Recovery has become something of a buzz word in the world of fitness and wellness lately. But what does it really mean? When we’re talking about it in the realm of fitness, the concept refers to self-care—working to reduce exercise-induced muscle damage. If you're anything like us, you take sore muscles as a welcome side effect, at first. It's proof you pushed yourself and put in the work. But not all soreness is the same. Some are longer lasting or deeper and more painful—when this happens, it can be a sign that you sent your muscles into shock or have too many tears in the muscle fibers, which leads to higher than normal inflammation. And then the soreness is less welcome.
The key, of course, is to focus on recovery after substantial activity. Something that a lot of us tend to forget. We asked human movement specialist Dr. Emily Splichal, podiatrist and founder of Naboso, why so many guys skip recovery. “Most people, not just men, overlook recovery—and that's because it can be tedious, boring, even,” she says. “I tell my patients that to prevent injury it is simply a balance of stress versus recovery. If you stress your body or tissue to a point that it exceeds the rate of recovery you will eventually get injured.”
Keep in mind, you don't have to be punishing your body like a pro athlete to need a recovery plan. Even those who aren't that active—the average person who's just sitting at a desk all day or hunched over their phone for too many hours—will benefit from setting aside time to focus on how their body feels and what it needs. In fact, there are all sorts of ways that rest can benefit your body, mind and spirit. Let’s break them down:
How long should you rest between sets at the gym?
If your primary focus is building strength, you need to lift heavy enough to crank out just a few reps per set. Muscular endurance, on the other hand, requires the opposite tack—lighter loads and lots of reps. But no matter what your goal is, there’s a common, critically important ingredient that many guys overlook: the amount of rest you take between sets. The classic advice for maximizing muscle growth (i.e., hypertrophy) is to rest one minute between sets of 8 to 12 reps. But recent research suggests that three minutes might be the true sweet spot. That’s what scientists found in a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
What’s the optimal nap time?
You’ve probably found out the hard way that a nap that is too short or too long can leave you feeling fatigued instead of rejuvenated. Because the goal of a good nap is to re-energize your mind and body, the best nap length ensures you are not entering REM or deep sleep stages, but only staying in light sleep. So, 10-20 minute naps should be just the ticket. According to the Sleep Foundation, napping for no more than 20 minutes allows the napper to get a bit of light sleep to boost alertness without entering into deep sleep. Waking up from deep sleep can cause grogginess and actually worsen sleepiness.
How long should you go between social engagements?
Have you ever noticed that after spending time with friends and family, you feel energized and alive? Or when you’ve had a difficult conversation with someone, you suddenly feel drained? This is your social battery at work. Our social energy expands when we are physically, emotionally and creatively rested and inspired. But when it’s low or depleted, we can feel exhausted, irritable, or even have difficulty connecting with people. Because so many of us have been conditioned to see rest as an unproductive, and inefficient use of time, we can burn ourselves out. Rest is not simply the opposite of action. It’s part of our rhythm as humans. It’s how we generate and maintain the energy we need for daily life. According to “slow coach” Andy Mort, everyone will be different, but if you’re feeling overscheduled, say “no” to an invite, stay in and give yourself time. You’ll know when you’re craving social interaction again. The key here is listening to your mind and body.
When’s the best time to take a personal day?
On average, Americans had 9.5 unused vacation days left at the end of 2021, according to data from Qualtrics. But that’s an improvement over the glut of forfeited paid time off from just five years ago. Seth Turner, chief strategy officer at AbsenceSoft, an HR solutions provider, says clients are reporting a dramatic rise in leave and accommodation rates, as employees combat high stress and anxiety by focusing on their well-being. And while it might seem foreign, taking a day to rest is anything but irresponsible or lazy. It's not selfish to carve out some time to do something you enjoy—this is what compensates for the parts of your life you can't control. When you're burnt out, you're not thinking clearly, coming up with inventive new ideas or stumbling upon creative breakthroughs. But a long-term study found that cognitive flexibility, the component of creativity that creates the ability to adapt our thinking to face new and unexpected conditions in our environment, can be boosted by simply taking time off.
How do you know when it’s quitting time?
No one does their best work if they've got to be “on” all the time. Even the hardest working company men lose their enthusiasm if they feel like they're constantly working. The stress of the workday blends into the evenings and off-time, eating up recovery and rest time, according to Sabine Sonnentag, a professor at Germany's University of Mannheim. She's found that people who do not know how to detach from work during their off time experience increased exhaustion over the course of one year and are less resilient in the face of stressful work conditions. Sonnentag stresses how critical it is to learn to consciously detach from work and take time for yourself, suggesting activities such as exercise, walks in nature and total absorption in a non-work-related hobby.
* Schedule Your Downtime: According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, routinizing and rewarding an activity is the easiest way to develop a habit because by doing so, the activity becomes automatic. So if you’re not good at resting, schedule it daily by using an alarm, calendar, or a time management app.