Picture this: you’ve just started an intense workout routine and you’re killing it. But come day three, it hits you. 

You feel like you’ve been hit by a truck, or worse, run over by a concrete roller. Some rest is warranted, so you then decide to… still work out.

Wait, what? Shouldn’t you be resting? 

Technically, this is rest. 

But rest in this context doesn’t mean lying down all day, especially when you’re sore and tired. 

This type of rest ensures that you recuperate and still don’t skip exercise, and it’s called an active recovery workout.


What’s an active recovery workout?

We know what you’re thinking. Aren’t the words “active recovery” redundant?

Recovery means stopping any activity to, well, recover, but how do you do that if it requires you to be active at the same time?

To put it plainly, an active recovery workout — sometimes called active rest — comprises low-intensity exercises that keep your body moving.

An infographic of active cooldown or recovery options.

Photo by ResearchGate

Despite the word “workout”, active recovery doesn’t and shouldn’t involve movements that are so strenuous that they’ll break down your body the same way your regular workout routine would. 

Basically, still exercise but don’t overdo it.

Active recovery workouts should hit the sweet spot between exercising and resting to:

  • Stimulate blood flow
  • Increase heart rate
  • Prepare the body for the next training

And when done correctly they can help you:

  • Recover faster and better thanks to the constant movement
  • Relieve sore muscles and tightness without putting extra pressure on your body
  • Improve overall physical and mental health


So what is active rest vs passive rest?

Active recovery vs rest.

Photo by Pexels

A lot of us are still confused by the concept of active rest vs passive rest. 

Active rest keeps the blood flowing, reduces soreness and speeds up recovery, which is more beneficial than just complete rest with no movement whatsoever. Research says so!

These exercises are not meant to push you or test your limit as your normal workouts would. Instead, they function to keep your muscles and limbs mobile and flexible.

That being said, don’t attempt any form of active recovery workouts if you’ve injured yourself or if you’re in a great deal of pain. If the DOMS is so intense, take it easy. 

A woman stretches before a workout.

Photo by Shutterstock

Passive rest, on the other hand, is total and complete rest. This means no moving around whatsoever, not even light workouts. 

Injury aside, the best illustration of passive rest is for athletes who train hard for the Olympics, for example. 

Training non-stop for days on end will undeniably take a toll on both physical and mental health, which is why coaches often ensure that their athletes have a total rest day in their training programme. 

This means absolutely no exercise, and athletes can put their feet up and give their mind and body a break.


Is active recovery better than rest then? 

A man rests during a workout.

Photo by Shutterstock

Well, we all have days when getting out of bed, bending down to pick something up or reaching out for something feels like an impossible task.

When this happens, it’s incredibly tempting to either stay in bed or do nothing but watch Netflix all day (we’ve all been there). 

It happens to all of us, even professional athletes. 

While it’s incredibly important for us to listen to our bodies and take a rest when needed, there are times when it can do more harm than good.


So how and why is active recovery better than rest?

A woman and a woman jogging down the stairs.

Photo by Shutterstock

Do you notice how despite feeling sore, you’ll start to feel much better when you keep moving? That’s the whole point and benefit of active recovery.  

Of course, there are days when complete rest is warranted — especially if you’ve clearly pushed your body too hard and injured yourself. 

But if your body can move despite some soreness here and there, it’s always advisable to keep it going with low-intensity exercises.

You may not feel like it, but it’s definitely a good idea.

Taking a full rest day, especially if it’s not entirely necessary, can disrupt your momentum and motivation, and cause a decline in your performance. 

Total rest days can prove to be a slippery slope because one missed day of workouts can easily turn into two or more.

That being said, you shouldn’t feel bad about either choice, as eloquently explained by fitness guru Cassey Ho of Blogilates in a Q&A

If you’re someone who just feels “off” if you’re not active (ME TOO), try a much lower impact workout for your rest day. You will still get your body moving so you feel good, but your body will have a chance to recover. 

If the guilt happens because life gets in the way and you just can’t fit in the workout you want for a day or two, try to remember that the big picture is most important. One day won’t set you back. It’s all about how consistent you are over time.

When should you do active recovery?

A man wiping his sweat after a workout.

Photo by Shutterstock

Active recovery doesn’t require you to do it on a certain day, time or point. If anything, it just requires you to pay attention to your body and routine.

For example, if you’ve spent a certain number of days training hard, you can choose a day to focus on active recovery.

Engaging in a particularly heavy workout or athletic event would definitely take a toll on your body, so slotting in some time and energy for active recovery workouts would be ideal in this case.

If you prefer to get some active recovery in between training, that’s perfectly fine. If you prefer to work as hard as you can and then save active recovery for the weekend, you can go right ahead and do that too.


What is the best active recovery workout?

A man jogs with his pet.

Photo from Shutterstock

Just like there isn’t a perfect time, day or period for active recovery, the types of active recovery workouts you can do are limitless. 

You can even switch or alternate between active recovery workouts. 

The freedom to participate in active recovery whenever you want and however you want is actually one of the best things about it. 

This will help you stay motivated and committed to your fitness goals and plans, and you’ll never get bored or feel locked into a certain activity. 

What’s also good about it is that you can double it up as a leisure activity with your family, friends or even pets.

Here are some active rest day workout examples, just to give you some ideas:

  • Low-intensity cycling
  • Walking or running on the treadmill
  • Light resistance training
  • Hip and core activation exercises
  • Hill running
  • Swimming
  • Yoga
  • Stretching exercises or self-myofascial release with a massage gun

The last point, in particular, can be incredibly helpful especially if you’re looking to alleviate your DOMS quickly.

If you’re curious, watch the video below:


That aside, the possibilities for active recovery workouts are endless. Take it from these Reddit users from one of the many Active Recovery threads:

Members of fitness Reddit thread share their active recovery workout routine.

Photo from Reddit


Active recovery in a nutshell: keep moving but take it easy.

The key to active recovery is to keep it simple, light and easy. Remember not to cross the line between active recovery and full-blown workout — as tempting as it may be sometimes. 

Listen to your body and decide whether your body needs an active recovery workout or a complete and total rest. 

What do you normally do on active recovery or rest days? Share your routine and activity of choice in the comments below!

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