It is very easy to focus on scheduling in workout after workout without stopping to consider the value of adequate rest and recovery.
Whilst it may seem counterproductive to prioritise quality down-time, in reality, regular rest and recovery can promote your overall fitness and performance.
We are taught to do more, push harder and ‘just keep going’ but, we are not machines; our bodies need to balance periods of activity with periods of restoration.
Here we explore how rest and relaxation can make you stronger, fitter, and healthier, as well as what it really means to rest.
Why is rest important?
We are designed to move, to utilise our muscles, and to get our heart pumping. We all know the risks of sedentarism, increased risk of weight gain, metabolic disease, cardiovascular issues and multiple chronic disease states.
Not only are these physical ailments associated with a lack of movement, but we also benefit mentally. It's hard to beat the ‘runner's high’- the feeling of elevation following endorphin boosting exercise.
But for most of us with an interest in health and sports, it is unlikely that we are not ‘doing enough’ but rather that we fail to appreciate the need for proper rest.
Rest serves a number of key functions:
- It allows our nervous system to switch back into the parasympathetic rest and digest mode; slowing our heart rate and reducing stress hormone cortisol
- It encourages vital repair work in the body- needed to handle injuries, infections or any post exercise inflammation
- It promotes mental relaxation, making us more resilient against future stressors.
Essentially exercise is a stressor to the body- one that is required in order for us to build physical resilience, muscle mass and cardiovascular endurance, but, it still raises the hormones we typically associate with less helpful forms of stress- such as cortisol and adrenaline.
Just as with any stress- allowing the body to return to ‘neutral’ is key for the normalisation of physiological responses and hormonal activity. This enables us to come back stronger. When we overtrain, and don’t get adequate recovery- our bodies let us know.
We can experience greater fatigue, more susceptibility to infections, and we may even get injured more.
If we wear a fitness tracker with a heart rate monitor, we may also notice an increase in our resting heart rate- which indicates we are not recovering well.
What does rest and recovery really involve?
You might be inclined to think that the best thing to do to aid recovery is to lie on the sofa and watch Netflix for a day or two. Sadly, this is not actually the best strategy.
You can think of rest and recovery as being passive or active. Passive rest like watching TV or scrolling Instagram can actually still cause us stress- watching an action movie or getting drawn into online dramas- raises our heart rate and can keep us stressed even though our body is at rest.
Active relaxation on the other hand is better at engaging the rest and digest response. This form of ‘recovery’ typically includes mind body interactions such as yoga, Pilates or tai chi. These gentle physical movements can be conducted on rest days, or instead of HIT style workouts when you are already under stress.
Benefits of ‘active’ rest:
- Removal of lactic acid build up
- Gentle conditioning
- Activation of parasympathetic nervous response
- Oxygenation to muscles and organs
- Lengthening of fascia
- Releasing physical tension
It can be easy to think of these practices as a ‘waste of time’ where we are not actively building our fitness or strength, but a well-rounded exercise programme includes long held stretches- just like those found in Yin and Restorative yoga styles.
When we undertake a lot of intense exercise, such as running, or playing sports at a high level, we can experience a shortening of our fascia- which can show up as restriction, tightness and even discomfort in the body, hampering our performance.
Instead- if we hold a deep stretch for a few minutes, we start to work beyond the muscles, and our fascia, the connective tissue underlying our entire body, starts to soften. This enables freer and more flexible movement, which can make a big difference when we start training again.
In addition to these activities, we also want to promote deep mental rest- we can do this via engaging in meditation, taking hot baths, practicing yoga nidra (a deep sleep like relaxation practice) as well as prioritising quality and consistent sleep.
Here, our bodies also get a chance to repair and restore, and we are much better equipped to handle any stressors we encounter, whether through exercise, or through the rest of our lives.
If you have been skeptical about your need to rest, try swapping out your daily run for a session of yoga and see what happens to your performance. Chances are it will only make you faster.
- We need to move, but we also need to rest.
- Proper rest improves our resting heart rate, as well as our physical and mental resilience
- Gentle mind-body practices can stimulate our relaxation response for better recovery
- Deep mental rest, and proper sleep is also essential for our physical health
1 Breit S, Kupferberg A, Rogler G, Hasler G. Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Front psychiatry. 2018;9:44. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044
2 Jeste D V., Depp CA, Vahia I V. Successful cognitive and emotional aging. World Psychiatry. 2010. doi:10.1002/j.2051-5545.2010.tb00277.x
3 Vaccarino V, Mayer E, Bremner JD. Stress and health. In: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: From Neurobiology to Treatment. ; 2016. doi:10.1002/9781118356142.ch15