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Why Rest is Just as Important as Exercise

Rest is just as important as exercise?

Alright hear me out. I am NOT advocating for a sedentary lifestyle or saying that Netflix binges should be part of our routine. The type of rest I’m talking about is intentional rest to help the body repair and function optimally. To understand the importance of rest, let’s first look at some physiology of the nervous system.

Sympathetic vs. Parasympathetic Nervous Systems

Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)

How would you feel if a bear was charging at you? Your heart beat goes crazy, you forget that you need to pee, and you obviously would not be thinking about reproducing in this moment. Whatever your body is doing in that moment is thanks to your sympathetic nervous system (SNS). You may have heard of it as “fight or flight” system. It’s for when you experience an acute (short-term) stressor (i.e. bear) and your body needs to respond. Exercise is a healthy way to engage the SNS. Below is a list of what happens physiologically when the SNS kicks in:

  • Blood flows to muscles to prepare you to move quickly
  • Heart rate increases
  • Blood pressure increases
  • Decrease in digestion and reproductive function
  • Overall, body becomes more alert and on guard
  • Hormones increased: Cortisol, adrenaline

Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)

If you have ever been to a yoga class, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is best represented by the final resting pose, or “Chavasana.” Your heart rate and breathing slow, you may hear sounds of digestion in your belly, your eyes water, and you feel safe and secure. The PNS is also called the system of “rest and digest.” When you are in a parasympathetic state and not threatened by anything, this is the PERFECT time for your body to repair itself. Below I have listed what happens physiologically when the PNS is dominant:

  • Blood flows to organs
  • Digestion is stimulated
  • Urinary output increases
  • Heart rate slows
  • Saliva and tear production stimulated
  • Hormones increased: Growth hormone, melatonin, estrogen, and testosterone (It’s a good time to grow, sleep, and support reproductive health!)

Chronic Stress

The SNS and PNS are both important for human functioning and performance. This is why rest is just as important as exercise – we need to be able to manage the bear situations as well as be able to sleep and digest. Each function is necessary for our health and survival. Problems arise when these systems are out of balance and we spend too much time with one or the other dominating. SNS dominant may look like constantly worrying about finances or something in the future, consistently getting too little sleep, or long-distance running every day of the week. When the SNS is dominant for too long, chronic stress develops.

Chronic stress means your body is behaving like its being threatened by a bear for a prolonged period of time – days, weeks, months, or even years. And of course our bodies aren’t built for this type of stress. As you can imagine, constantly being in this stressed state can lead to many health problems. If you are experiencing chronic stress, I would even say that rest is MORE important than exercise.

As a physical therapist, I see this situation affect runners often. They run most days of the week, develop an overuse injury, and then have a difficult time healing because their body lives in a stressed state. Runners tell me that they run to relieve stress or that it is their “therapy,” although the body and nervous system still perceive running as a stressor.

Chronic stress can lead to:

  • Mood disorders – anxiety/depression
  • Reproductive dysfunction, decreased libido, infertility
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Autoimmune Dysfunction
  • Digestive issues
  • Headaches
  • Heightened pain
  • Compromised immune system, frequent sickness
  • Acne
  • Insomnia
  • Decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating, brain fog
  • High blood pressure, heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Appetite and weight changes/gain

This is why it is SO IMPORTANT to manage our stress and learn to slow down. None of us are exempt from experiencing stress in our lives, but we can control how we respond to it. Regularly engaging the PNS can help undo the harms of chronic stress, as well as prevent the negative health effects of chronic stress.

10 Reasons Why Rest is Just as Important as Exercise

  1. Promote proper muscle building and recovery to prevent injury. Everyone needs rest days!
  2. Keep stress & stress hormones in check. This will support a healthy metabolism.
  3. Supports a healthy immune system, decreases inflammation: In a 2017 systematic review, Black and Slavich found that “Mindfulness mediation appears to be associated with reductions in proinflammatory processes, increases in cell-mediated defense parameters, and increases in enzyme activity that guards against cell aging.”
  4. Promotes optimal healing: True rest allows the body the chance to restore proper organ and cellular functions that play a vital role in tissue healing.
  5. Supports a healthy digestive system: Resting gives your organs a chance to do their thing – especially the digestive tract.
  6. Helps maintain energy levels: You would be surprised at what a quick 10 minute breathwork or meditation session does for your energy.
  7. Promotes better focus, concentration, and memory: Intentional rest, just like sleep is necessary for optimal brain function.
  8. Supports a better night’s sleep: If your body is SNS dominant all day, you may have difficulty being able to truly relax at bedtime.
  9. Supports a healthy reproductive system: If you’re body thinks you are experiencing a threat all the time, of course it won’t think that it is a good time to have a baby, and the system will likely be disrupted.
  10. It keeps us in the present moment: Many of us are guilty of spending too much time planning/worrying about the future and ruminating on the past. A regular practice of intentional rest can help us prevent or manage mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.

10 Ways to Engage the Parasympathetic Nervous System and Avoid Chronic Stress

Below I have linked some of my favorite examples of each.

  1. Breathing techniques: Deep belly breathing helps us combat the shallow chest breathing we tend to do in a stressed state. One of my favorite techniques is box breathing. To prove to yourself the amazing effects of breathwork on your body, take your heart rate before and after performing 16 box breaths. Mine lowers by 15 bpm! This is a powerful tool I use to help get to sleep and calm down before taking test or presentation.
  2. Restorative yoga (gentle, yin): We often hold tension in our muscles throughout the day without realizing it. For me, it’s in my shoulders and jaw. Restorative yoga can help return the body to a relaxed state. My favorite sequences are on YouTube – Yoga with Adriene. Click here for a yin/restorative playlist and here for my favorite neck/shoulder release.
  3. Meditation: No, meditation is not just for hippies – I truly believe it is for everyone. I think of meditation as a way to regularly take care of my mind/brain, just as I do for my body with exercise. I promise it is not complicated and there is no need to overthink it. Start with a guided meditation like this one. I also find this one to be very relaxing.
  4. Prayer: This one is the best when you’re restless.
  5. Get enough sleep: I have been reading this book about sleep and it has been blowing my mind how important sleep is.
  6. Make a conscious decision not to worry: This might sound crazy but this is actually something I started practicing a few years ago. When something that may cause fear comes up (i.e. a major exam), worrying and stressing about it is just a waste of energy. I constantly tell myself, “everything will work out in the end” or “I am safe, secure and on the right path.” I know this sounds crazy, but I’ve never felt happier or healthier. Our thoughts have a bigger impact on us than we think, and especially on our health.
  7. Go to therapy: I am convinced that everyone can benefit from therapy. Here are some online resources.
  8. Do things that make you feel safe and calm: Hug someone, go outside and listen, perform grounding/earthing.
  9. Listen to calming music: Here’s a link to a calming Spotify playlist I made. Sound healing is also so good for the nervous system, I love this guy’s music on YouTube.
  10. Remember that YOU get to tell your body how to feel: You can’t control people or the world around you but you can control yourself, your responses, and your actions. You are not a victim of what is happening to you, but rather a creator. It’s YOUR beautiful life!

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