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Active Recovery vs Rest Days

By Jessica Kelner, D.O. - March 29, 2019

Is exercise your escape, your happy place, or maybe even a borderline obsession? You may exercise every day thinking your helping yourself and your body. 

Is working out every day good for you?  
It depends on what kind of work outs you are doing and the demands you are placing on your body. The body does need a break from stress put on it so it can heal and recover. 

Yes, exercise is good for you.  Exercise increases neurotransmitters in the brain that make you feel happy, it detoxifies your body, AND it can prevent you from having a heart attack for 9 days after just one day of cardiovascular exercise.  On the other hand, the body does need a break from a heavy exercise training schedule.  

What is a heavy exercise training schedule? 

A heavy exercise training schedule is one where you push your self hard, doing the same type of activity on a daily basis. For example, if you are a runner and you run daily, your joints and tissues will never have a chance to fully recover.  You're more likely to end up with an injury later on or may not perform your best without built in rest days.  If you stress your body constantly without any rest and recover, you will get to a point of diminishing returns, where you are not seeing any more progress from your efforts.

What does a rest day look like you ask? A rest day doesn't have to equal you sitting in front of the TV on your couch not moving at all.  A rest day could be an "active recovery" day; Maybe instead of running, you do some yoga or go swimming.  Check out these ideas:

"Active Recovery" Ideas
1. Yoga - Helps with core strength, breathing, flexibility, body control, balance, and promotes blood flow.
2. Tai Chi - Low impact martial arts. Helps with body awareness and activation of the parasympathetic nervous system.
3. Light resistance training. 
4. Core training activities 
5. Swimming 
6. Low intensity steady state walking or running.  - Get your heart rate up without going full force. 
7. Low intensity cycling. - It is low impact and easy on your joints. Hop on your bike (indoors or outside) and pedal away.

This leads me to another thought about how to train:  One great method of training is to cross train (of course this depends on your work out goals).  For most people that are not olympic athletes, doing different sports or activities that complement your present goal is a great way to optimize your performance goals without injuring yourself. 

We will use running as an example again to explain "cross training".  So, if you are a runner, you wouldn't want to have strong legs with a weak core and scrawny arms, right?  Your body would be unbalanced.  To "cross train", you could do strength training for your upper body 1-2 days a week. One of those days you could use cables or weights and the other day, let's say you rock climb.  Rock climbing will help your core strength as well.  One day of the week you can focus on doing a core work out, perhaps you could do yoga that day. This would also help with your flexibility which is very important for maintaining overall "fitness" and preventing you from injuring yourself.  You get the idea.  So, you may run longer distances 4 days a week, 1 day you would just do core strength or yoga, one day you would rock climb and one day you would do upper body strength training (you could do a very short run on this day).  In this example, your legs have a chance to recover from the intense pounding on the ground on yoga and upper body days.  

As I keep mentioning preventing injury, I realize there are other things aside from "rest" that can help you prevent future injury. 

Here are a list of ways to stay in shape and avoid injury:

1. Have at lease one active recovery/rest day per week. 
2. Cross train  
3. Work on your core strength 
4. Maintain good posture. It is essential to having proper function and achieving your goals. 
5. Include daily stretching in your work outs before and after you exercise.
6. Hydration: Make sure to drink plenty of water. 
7. Consume healthy calories. Your body will have increased demands of specific nutrients with intense physical activity.  Talk to a doctor or a nutritionist for assistance with this. 
8.  Supplement your diet with oral or IV nutrients to meet the demands of your body.
9.  Optimize your body's FORM, so you can optimize your body's function.  If you are struggling with this or are unsure what FORM is, you can ask a conditioning coach to observe you exercise, have someone help train you, or ask your sports medicine physician for help with this. 

Hope this helped to inspire creative ways to switch up your work out schedule to include a fun active recovery day!