Rest and recovery – the new wonder-drug in health?

I’m sitting the sofa, trying to tie up my running shoes. From the outside, I look fit, healthy and entirely ready to exercise. But internally, there’s a major conflict going on: I know I’m overtired, muscles sore from yesterday’s gym session and eyes burning from hours spent staring at a screen. A voice in my head says you’re exhausted – maybe rest? But another one tells me I need an endorphin release and should tick the fitness box or else I won’t have a good evening.

You’ve got to do it, says that voice. If I can just get myself out of the door, I can (literally) run away from my buzzing mind, pushing myself to a point where all I can focus on is my breath, my feet and the task-in-hand of keeping going. After that, the feel-good chemicals will rush in, anaesthetising my inherent restlessness, quietening the anxious brain-chatter and lessening the guilt.

Most of us know on some level that pushing through exhaustion is self-defeating and (much like drinking on a hangover) the consequences are only being delayed.

It’s only a short term solution of course – a perverse kind of immediate gratification. Most of us know on some level that pushing through exhaustion is self-defeating and (much like drinking on a hangover) the consequences are only being delayed. Yet still there are those who, like me, struggle to meet their own high standards and as such set themselves up for failure or burnout. We will never, ever be good enough, whatever we do.

Where does this guilt around resting / enjoying / playing come from, I wonder? Why do I feel so driven to always be doing, rather than allowing myself to rest when it’s so obvious that I need to? There are a hundred and one possible explanations (it’s in my nature, how I was raised, my social circle, or it’s just a habit I’ve fallen into), and which one is paramount I’m still not sure.

I do know, however, that in this addiction to productivity and dismissal of downtime, I’m certainly not alone. There’s a strand of (in my experience, usually urban) society involved in a collective, infectious, kind of madness that transforms people’s lives into a to-do list. As a freelancer (and with many freelance friends) the lack of boundaries around work hours and workload can make it easy to overdo things. In the fitness world too it’s easy to get drawn into a similar nothing is ever enough sentiment. Twice-daily training sessions whilst trying to juggle work and family lives, becomes ‘normal’; socialising begins to revolve around fitness buddies and all spare time is devoted to getting stronger, fitter, faster. And yes, they may say they love it. Perhaps they even do. (I certainly did.) But it’s not balanced, it’s not healthy. These people are training just like athletes but they aren’t resting like athletes. Which makes injury and illness virtually a foregone conclusion.

So why do we do it to ourselves? Perhaps it’s an identity thing – we (re)discover new, lost or hidden parts of ourselves when we (re)integrate with a sporting community, or by being successful at our jobs – and perhaps it’s more an aesthetic desire to look like athletes or fitness models or to earn more, feel financially secure. More likely, it’s a mixture of enjoyment, aspiration and dependency, as the line between healthy and obsessive becomes increasingly unclear.

These days, after a decade of running, swimming, cycling, gymming through fatigue and illness, I’m better at listening to my body and learning to rest whether it feels uncomfortable or not. It helps to remember the big picture – that one missed exercise session or extended work deadline doesn’t matter much in the long run – but also to know the science: if I take more rest, I perform better.

It’s not that exercise, ambition or endeavour, is always unhealthy (of course not) – simply that without adequate rest and recovery time we’ll be in trouble, tripping over from wellbeing into controlling, frenzied and unhealthy behaviour. These days, after a decade of running, swimming, cycling, gymming through fatigue and illness, I’m better at listening to my body and learning to rest whether it feels uncomfortable or not. It helps to remember the big picture – that one missed exercise session or extended work deadline doesn’t matter much in the long run – but also to know the science: if I take more rest, I perform better.

Amongst other more complicated factors, there’s one very straightforward physiological reason for this: exercise does not improve strength and fitness, it tears the muscle fibres, effectively causing damage. It’s during the recovery after the exercise that those muscle fibres rebuild (stronger – adapting to stimuli so that they can handle it next time) and this that improves endurance. The body’s ability to heal is already compromised when it’s in a stressed-out (eg. sleep deprived, anxious) state. What’s more, if you’ve been overstressed for a while, then there’s a likelihood your adrenal glands will be excreting excessive amounts of the stress hormone cortisol.

“Elevated cortisol hormone as a result of stress [physical, mental, emotional, or all of the above], may increase so-called belly fat, a pattern which is associated with diabetes and heart disease,” says Dr Sally Norton.

Yes, you read that right: stressing yourself out with too much exercise, particularly if you have any other kinds of stressors, could actually make it harder for you to lose fat and give you that tired but wired feeling, all the time. That’s why Celebrity Personal Trainer and founder of the Fitness Adventure Travel Company Rob Tynan insists that his clients (many of whom are strung out, fatigued businessmen and women) put rest and recovery at the top of their agenda. His trips, though fundamentally aimed at helping clients improve their fitness, involve a lot of rest inbetween workouts. Otherwise says Tynan: “You just won’t heal and get stronger, particularly if you’ve been doing tougher workouts. The first thing you need to do if you’re stressed and run down is sleep more and chill out. Then you’ll be ready to exercise.”

Nutritionist and Psychotherapist Stephanie Moore (www.health-in-hand.com) is frequently telling clients to take more do nothing time and stop overexercising. She says: “The body has to recover to mend and get stronger and this only happens post-training. The same is true for the brain, the blood vessels, the digestive system. But if our systems are perpetually disrupted by too much stimulation, be it too much stress, too much food, too much exercise, too many toxic foods / drinks etc. the body becomes inflamed as it is not being given the chance to calm down and recover. The longer we are in an inflamed state, the more likely we are to trigger neuro-degenerative diseases especially those triggered by the brain such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and/or causing immune over-response resulting in allergies, intolerances and auto-immune diseases.”

If you believe adverts for gyms and sports nutrition products, we should be sweating almost every day, pushing our bodies to the limits with frightening regularity. In fact, for most of us, less is more.

Clearly, the go-hard-or-go-home school of thought has its limitations, whether it’s in relation to the gym, the workplace or any other area of our lives… But how can we begin treating rest, clearly a wonderdrug that costs us little more than time, with the respect it so deserves? And just how much physical activity should we really be doing to achieve optimal health and wellness? If you believe adverts for gyms and sports nutrition products, we should be sweating almost every day, pushing our bodies to the limits with frightening regularity. In fact, for most of us, less is more. I’ve cut down from 10+ hours per week to something more like 5 and I’m performing better and enjoying my training more than ever before.

If you’re someone who struggles to stay on the sofa more than you have difficulty getting off it, it perhaps doesn’t even matter about the science. Even if you understand the benefits of snoozing more, it can be hard to truly hear them and you’ll need to take a giant leap of faith to discover the much maligned, misunderstood benefits of rest. It’s not easy either – there may be withdrawals, feeling ‘not quite right’, craving ‘the high – but in those moments of should do or need to just tune in, and ask yourself what you really, really need. Chances are it’s not a doughnut or a job, but half an hour of doing nothing. 

– By Lucy Fry

First appeared in Psychologies magazine.

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