By Macaela Mackenzie
When it comes to talking to students about physical activity, we typically encourage them to get more of it. But the opposite end of the spectrum—overtraining—can be just as unhealthy. “We can’t skip the recovery aspect of training and expect the body to respond and grow lean muscle tissue,” says Ashley Borden, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and athletic trainer in Los Angeles.
Not scheduling enough rest in a workout routine causes what trainers call “overreaching.” Just a week of overreaching can cause immune system dysfunction, making students more susceptible to any illnesses that might be flying around the hallways, according to a 2007 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology. When you consistently overtrain like this, “[students are] more susceptible to infections, might have difficulty sleeping, and have greater stress,” explains Dr. Bruce Gladden, director of the Muscle Physiology Lab at Auburn University in Georgia. Prolonged overtraining has even been shown to contribute to or cause adrenal insufficiency (a condition that causes the adrenal glands to produce insufficient amounts of vital hormones, which can cause extreme fatigue and decreased appetite), according to a 2013 research review published in Novel Physiotherapies. And on top of that, training too intensely can lead to overuse injuries.
Enter the need for active rest—a period of low-intensity activity, such as walking or stretching, that allows students to keep up their fitness momentum while promoting healthy muscle recovery. “Active rest is participating in activity with a reduced load compared to what is considered [your] normal workout,” says Scott Oliaro, head athletic trainer and associate director of sports medicine at the University of North Carolina. “This can include changing the activity (bike or swim instead of running), reducing the mileage of a run, or changing the duration of activity.”
It may seem counterintuitive, but scheduling regular bouts of active rest can actually help students be more physically active. “The key about taking a rest, and especially if it can be moderately active, is that you feel better the next day,” says Dr. Edward Coyle, a professor of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas at Austin. “If you feel better in your training, that allows you to train more intensely.”
To help students create healthy, balanced exercise routines, follow these expert tips:
1. Stress the importance of active rest
Students tend to think they can push through anything. While they may be able to muscle through intense gym session after intense gym session, that doesn’t mean they should. Provide information about the consequences skipping recovery will have in the short and long term. “The increase in tissue stress without repair leads to increased stress and tissue breakdown,” says Oliaro. “This can lead to stress fractures, tendinopathy, or other soft tissue injury that will limit or shut down training.”
2. Promote active rest as a self-care strategy
At a moment where students are super attuned to mindfulness and self-care strategies like meditation, tout the stress-reducing benefits of active rest. While high-intensity exercise raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body, low-intensity exercise doesn’t, according to a 2008 study published in the Journal of Endocrinological Investigation. Further, when researchers tested the impacts of various activity levels in moderately active participants, they found that active rest—defined as 40 percent of maximum workout effort—actually lowered cortisol levels. Engaging in a form of active rest, like going for a walk between classes, can be a great strategy for a stress-free finals week.
3. Share info from exercise departments on campus
Knowledge is power. Encourage students to take physical activity classes. “It’s a way to learn more about doing exercise correctly,” says Dr. Gladden. Make research from the kinesiology or exercise science department more accessible to students by hosting department workshops or “lunch and learns” to help students understand the balance of exercise and recovery.
4. Host campus clinics
It’s also important to take advantage of on-campus wellness centers and gyms—places where students are already going to work with coaches or trainers. Host a school event with local trainers, or turn student athletes into campus celebs by having them lead a fun run/walk.