Our culture loves to “go hard or go home,” but this attitude can be detrimental to your health and even sabotage your well-intentioned fitness routine. Many worry that taking a day off will derail their progress, but research shows that the opposite is true. Here’s what recovery really means—and why down time is just as, if not more, important than gym time.
Recovery days aren’t just foam rolling or lazing on the couch; they are days of light activity that help keep your blood moving and allow your body to rebuild and recover. If you exercise without making time for recovery, you’re not reaping all the benefits of your hard work. By continuing to tear down muscle fibers without giving them the proper resources to rebuild, you won’t get stronger and your endurance won’t improve. In fact, over time, your fitness level could actually decrease. Instead, when you build active recovery days into your routine (including walking, gentle yoga, and stretching), you’ll actually teach your body to rebuild itself stronger and more powerful after those more intense workouts. This, combined with a consistently nourishing diet, good sleep, and stress management, will encourage your body to recover around the clock.
Recovery days are important because they your autonomic nervous system in check. Your autonomic nervous system, responsible for involuntary functions such as breathing, heartbeat, and digestion, is actually comprised of two main systems, the parasympathetic and sympathetic. Ideally, your body wants to spend most of its time in a parasympathetic state—responsible for keeping you calm, lowering your heart rate, and repairing damaged tissue. When you exercise, you trigger the sympathetic fight-or-flight system that energizes you and prepares you for intense physical activity. These sympathetic spikes help make you stronger and healthier. If you don’t exercise enough, your body doesn’t change. And if you exercise too much without rest, muscle tissue breaks down faster than your body can repair it. Over time, this can put you into a chronic sympathetic state marked by extreme fatigue, depression, a decrease in sex drive, and of course, tired, overworked muscles much more prone to injury. This state can be difficult to get out of.
Proper Nutrition, Good Sleep, and Less Stress: The Recovery Trifecta So how do you find the happy medium between not exercising enough and exercising too much? In addition to moderating the intensity, duration, and frequency of your workouts, you’ll want to balance the three elements of the recovery trifecta: nutrition, sleep, and stress. When one of these becomes unbalanced, it pulls the other two down with it. Stress leads to poor sleep which leads to poor nutrition which leads to poor sleep—a vicious cycle. Instead, make a mindful effort to combat these problems with conscious steps towards healthy behavior. If you’ve had a stressful day, go to bed early and get a good night’s rest. And if you sleep poorly, be mindful of the food choices you make the following day.
What to Eat Exercise is not a punishment for eating, nor is it an excuse to eat poorly. Think of your body like a car. If you don’t fuel it up, or fuel it up with low-quality gas, it won’t run well and over time, may breakdown.
Proper nutrition is vital. Consume a rainbow of vegetables and fruit, avoid processed, sugary foods and drink, and make sure you’re eating enough to maintain energy throughout your day. As far as your macronutrient requirements go, experts recommend 0.5 to 0.6 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day to improve endurance and 0.6 to 0.9 grams per pound to build muscle and increase strength. The amount of carbohydrates and fat that you need varies from person to person, so work to find the ratio that’s best for you. Never eliminate one macronutrient group entirely.
Why You Should Sleep Though sleep can be treated as a luxury—something to deny yourself in order to squeeze more into your day—getting enough is absolutely essential to keeping your energy levels up and your health in check. In fact, more rest can improve the results you get from your workouts. Because the body repairs itself while you sleep, skipping out on sleep will shortchange your results over time. In fact, a 2014 study of college basketball players showed that when they increased their sleep from six-and-half to eight-and-half hours per night for about six weeks, their shooting accuracy and sprinting speed dramatically improved. Seven hours is typical for the average adult, though individual needs may vary.
How to Stress Less Finally, good stress management may be the most important part of the recovery trifecta to achieve. Rather than stress about stress, you should respond to your daily stress levels with an appropriate workout. Movement helps improve mood and reduce stress, but overdoing it can have the opposite effect. When your stress levels are low, go hard. When things are tough, take it easy—but don’t sit it out. Over time, mindfulness practices can also help you manage your response to stress and ultimately lower your overall stress levels by resetting your nervous system to operate in its preferred parasympathetic state. Yoga, meditation, journaling, or breath work can all help teach your body how to keep its cool under pressure.
If you need assistance building a workout recovery routine, or want to better understand how proper nutrition, good sleep, and stress management can get you to optimal health, contact me. I’m here to help!