Would you describe yourself as ambitious, active, and motivated? If so, you’re not alone: The drive to succeed is a powerful impulse, and success in all its forms is something most of us crave. But when we’re so focused on striving to achieve ever-greater goals—whether that’s in the office or in the gym—it can be easy to underestimate the importance of downtime and the word itself belies how much is going on in our bodies when we rest.
Especially in our 21st-century society, where there is such a high priority on achievement, we are taught that pushing ourselves harder and harder is something we should be rewarded for. It’s true that we’ll never improve or even maintain our fitness if we sit around doing nothing, so the natural tendency is to assume that the harder we exercise, the better our results will be.
Being careful about what we eat can be hard work, too. It takes discipline, effort, and dedication to sidestep the temptations of junk food, to prepare healthy meals for ourselves and our families, and to learn about all the details of what good nutrition actually means. But all this hard work is only one side of the coin, because ironically, it is the time of rest and recovery when all this effort is consolidated into results.
Working smarter, not harder
As with the balance between diet, exercise, and sleep, it is crucial to remember that fitness is about balancing exertion with regeneration. A major part of the reason why so many people have trouble sleeping is that there is an imbalance between the two branches of the autonomic nervous system—which is responsible for all the bodily processes over which we do not have conscious control.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is the branch responsible for the “fight or flight” response. Its evolutionary function is to spur us into action and equip us with the energy and alertness we once needed to survive from day to day. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), on the other hand, is all about resting, digesting, and reproducing. This branch of the nervous system is geared towards helping us recuperate, regenerate, and replenish the mind as well as the body.
Because sleep is a time of lying still and being blissfully unaware of the outside world, it’s understandable that you might forget what a hive of activity is taking place within your body. The PNS becomes active when we feel relaxed, safe, and restful—and its role in fitness is a significant one. We need a strong PNS in order to be able to sleep well and regenerate to our full potential.
If you think you might have been concentrating more on working hard than on resting adequately, here are some points to ponder.
• When you’re awake and active, your body is in catabolic mode. This includes the process of breaking large molecules into smaller ones to release energy. During sleep, your PNS is active, stimulating anabolic processes. This is when the process of digestion extracts nutrients from the food you have eaten and uses them to build the molecules you need to repair your cells.
• Muscle fibers typically take about 48-72 hours to recover after a workout. Although the time of peak protein synthesis is in the first 24-48 hours after the stress and stimulus of training, it can take up to seven days for a muscle to completely regenerate itself.
• The quality of your sleep is as important as the quantity. It is during the deepest phases of sleep—stage 3 and 4, also known as slow-wave sleep—that human growth hormone (HGH) is produced. HGH is not only crucial for fitness by breaking down fat and stimulating protein synthesis, but has also been linked to regulating cholesterol in the body.
• Most bodybuilders are well aware that overtraining can be just as detrimental to your nervous system as it is for your muscles. Although there are many ways to guard against overtraining, the simplest and most direct solution is to sleep, rest, regenerate, and recuperate.
• And while we’re on the subject of “mental fitness,” sleep literally speeds up your brain’s ability to repair itself. Researchers have discovered that oligodendrocytes (the cells that form myelin, which helps repair brain cells) reproduce twice as quickly during sleep.
Fitness is an inside job
There is no doubt that hard work is crucial for maintaining fitness, but that is only the “outer” aspect of staying in shape and being healthy. In a sense, all the conscious effort we put into exercising, and all the care we take to nourish ourselves properly, is only setting the scene for the real work to take place. All the rebuilding, strengthening, and cleansing happens when your body is apparently at rest—meaning that half the fitness equation is an inside job.
In our fast-paced lives, it’s all too easy to associate downtime with laziness—but nothing could be further from the truth! When you start to really appreciate that the harder you work, the more intensely you need to recover, it will become a lot easier to own and enjoy the time you need to invest in resting and digesting!