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With many of us juggling a myriad of work and home responsibilities, trying to squeeze these into a not-so-normal working week while also getting some regular exercise and self-care can be a challenge.

The main things that seem to suffer the most when time is limited are our sleep habits and ability to recover from exercise. It may help to remember that exercising is only the first part in improving our heart health and overall wellbeing. The period post-exercise is just as, if not more, important – the benefits that come with exercise are determined by our recovery.

In fact, exercising when you are completely overworked or run down may be doing more harm than good and may put you closer to a disease state and falling ill. Think of it like a car that is constantly over-revved. If you keep over-revving the engine (working long hours and then exhausting yourself at the gym), something is going to blow. That something will most likely be your immune system, and that may mean negative health consequences, like an illness or injury.

This doesn’t mean that exercise will make you sick, but it’s important to be aware of:

  • How exercise causes stress on our bodies,
  • How our bodies adapt and respond to exercise, and
  • How you can still exercise and recover when you are time poor.

Exercise and stress

Resistance training and hard aerobic exercises are simply a form of stress from the body’s perspective. They are irritants that disrupt the body’s resting state, its homeostasis.

Importantly, there are two main types of stress: eustress, which has a positive effect on the body and produces growth; and distress, which as the word implies, has a negative effect that causes damage and decay.

How much you exercise, and more importantly, how much you rest, determines which state your body falls into.

Adaptation

“General adaptation syndrome” is the technical term for the positive state the body falls into after exercising. Essentially this means that if we first shock the body with exercise, and then take the time to recover properly (i.e., eat the right foods, sleep the right hours, do appropriate therapies), our bodies become stronger and more resistant to the stress we first placed on them.

That’s why if you ever train for an extended period of time doing resistance exercises or aerobic exercise, you become fitter and stronger. That’s adaptation – a good thing!

Distress

The flip side to adaptation is when the actions for proper recovery aren’t implemented after exercise (i.e., eating the right foods, sleeping the right hours, doing appropriate therapies). You become exhausted, your body becomes distressed and you get run down. Even professional athletes who do try to recover properly, like triathletes with very high training volumes, have a high rate of upper respiratory tract infections, due to their high training loads and weakened immune systems.

It’s very important to remember that being fit doesn’t necessarily mean being healthy.

Tips for optimal recovery

Here are some tips to help you recover from exercise and ensure that your workouts make you healthier – not run you into the ground.

  • If you sleep less than 7 hours the night before, halve your workout. You will still get the many benefits of exercising (including that feel-good buzz after) but without putting your body into a distressed state.
  • Take a power nap. Just 10 to 20 minutes can do amazing things for the immune system, so go find a nice warm spot in the sun on your lunch break and have a lie down.
  • Eat well. After sleep and rest, food is the next most important component in repairing our bodies. Fibrous carbohydrate, fruits and vegetables, protein and good fats all promote a strong immune system.
  • Get a massage, use a foam roller or do a therapy you like and can afford, to help your body recover and work out any muscle aches and pains.
  • Finally – and most importantly – listen to your body. There is an important difference between being lazy and being exhausted. If you feel overwhelmed, jaded or apathetic by the thought of exercising, don’t train. Sleep in and let your body heal!

Adapted from original article provided by Nicholas Chartres, Personal Trainer (Master of Nutrition).

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