While short, more intense workouts have been a favorite among wellness warriors lately—think CrossFit and high-intensity interval training (H.I.I.T.)—you may want to consider slowing down your workout from time-to-time.
Vigorous exercise has plenty of documented benefits. It can relieve stress, trigger the release of mood-boosting endorphins, and improve aerobic fitness, to name a few. It can also activate our body’s stress response, a cascade of physiological changes meant to prepare us for fight or flight, including the release of cortisol, our main stress hormone. And while this response plays an important role, it’s equally important that our bodies shift out of that state. When life is chronically frenzied and fast-paced, that can be difficult, says Sarah Kucera, a chiropractor, certified ayurvedic practitioner, and owner of Sage Center for Yoga and Healing Arts in the Crossroads.
One antidote may be to embrace the power of slower-paced fitness. Gentle exercise such as qi gong, tai chi, and some styles of yoga combine fluid movements with deep breathing and mental focus, all of which can induce calm. They help stifle cortisol by stimulating the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the system that helps to slow our heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing, says Kucera.
Gentler exercise can also be used as active recovery—a way to keep your body moving at an easy intensity on rest days from more intense workouts. The idea is to get blood flowing to your muscles to relieve tension and help them recover from severe workouts. The American Council on Exercise recommends light activity for 24 to 96 hours after an intense workout. Walking is another form of gentle movement when you want to be active on rest days.
When it comes to choosing yoga classes that fit the bill for gentler movement, look for slower-paced classes that focus on breath or a restorative class that spotlights conscious relaxation, says Kucera, who is also a 500-hour experienced yoga teacher registered with Yoga Alliance. For active recovery, she suggests trying a basics class or more upbeat vinyasa flow that still incorporates plenty of breath work.
The bottom line is that finding equilibrium when we’re constantly pushing ourselves is important. “We should do something every day that helps our body to shift gears—even if only five to ten minutes a day,” says Kucera.