Active Rest

Done right, active recovery delivers better results with less workout time.

After an intense workout, an afternoon of yard work, or even a day at the office, rest is the elixir that lets us recover to do it all over again.

But there’s more than one way to rest. And the right kind of rest, in the right amounts, can speed recovery and deliver greater fitness benefits—with less time spent in the gym.


Active vs. Passive Recovery

We think of “rest” as a good night’s sleep, a nap, or an evening spent zonked on the couch. Experts call this “passive recovery.” But unless you’re an endurance athlete on a grueling training schedule, total downtime isn’t the best way to recover from a workout. 

With active recovery—also called active rest—you leverage the benefits of low-intensity activity to bounce back faster and stronger. “When people take a ‘more is better’ approach to fitness, eventually they burn out mentally, get hurt, or lose motivation,” says Jim White, R.D., owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia Beach. “By giving your body the recovery it needs, you are better able to sustain your fitness results for a longer period of time.”

While it may sound like an oxymoron, active rest includes light activities like swimming gentle laps, doing yoga, stretching—or even getting a massage. Foam rolling, which releases tension in muscles and connective tissues, is also a great way to give your body a positive break between bouts of exercise. The point is to move your body to stimulate circulation and support the process of physical recovery.  

“In the long run, the traditional definition of fitness—which emphasizes building strength and aerobic endurance—causes body breakdown,” says Mary Burruss, co-founder of Re-Think Fitness in Richmond, “because we are failing to focus on the counter moves that allow us to do those things in the first place.”

Truth is, you’re probably already using a form of active recovery. It’s built into workouts, when you alternate between intense and light exertion and cool down at the finish. But what are you doing on the days between workouts? It’s the “off” days when active recovery matters most.    


A Shortcut to Fitness

At CityRow, an indoor rowing studio in Richmond, owner Sarah Rawlings advises clients to look for “off” day activities that engage muscles in a way that’s opposite from their usual workout. “Think about the movements you are doing in your usual workout,” she explains, “whether you’re pulling through a rowing stroke or twisting through a golf swing, you want to do something designed to balance that out, such as swimming the backstroke, or gentle yoga.”

Rawlings recalls one client who was determined to train hard, logging a set number of classes before a vacation. “It meant she would have to take two classes on some days, so I encouraged her to alternate a rowing class with a stretching class, for instance, or swimming. She made that her goal and when she left for her trip, she was in amazing shape—but she didn’t burn out.” 

Because it’s a shortcut to improved physical function, fitness pros call active recovery a biohack—an easy way to maximize the benefits from time spent working out. “When you take the latest research on exercise and recovery and use it to your advantage, you can cut time off your workout and still increase the results,” says trainer Pamela Gold, author of Find More Strength: 5 Pillars to Unlock Unlimited Power and Happiness.

“There’s no need to get your heart rate up on active recovery days,” Gold notes. “We have the opportunity to get much more efficient with our workouts and get better results, both short-term and long-term,” Gold says. “Why would we exercise more than we need?”


Breaking Down, Building Up

The process of building muscle, for example, involves breaking the tissue down with training, and then building it back during the recovery phase. If you’re doing only the intense part—the breaking down—your workout becomes less efficient and puts you at risk of injury.

“Flexibility and mobility are as much a part of fitness as muscle strength and cardiovascular endurance,” says Burruss. “What you do during the downtime is just as essential as the workout itself.”

“What happens to a runner?” Burruss notes. “They run hard, then they take a day off, and their calves and their hamstrings get tighter. When a runner fails to focus on flexibility, they’re going to get tighter and tighter and, eventually, they’ll limit their ability to run. In the end, high-intensity workouts done alone will backfire.”

“Instead, be gentle on your body,” Gold advises. “Enjoy that walk, gentle stretching, easy dancing, and let your body fully recover from a hard workout, so you can come back feeling recharged.” When you’ve pushed beyond your comfort zone, she adds, gentle movement, “allows the body to come back stronger than ever.” 

And that’s what active recovery does for you: it amplifies your work. It’s that simple—but it’s also a great excuse to play with some of the latest fitness gadgets.


Let’s Get Technical

If you want to take it up a level, gadgets like the Oura Ring, Biostrap, Fitbit, and Whoop will help you measure your exertion and your recovery.  

Instead of simply recording your heart rate, these accessories also measure a more telling indicator: your heart rate variability (HRV), which indicates the length of time between heartbeats. Tracking your HRV reveals how quickly your body recovers from stress or exertion, so it’s an indicator of physical resilience. 

Research shows that a person with a high HRV is better equipped to handle stress—both physical and emotional—while a low HRV, which shows a greater variability in the time between heartbeats, occurs when you’re under stress and in a heightened “fight or flight mode.”

ClassicStock / Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

AAM1AP

AAM1AP 1960s WOMAN MASSAGED BY VIBRATING EXERCISE MACHINE

If your gym is equipped with a vibration plate (Sonix and Power Plate are popular brands) give it a whirl. Turns out, those old-school jiggly belts from the dawn of fitness may have been onto something. 

Developed over 50 years ago to counteract the physical effects of zero-gravity on astronauts, “whole body vibration technology” stimulates muscle contractions and supports bone density. When you stand on a vibration plate—from 5-15 minutes—the intense vibration relieves post-workout muscle soreness and boosts the impact of cardio and strength training.

For home use, electric foam rollers, like the 4-speed version by FitIndex, also stimulate muscles and tissue with vibration and, according to Rawlings, they’re an excellent way to improve blood flow and reduce post-workout inflammation.  

Gold also swears by high-level machines like the Vasper—a seated elliptical that regulates blood flow—and gadgets known as EWOTs (an acronym for Exercise with Oxygen Therapy) which deliver supplemental oxygen to power up your workout and speed up the recovery phase. 

Which level of active recovery depends on your goals and, to a large extent, your wallet. Bottom line: Active recovery will help keep you strong, flexible, and, yes, active. And offer you a new routine and some fun to boot. 


This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue.

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