Why Active Rest Should Be Part of Your Daily Routine
As someone whose current exercise routine is basically non-existent: the idea of "active rest" is highly appealing. It sounds both energising and relaxing at the same time. Whoever thought this one up deserves a pay rise.
If you're a workout pro, you'll probably already know all about active rest (also known as active recovery). But if you're more prone to procrastination and avoidance (like me) then it's possible you're less aware of what it is and why it's such an important part of our physical health and fitness – not to mention our mental wellness.
What is active rest?
In terms of fitness and exercise, active rest essentially means light exercise. Examples of active rest include swimming, mobility, stretching, walking, light resistance exercises (i.e. with a resistance band), light cycling (stationary or outside) and beginners pilates.
CEO of holistic fitness platform TIFFXO.com Tiffiny Hall, whose sunny disposition and realistic approach to wellness really hits the spot for anyone struggling to get their body moving, says that active rest is crucial.
"It gives the muscles and the nervous system time to recover, so that the body is back to 100 per cent in time for the next workout," Tiff says.
"You can't go zero to hero, so this is where active rest is really important. It keeps the engine ticking over, keeps the muscles engaged and the nervous system happy without burning you out."
But what if you're just a regular person? Is active rest still important? According to Tiff, it absolutely is.
"Not only does active rest keep the body humming and primed, it also contributes to a healthy training ritual. It's so important to establish a routine, and a proper training program needs to include recovery days.
"This means you might go to the gym twice a week, then one day a week you do a recovery swim. Or you might do home workouts (like TIFFXO!) and then one day a week you do a stretching mobility session (like TIFFXO Release and Relax). With this active recovery, oxygen continues to circulate through your body and helps with blood flow. It's also really important in terms of reducing delayed onset muscle soreness."
The bear and the bunny
So you've successfully incorporated active rest into your wellness routine. Great! But how do you know if it's working? When active rest is having beneficial effects, you'll stop experiencing so much delayed onset muscle soreness and start feeling refreshed and recharged when your next actual workout appointment comes around.
"If you're pulling up injury free, feeling sore in a 'good' way – muscle tension without stiffness or pain – your active rest is doing its job." Tiff says you might also notice that your immune system is stronger and your nervous system is calm, as opposed to adrenalised.
"You have two systems that make up your autonomic nervous system," she explains. "You've got the sympathetic nervous system, which I like to think of as an angry bear – it's all about the fight or flight response. Then there's the parasympathetic nervous system, which I like to think of as a soft, cuddly bunny. When your nervous system is too adrenalised and the bear has taken over, your body pumps cortisol, the stress hormone, into your system."
"Cortisol will mess you up, hindering weight loss, eating away at lean muscle, and causing bloating, headaches, blood pressure issues – the whole kit and evil kaboodle. Cortisol can also cause symptoms that'll feel like you're getting sick, but it's actually a sign that you're overtraining and not building a balanced, efficient training program with enough rest and active recovery."
"When you do do enough active recovery, with rest days built in to your schedule with just as much purpose as your cardio day or your weights day, your rabbit gets a cuddle and the sympathetic and parasympathetic achieve homeostasis – meaning everything is balanced and the rabbit and bear can coexist peacefully. When your system isn't overrun with cortisol, you feel recharged and happy."
Ideally, we'll each find our own workout routine that serves our own unique bodies. It will be balanced and help to make us healthier, better versions of ourselves. But what about the "non-physical"?
Of course, active physical rest should go a long way to improving our health and wellness. I think we can apply the logic of active rest to other aspects of our lives.
If you're struggling to do regular workouts because of long work hours and post-work exhaustion, spend at least some of your downtime in active rest mode. Instead of zoning out and medicating yourself with carbs and mindless TV, light a candle, put on a soothing playlist and prepare a quick and easy plant-based dinner.
If you're prone to overthinking and struggle to "switch off", fight the urge to drink wine or other medications that help you sleep and instead play an easy card game with your housemate or partner. If you're solo, there's always solitaire. Use real playing cards so you're not looking at a screen.