Are you getting enough downtime? Are you wondering why this question is on a fitness blog? Would it surprise you to learn that you can’t have a balanced fitness program without downtime? The third “leg” in the three-legged stool of fitness, along with diet and exercise, is downtime. Specifically rest, recovery and sleep. In other words, rest, recovery and sleep are of equal importance to a balanced diet and exercise regimen.
According to recent studies, habitually sleeping less than 7 hours per night raises the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin and lowers the satiety-inducing hormone leptin which, together, increase hunger and appetite. These same studies show that in 1998, 35% of American adults were getting 8 hours of sleep per night. By 2005, only 26% of American adults were meeting the 8 hour recommendation. Meanwhile the CDC reports that obesity among US adults at all education and income levels has been steadily increasing from 1994 to 2008. Though a direct link between sleep deprivation and obesity has yet to be proven, studies like these seem to suggest a relationship between the two.
But obesity isn’t the only concern. Cognitive function and immunity are known to be impaired when one is sleep deprived. Those who don’t get enough sleep have less energy, are more sedentary and more likely to have symptoms of depression than those who achieve the recommended amount. The bottom line is much of our body’s normal functioning depends upon a good 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
In terms of fitness, recovery is defined as pulling intensity back after a bout of high intensity to allow the cardiovascular and muscular systems to learn to adapt. Put another way, the body can’t reach the next level – run faster, run longer, jump higher – unless it is allowed to recover from the fastest or longest run or highest jump.
Recovery can take place within a workout, as in interval training. A person who walks for fitness and decides she would like to jog probably wouldn’t be able to do a 30 minute jog right away. But she can do intervals. She may begin at intervals of 1:4, where she would jog for one minute and walk for 4 minutes a total of 6 times. Her jog intervals are her work and her walk intervals are her recovery. This recovery time allows her body to learn how to adapt to jogging pace. Over time, she will be able to shorten her recovery time and lengthen her work time until her body fully adapts and she is able to jog at steady-state for 30 minutes.
Recovery can take place through a weekly training regimen as well. This is often utilized by athletes, professional and amateur alike, who are training for events such as games, matches or races. They’ll have days when they will push to beat their best, usually measured in time or distance. That day will be followed by a recovery day in which the same or similar activity is scaled back in intensity and duration. Without recovery days, the body can’t adapt and the athlete won’t be able to achieve performance improvements.
Recovery is also used in traditional strength training routines when there is a pause between sets. If one is strength training properly, she is doing the highest amount of repetitions she can to exhaustion, then pauses to recover, then repeats the set. The recovery period allows her to repeat the set at or close to the same number of reps as the first.
Muscles and bones break down and our amazing human forms rebuild them. Stress your cardiovascular system properly and, almost miraculously, the body can adapt to take in more oxygen and more efficiently pump blood to allow us to go faster and further than we could before. But it can’t do any of those things without rest. While recovery is used in close proximity to an intense bout of exercise to “teach” the systems to adapt, rest days are needed to rebuild everything that was broken down in the process.
In terms of strength training, the goal is to break down muscle tissue to force regeneration of younger, stronger and more numerous muscle cells. It takes the body 48 hours to fully recover and regenerate after a strength training program. Therefore, you should never strength train the same muscle groups on back-to-back days.
With cardiovascular training, rest days are just as important as recovery days for the competitive athlete. Rest days give the body complete downtime to fully recover, regenerate and rejuvenate. This is sometimes difficult for a competitive person to accept. These individuals tend to be hard wired to push harder and flirt with the limits in an effort to get better and better. Exercising hard 7 days a week, however, actually does just the opposite. With no downtime, the body begins to breakdown and rebel. This is called overtraining. Overtraining can manifest itself in many ways including chronic fatigue, muscle deterioration, unexplained weight loss, regression in athletic performance and sleep disturbances. Overtraining symptoms that go unheeded can lead to more serious problems such as injury, illness or organ damage.
But you don’t need to be a competitive athlete to experience overtraining issues. While it’s unlikely the average fitness enthusiast would suffer serious overtraining consequences, it’s not at all uncommon for those who workout 7 days a week to fall victim to repetitive use injuries, plateaus in weight-loss or exercise performance, or achiness and fatigue replacing the usual “runner’s high” response to a workout. If you notice you’re not getting the same benefits you’re accustomed to from your workouts, it may be time to take a day off.
Remember fitness is not a singular goal or something you “do” but, rather, a lifestyle. And just as fitness requires one to have a balanced diet and exercise program, it also requires recovery, rest and sleep. Take a load off, sit back, relax, doze off even – it’s all in a day’s work of being fit and happier.