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Training Advice for Women

The Science Behind Active Rest

Why you should take it easy — even if that seems hard.

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If rest days make you anxious, you’re not alone. It’s difficult for people to stop exercising because they’re drawn to fitness for a variety of reasons,” says athletic trainer, Mark Gibson, MSEd, MS, ATC, of the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse. “There are social, emotional, hormonal and psychological benefits for physical activity.”

But giving our bodies a break from all that physical activity is exactly what prevents us from becoming broken. That doesn’t mean flopping on the couch and working your way through your Netflix queue— active rest means easy exercise that will allow your lightly moving muscles to flush out toxins and avoid the sluggishness that accompanies overtraining.

“Studies are showing that our muscles recover better, the lactate is carried away from the muscles a bit faster and we stay looser when we maintain a bit of activity on our rest days,” says Elise Weiss, MD, a sports medicine and rehabilitation expert.

Overtraining: Too Much Of A Good Thing

Think training makes you stronger? Think again. Training may actually make you weaker. You become stronger through rest — the kind that follows a hard workout. But when this balance between hard trainings and recovery gets out of whack, you risk suffering the effects of overtraining syndrome (OTS).

If you’re feeling anything from a loss of appetite and moodiness to insomnia and lethargy, this could be your muscles telling you that they’re not firing right. And just as an overheated engine shuts down your entire car, radio and all, overtraining your muscles can affect your appetite, mood and more.

The best way to avoid overtraining is simply to back off a bit. You may have heard of the “48-hour rule” for muscle recovery, one which Jim White, ADA spokesperson, registered dietician, ACSM health fitness instructor, still prescribes for many of his clients. “During intense exercise when the muscles are being strained, increased blood flow and inflammation accompany these microscopic tears,” White explains. “If these tears are not allowed to properly heal, possible sever damage can occur in that muscle group and could inhibit muscle growth.”

But most active women don’t need to take a full two days off, watching the clock. Instead, they can turn to active rest, which most clinicians identify as reduced intensity or mild aerobic activities, such as walking or no-resistance stationary cycling or stretching activities, says Lynn Millar, PhD., a professor of physical therapy, based in Michigan.

Weiss adds that active rest can also be as simple as walking your dog, playing with your kids or taking a slow, easy yoga class. If you need numbers, spend one day a week doing something that raises your heart rate to no more than 60 percent of its maximum, suggests White. The number of active rest days you incorporate will depend on your specific training regimen and your overall fitness goals.

Easy Does It

Why active rest and not actual rest? You car doesn’t like it when you slam on the brakes, and neither does your body. Active rest keeps your heart pumping at a nice pace and improves circulation to the muscles, says Millar, without adding undue stress to the tissues that may have been stressed or even damaged. “Improved circulation helps the building and healing process,” she says.

Going for a walk or swimming a few laps also promote the flushing of lactic acid by “cooling down” the worked muscle groups and allowing for higher performance and overall recovery time, says White. “In active recovery, the athlete is continuing to use the muscles instead of completely resting them, which has been shown to accelerate muscle recovery and waste removal.”

Finally, active rest also gets your brain out of the humdrum routine rut. Just as your neural pathways light up when you solve a math problem, switching to a different form of exercise keeps your neurological system firing.

Chances are, you’ll return to your regular routine feeling happier, more energetic and ready for a higher level of performance. And that’s enough to put any mind at rest.