Once you have stuck to your exercise plan for a week or two, exercising can turn into a serious addiction (a good one, if you ask me). You start to feel restless if you don't exercise for a day, and your mind wonders off thinking about what exercises you will perform at your next gym session (yes, I daydream about the gym...). If you are seriously committed to your fitness goals, you are willing to give 110% and more. However,you need to be cautious not to overwork your body.
When I first started working out and saw maximum results in a short period of time, I was so motivated that I went to the gym every day, and constantly pushed my body to exhaustion without breaks. I would do squats and deadlifts every day, and even if I could barely crawl up the stairs on all fours to my apartment, I would not miss a gym session. On the contrary, I would feel guilty if I skipped a day. That is not healthy. Your body needs rest and relaxation every now and then, and it cannot function properly if you don't treat it well. There came a point where I was too tired to get out of bed, I couldn't concentrate on my uni work, and I was constantly grumpy and anti-social. Furthermore, I couldn't see or feel any real changes anymore, which increased my frustration. I then decided to take a whole week off, where I would not exercise even once. After that week, my body re-booted and I felt more energetic than ever. I learnt the hard way that you need to give yourself time to recover, even if you think a day without squats is a wasted day.
Rest days are important for reasons of recovery, injury prevention and psychological well-being. After straining your muscles and breaking them during your workout, you need the right nutrition, plenty of sleep, and a day of rest to rebuild that muscle and its surrounding tissue. Furthermore, if you are constantly breaking down a muscle and overwork your joints, you are at great risk to hurt yourself (and imagine how many days you would have to take off then!). Psychologically speaking, it is just nice to not go to the gym for a day, and just do something totally relaxing and stationary (Netflix is becoming my best friend on those days). I don't think there is a general guideline on how many rest days to have per week, your should just listen to your body and follow your gut feeling. I personally work out 4 times a week, and always have a day off in between. That way I can concentrate on getting the rest of my life in shape, and ensure that I do not overwork myself. However, I have friends who only have one or two rest days per week, and it works for them. As with all the other aspects of health and fitness, there is no general formula; you have to find out for yourself what works.
Rest days don't only have to be applied to exercise. I recently converted to the 'cheat-day-lovers'. Well, not really, I think it's silly to eat healthy all week and then destroy all your efforts by consuming 5 doughnuts and 3 pizzas on your cheat day. But having something not-so-healthy every now provides a nice reward for your hard work, and keeps you motivated to stay healthy for the rest of the time. You can even try to keep your treats healthy by swapping to home baking and replacing sugar with honey, oil with applesauce, and white flour with wholewheat or almond flour. One of my favourite recipes for a treat is actually really, really simple:
Mash 1-2 ripe bananas, add 1/2-3/4 cup of oats, add some apple sauce, add some dark chocolate chips, shape into cookies and put it in the oven at 200° (400 Fahrenheit) for 20-30 minutes, depending on how squishy you like your cookies. Easy-Peasy!
Rest days will help you reach your fitness goals while keeping you sane. Don't overwork yourself. And if you don't want to listen to me, at least take advice from Him himself:
"By the seventh day God had finished the work He had been doing; so on the seventh day He rested from all His work."