I get asked regularly by clients about the importance of resting between workouts and how much recuperation they should have whilst following a fitness programme.
Such rest is a critical part of our functioning, with one recent survey by Sleep School (The State of UK Sleep in 2022) finding that 46% of us are currently unsatisfied with our sleep, while 58% feel unrefreshed on waking.
Anxiety, stress and difficulty switching off mentally were primary contributing factors in the study, blocking adequate sleep.
One of the issues here is the role that cortisol, the stress hormone, plays for many people in maintaining their busy lives. When pressed and under pressure, we release cortisol to deal with stress, which in turn can lead some people to think that they can cope with stress and pressure without taking time to rest because of these cortisone releases.
This is a problem, as this cortisone stress response is supposed to be short-lived. When it is triggered again and again it can cause problems, particularly for the health and functioning of our adrenal glands, which can become fatigued because of their constant use.
Rest and recuperation play a crucial role in preventing this from happening, but when we deny ourselves the opportunities to relax, we are simply storing up problems for ourselves.
If this is your lifestyle, then your autonomic nervous system (or ANS), which controls unconscious processes such as breathing and heartbeat) may have shifted to what is known as a “sympathetic-dominant state,” meaning you are unable to switch modes and relax. Anyone who is overstimulated will recognise the warning signs that this is happening; feeling tired, disturbed sleep, feeling bloated, mood swings, etc. Be alert also to weight gain around the waist regardless of how much you exercise, as cortisol stores fat for energy.
Another classic sign is waking up at 3 am (when cortisol is produced).
If our sleep is too short or of poor quality, it cannot fulfil its essential functions, which can lead to serious problems. The key to encouraging effective sleep to prevent this is to be able to balance between fight and flight and to rest and digest. To achieve this balance, aim for what is known as psychological detachment, which allows people to stop thinking about work or similar stressful situations.
If this is not possible, search for an activity (preferably creative and/or demanding) that requires your full focus that is not work or stress-related. In addition, look for opportunities to spend time outside, particularly in pastoral settings.
In this vein, what is known as the Attention Restoration Theory suggests that being in nature is restorative, and helps alleviate mental fatigue, while activities such as yoga, breathing exercises and mindfulness counterbalance stress by encouraging psychological relaxation.
In addition, learn how to breathe effectively and deeply, as your body needs oxygen to function effectively (something difficult to deliver by shallow or mouth breathing).
All of the above will lower your cortisol and help encourage relaxation and the release of stress and worry, which will in turn deliver rest and recuperation between workouts and exercise sessions.
So, embrace a balanced approach to fitness and experience a healthier and more relaxed life.