I lay on a sofa watching TV - but am I recovering? I breathe deeply and calmly in front of a computer - but am I resting?
In common language we tend to talk about rest as if it meant recovery. Sleeping, watching TV, reading a book or any other not-so-active way of spending time goes under the concept of rest. Recovery, on the other hand, can take place even in seemingly active situations: doing yoga movements, talking to an audience, singing, eating or standing in a forest.
Recovery can take place even in seemingly active situations.
Rest is not always recovery but in a sense, recovery is always rest. How to distinguish these two and why should we even bother?
The two limbs of the autonomous nervous system
Recovery is a state of the body in which the parasympathetic nervous system is active, as opposite to the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system or the “rest and digest” nervous system is the one dealing with digestion, regeneration of cells, immune system strength, healing and maintenance functions. It slows and calms down the body. Heart rate decreases and heart rate variability increases.
The sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system accelerates, strengthens and activates the body. This activation is more commonly known as stress reaction. Stress keeps us alert, ready for action and concentrated. Heart rate increases and heart rate variability decreases. Stress is a good thing as long as it sparks our lives and motivates us. It turns bad if it becomes chronic and disrupts body’s ability to recover.
Why we should care
Ideally, the body should switch to a recovery mode when given a chance, that is, when resting. The most obvious chance is sleep. In the modern world the busy pace of life as well as countless distractions and stimulations lead – more often than you might think – to a situation in which sleep does not recover. The nervous system remains in a state of stress even though the body is resting.
Recovery is a skill among others.
Sleep and recovery are absolutely essential for health. And this is why we should care about recovery. To be specific, we should care about learning to recover better.
You see, recovery is a skill among others. For some it comes more easily, some might really need to invest in it. Basically, we live so much in our minds, plans and worries that we forget the fact that recovery cannot be decided. It is a skill of letting go.
How do you know if you get enough recovery or not?
Ok, it is important. But where do you stand? In general, overall feeling of vitality is a good sign that there is enough recovery in the days. For starters, you can ask yourself:
- Are you feeling rested and brisk when waking up?
- Are you often sick with flues, headaches or some chronic illnesses?
- Do you experience pain when there is no obvious reason?
- Do you stay alert during the day or do you start feeling down as the day proceeds?
- Do you experience anxiousness, constant hurry, brain fog or concentration difficulties on a daily level?
- Do you fall asleep easily in the evening?
- Do you feel the need to sleep anytime, anywhere?
Another, more accurate option to really see how the body reacts and in which state the nervous system is during the day and night, is to measure oneself. Heart rate variability measurement is the most precise way of measuring stress and recovery levels - and how you are really doing.
It’s all about balance
Great news is that each and everyone is able to learn techniques and habits for calming down the body – and making rest more effective. Often active recovery is indeed needed to make that happen. With things like breathing, gentle movement, easy walking, sauna, cold exposure, mindfulness and meditation one teaches the nervous system to relax, to switch gears.
The best way to bring more balance to the days is to increase actions that lead to better recovery.
As some more broader guidelines, taking pauses during the day, putting computers and mobile phones away well before bedtime, having a regular rhythm and getting enough light during the day help in settling the body down towards the night. Enjoyable hobbies, good quality nutrition and exercise play naturally an important role here as well.
Stress is not something to be afraid of. One can stress as much as one can recover from. Recovery is not just something that athletes and sport enthusiasts should be interested in. It is for everyone. The best way to bring more balance to the days is to increase actions that lead to better recovery. It is like putting money in the bank. I promise.