise days, the point of cardio on rest days is to mix it up. 

Give yourself a chance to experience the lighter side of exercise. 

Not to mention all the plus sides of cardio. Cardio has benefits for your heart, lungs, brain, muscles, skin…Should I keep going? 

The peaceful nature of leisurely, low impact cardio can help you feel relaxed and even practice self-gratitude.

What Kinds of Cardio
Can You Do On Rest Days? 

cardio on rest days

Keep your cardio gentle and don’t over work yourself. Here’s some things you can do. 

  • Walking is the king of low intensity. It may seem like nothing at all, but it’s a great way to move on your rest day. 
  • Cycling is another option. You have options with this to do indoor or outdoor. Remember, no intense mountain biking or long distance. Keep it leisurely and for enjoyment. 
  • Swimming is a whole body workout and provides a low-impact way to do cardio. Water is also great for joint pain and relaxing sore muscles. It can be a time to work on your breathing and full range of motion movements.
  • Dancing is a great way to have fun and move on your rest day. You’ll get a light aerobic workout, and stay on your feet. 
  • Yoga combines stretching, breathing, and gentle movements for a nice low-intensity way to do cardio on rest days. It’s a good way to relax and even get spiritual motivation.

Why Are Rest Days Important? 

Rest days are important because they allow the body to recharge after exercise. They prevent overtraining and help to reduce the risk of injury while exercising. 

By resting, you will optimize your performance and promote well-being. 

  • Exercise puts stress on muscles, joints, and bones. This is called mechanical stress, and is a good thing because it helps the body come strong by rebuilding the micro-damaged cells.  
  • Exercise also puts metabolic stress on the body. Meaning that exercise uses up the energy stores in the muscle cells. The energy comes in the form of glycogen and creatine phosphate. More about that later. 

Many fitness enthusiasts reach a level of being so hardcore that they do not rest. You see this mindset where they say “rest is for the weak.”

That may be true of mentally strong go getters who are beasts in their exercises. But everyone is not built that way. 

Sometimes you just need to take a day off from fitness and rejuvenate your physical and mental well-being. 

How Often Should You Take A Rest Day? 

It’s recommended by the American Council of Exercise to take a complete rest day every 7 to 10 days. If you’re a beginner to exercise of any kind, you should take rest every two days. 

Getting your body used to movement and recovery will get you in the groove of exercise. 

For people who exercise regularly, you may take more days to exercise and less days to rest. That’s only because your body has gotten used to using that energy. You’ll be able to handle the extra cardio in your routine. 

For athletes and those who lift heavy weights, rest will be crucial. It will allow you to get back to the intensity of your exercises. If your muscles and nervous system don’t get a time to reset, then that can dampen your performance. 

Rest days truly depend on the person, the type of exercise, and the frequency and intensity of the exercise. 

But did you know that there are two types of recovery you can do on rest days? 

Is Active or Passive Recovery
Better For Me? 

Active recovery involves continued physical activities during rest days. The main point is that the physical activities are of low intensity, and the workload is light and minimal.

  • Active recovery should have a gentle impact on the body. There should be no additional stress on the muscle and joints. 
  • Activities you can do for active recovery include walking, light jogging, tai chi, or even stretching. 

On the other hand, passive recovery maintains complete rest and engages in no physical activity.

  • It minimizes external stressors and allows the body to recover naturally over time.
  • It gives you time to do other things, and not focus solely on fitness. 
  • Passive recovery activities can include reading, napping, or foam rolling.

Keep reading to find out which is the better fit for your current situation. 

Active Recovery  

There is strong evidence that active recovery has increased physiological benefits when compared to passive recovery. 

In this study, it was found that active recovery helped to increase blood flow to the muscles and help to decrease lactate build up. Active recovery makes sense from a physiological point of view. 

Even as a seasoned athlete you can experience delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS. That’s when you feel it in the trained muscles the next couple days.

This is not a point of concern unless it persists for a longer time than normal.When you exercise, lactate builds up in the muscles and contributes to muscle fatigue.

Increased blood flow delivers nutrients and oxygen to muscles and removes the metabolic waste that leads to muscle soreness.

In science terms, blood flow resynthesizes creatine phosphate and glycogen stores in the body. Creatine phosphate is vital for muscle contraction. Glycogen is used as a boost of energy in your cells. 

Active recovery increases blood flow on rest days.

This replenishes your energy in a more dynamic way when compared to passive recovery. With active recovery, you get the added benefit of mobility on your rest day. 

  • Low intensity movements help to prevent stiffness because you’re moving the sore muscles. You can maintain joint stability and remain fresh for the next session. 
  • That way it’s easier to get back into the groove and not spend extra time trying to awaken your stiff muscles. 

In conclusion, active recovery is better for those who regularly exercise and wish to do so even on a rest day. 

Passive Recovery

There are times that you need to take a complete rest day.

A full rest day will give you the opportunity to alleviate any mental and physical fatigue. Cardio on rest days is not a good idea if you’re experiencing the following signs:

  • If you’re becoming obsessed with exercise where nothing else matters, then take a rest day. Body dysmorphia is a real thing among exercisers of all levels. 
  • “Not being big enough” or “small enough” are common thoughts that can be damaging. Step away from fitness for a moment and prioritize something else.  
  • If you’re in the middle of exercise and you cannot complete it due to exhaustion then stop. You need a passive recovery rest day to recharge. 
  • Experiencing illness or injury more than what is normal is a sign your body needs to rest. A good night’s rest and maybe mid day naps can help.
  • Muscle pain and soreness that is not going away needs rest days. Exercise causes micro tears in the muscles. This can sound alarming but it is normal. 

Rest days will allow your muscles to repair and rebuild with proteins. The same goes for if you’re feeling fatigued long after your workout. Take a full rest day. 

Finding The Right Balance

A person’s approach to rest could involve a combination of both active and passive recovery. Determine what your fitness needs are and continue based off of that. 

Having overall fitness goals will help determine the intensity of your training sessions. Your current fitness level should also be an indicator of which recovery type to choose. 

As a beginner, doing cardio on rest days may be too much. Only because your body is not used to that much exercise per week. Opt for a more passive recovery then, so that your body can fully recover. 

For the average gym-goer and experienced exerciser, doing cardio on rest days can have a lot of benefits. You will activate increased blood flow and take advantage of more mobility. 

To find the right balance, it’s all about reading the signs. If you’re beyond exhausted, then even light intensity cardio on a rest day can leave you at risk of injury

Take note if you’re binge eating, or suddenly craving calorie rich foods. Those include snacks, fast food, and comfort foods. Increased appetite like that is your body communicating. 

  • It’s saying to keep the calories coming because I’m working hard. It could mean that you are overtraining. Overtraining can prevent gains and open doors for injury. 
  • In that case see if you need a full rest day. Remember, it’s recommended to take at least one rest day every 7-10 days. 

Read the signs and find the right balance between active and passive recovery. Listen to your body’s cues to find whether you should do cardio on rest days. 

Bottom Line

You can do cardio on rest days! It’s safe, effective, and proven to have physiological benefits. Any light intensity cardio is an excellent way to actively recover. 

But don’t forget about complete rest days. Taking a full rest day is an important part of any exercise routine.

Allow your body to recover as needed by reading the signs of your mood, appetite, soreness, and tiredness. 

Whether you’re walking, swimming, or cycling, have a good time! 


Shalom is a content creator, musician, and a teacher at heart. As a certified personal trainer, his goal is to encourage others to lead healthier lives and to get buff in the process!