As many of us struggle to fit in a not-so-normal working week (gone are the days of the 9 to 5 office job), while fitting in our one hour of exercise a day and trying to find time for some QT with the family, the main things that seem to suffer the most are our sleep and ability to recover from exercise.
What many people fail to remember is that the benefits that come with exercise are determined by our recovery.
That’s right, exercising is only the first part in improving our health and wellbeing. The part that comes after is just as, if not more, important.
In fact, exercising when you are completely overworked, run down, stretched to the limit (insert preferred appropriate adjective here) isn’t actually good for you. It simply puts you closer to a disease state and falling ill. Think of it like a car that is over-revved all the time. If you keep over-revving the engine (working crazy hours and then flogging yourself in the gym), something is going to blow. That something will most likely be your immune system, and that may mean deleterious health consequences, like an illness or injury.
“Great!” I hear you say. “Now I am being told that exercise makes me sick!” Well, not exactly, but it’s important to be aware of:
1) How exercise causes stress on our bodies,
2) How our bodies adapt and respond to exercise, and
3) 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 our bodies’ resting state, our homeostasis.
Importantly, there are two main types of stress: eustress, which has a positive effect on the body and produces growth, and distress, which you guessed it, 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.
There is a technical term for the positive state our body falls into after exercising, known as the general adaptation syndrome. 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. Adaptation is a good thing!
The flip side to adaptation is when you don’t implement the actions for proper recovery after you 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 the highest 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.
“Ok, great,” I hear you say again. “But I hardly have time to exercise, let alone find time for Qui Gong. To recover!” Fair enough, that's completely understandable. We all have busy lives. So here are my top 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.
- Nap! Ten to 20-minute power naps do amazing things to our immune systems. There is loads of empirical evidence to show this. 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 in the gym or do a therapy you like and can afford.
- Swim in salt water. If a swim at the beach can cure a hangover, it can definitely help you recover from a workout (ever noticed how all of the football teams go to the beach to recover?).
- 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!