The Importance of Recovery:
Why Less is More for Better Health and More Energy
By Mark Anshel, Professor and Director
MTSU Faculty-Staff Health and Wellness Program
Finally some good news about ways to improve our health and general quality of life without suffering and sacrifice: Less is more, and that’s a wellness message worth telling.
We are a culture of high achievers. Many of us are driven to perform all day, almost non-stop, so that we are successful, happy, and (hopefully) lead a high quality of life. Most of us are convinced that the answer to productivity, effectiveness, and success is more time working. We often feel guilty about taking a break, getting away from the task at hand, and just relaxing. At least that’s “the American way,” especially for those of you who have a personality trait called “high need achievement.”
The problem is that going non-stop, in which the more we work, the more effective and productive we will be is flawed thinking. The human organism is not intended to keep moving along like the Energizer Bunny. In fact, working too many hours over too many hours, weeks, months, and years can lead to sickness and disease, even death. Everything in life requires downtime, a pause, time to recover and regain energy. The heart takes a break between beats, our muscles fatigue and will “refuse” to move if we don’t give them a brief rest – a concept called interval training – and our concentration “goes south” if we don’t take time off, however brief.
The Japanese lead the world in job-related fatalities due to stress. The Japanese are the only culture in the world to have a term – “karoshi” - that means, literally, “death from overwork. According to the Japanese Ministry of Labor, approximately 10,000 deaths a year are attributed to karoshi. Their research shows that these deaths are due primarily to five factors:
- Extremely long work hours without recovery and rest;
- Night work that interferes with normal recovery and rest patterns;
- Working without holidays or breaks;
- High pressure work without breaks;
- Extremely demanding physical labor and stressful work that is continuous.
What is the answer? No, the answer is not to have stress-free jobs. In fact, stress is good (the topic of another column). That’s right. Without stress we will not have the energy and incentive to reach our goals, perform at high levels, overcome obstacles, and improve our performance. Stress forms renewed energy. So, stress is not the problem. The problem is the lack of recovery. According to Dr. James Loehr, author of the book, “The Power of Full Engagement,” “our most fundamental need as human beings is to spend and recover energy. Too much energy expenditure without sufficient recovery eventually leads to burnout and breakdown” (p. 29). Not only is taking a break good for you, it will lead to higher productivity and create more energy during your waking hours. It can help prolong life.
Warning: Do not show your boss this column and say, “Here, read this! See, I told you I need more time away from the office. I need more recovery time.” You will not appreciate his or her response. Instead, discuss how to develop a workday filled with recovery breaks every 90 to 120 minutes. [Sandee/editor, I suggest to insert this as mid-page highlight]
When we look at Figure 1* [Editor, insert attached power point called “Figure 1” about here], we see a pattern of what scientists and medical practitioners call “oscillation,” which shows a pattern of work-rest (stress-recovery) intervals. This means that hard work must be accompanied by periodic breaks for recovery, even if we are just sitting down much of the day. Dr. Loehr calls this pattern “the pulse of life.” Why is this so important for a healthy lifestyle?
There is a chemical called acetylcholine that is partly responsible for thinking – that is, the processing - coming in and going out - of information. This chemical is not limitless; it becomes depleted after an extended period of time. Most researchers believe that our ability to think clearly declines rapidly after 60-90 minutes without a rest period. In fact, it is thought that daydreaming is nature’s way of giving our mind a quick rest. One important purpose of recovery is to replenish this chemical, allowing up to think more clearly, accurately, and rapidly.
Another way to look at the need for regular recovery breaks as part of a healthy lifestyle is illustrated in Figure 2 * [Editor, please insert Figure 2 about here]. The figure features four energy cells. The upper right cell reflects high positive energy, also called the “ideal performance state cell,” consisting of feelings such as challenged, inspired, spirited, engaged, focused, and connected. The lower right cell reflects low positive energy, also called the “voluntary recovery cell.” This cell reflects the relatively low-key feelings of peacefulness, relaxation, mellowness, and relaxation. For optimal energy and health, we want to alternate between high positive and low positive energy cells.
There are two negative energy cells that should be avoided as much as possible. The upper left segment is called the negative energy, or threat, cell. It consists of feelings such as anger, fear, anxiety, and frustration. Go there, if you must, but make it a brief visit to this cell, then remain focused and on task to avoid or minimize these types of feelings. Finally, the lower left cell is called “involuntary recovery” because if you retain feelings of depression, sadness, burnout, and hopelessness, you will eventually get sick, even die, in extreme cases.
The key to expanding our capacity to perform at optimal levels and to have the energy to engage in healthy habits is to push beyond your ordinary limits and to engage in regular recovery. Balancing stress and recovery is critical to high performance.
Here are some examples.
Exercise: Proper weightlifting technique consists of alternating between lifting the weight for a certain number of repetitions, followed by a brief rest pause. This is called a set. Building muscle consists of two or three sets of repetitions, in other words, work-rest intervals, so that the muscle recovers briefly from fatigue. Same principle works for aerobic (cardiovascular) exercise, a system called interval training. After a warm-up, we jog or run for a certain number of minutes, followed by a brief period of slower activity (we do not stop, but we slow down to allow our body to recover from physical stress of exercise).
Work: Energy is everything for effective job performance. You want to maintain your energy throughout the day, and have some left over for your friends and family at night. Try to avoid going non-stop all day. The “rubber band of life” will get thinner and thinner as you continue to stretch your limits. Take recovery breaks every 60 to 90 minutes. We build our capacity mentally and emotionally the same way we build it physically. Athletes who do not engage in periodic recovery, for example, burn out and are more susceptible to injury. If we keep driving ourselves, we are not allowing our immune system needed time to recover and to protect us from illness.
These breaks are usually brief – even 5-10 minutes. The two guidelines for these recovery breaks are, first, that they distract you from the task at hand, and second, that they have recovery value. They must not, themselves, be stressful and consist of the same tasks you have been doing all along. For example, get off the computer if you are spending most of your day on a computer. Briefly close your eyes if you are concentrating for an extended period of time. If your job is highly physical, relax, drink water, pray, read something relaxing, make a phone call to someone special, or eat a piece of fruit (leave those donuts alone; they are not calling your name). If you are constantly surrounded by others, leave the area and be alone briefly. Reflect, plan, or disengage totally from your usual situation. Remove the usual work demands.
So why do we do exactly the opposite and go non-stop all day until we get home, collapse on our beds and sofas, and ignore (or do not have energy for) the most important people in our lives – our family? Taking recovery breaks during the day will not only give us more energy during our waking hours, but will make us more effective at work.
Less is more. Engage in active, voluntary recovery to expand your capacity to fully engage in meeting the demands of life. Don’t be “linear” in which we engage in too much energy expenditure without recovery. Don’t let your personal gas gauge become “empty.” Take the time to fill up! I’ll end today’s column with a story that makes a point of the importance of recovery.
There is an annual lumberjack contest about who can manually chop down the most trees in 60 minutes using a long-handled ax. The contest came down to two finalists, one very strong younger male, aged 30, and an older, somewhat less muscular man, aged 46. Not surprisingly, the younger man felt very confident in his ability to win the contest. At the whistle, both men started to chop. To the amusement and confusion of the younger competitor, every 15 minutes the older man was not to be seen. He disappeared for 5 minutes, then returned. At the end of the contest, the number of felled trees were counted, and to the amazement of everyone, the older man chopped down more trees. The young competitor asked his older counterpart what he did during his regular 5 minute breaks. The older man answered, “I sharpened my ax.” Case closed!