Fitness culture has shifted to focus on recovery as much as activity, and people are amazed by the benefits

  • Athletes, fitness professionals, and recreational exercisers are increasingly interested in their recovery, not just their physical exertion.
  • It's when recovering after a workout that the muscles repair and build, and research shows that sleeping for longer can lead to better fitness progress.
  • A new breed of wearable tech places as much emphasis on recovery as activity, helping users avoid over-training by telling them how hard they can push themselves each day.
  • Fitness fans told Insider such trackers are "invaluable" for finding balance.
  • The image of what it means to be fit and healthy is changing, and wellness spaces are adapting as a result.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

The culture of fitness has traditionally been all about striving for more, pushing yourself harder, translating mental strength and resilience into physical.

But over the past few years, that's started to change.

Increasingly, athletes and amateur fitness fans are realizing just how important recovery is to making progress, that more isn't always better, and so the culture is starting to shift.

No longer is it considered admirable to push through when you're feeling mentally and physically exhausted — in contrast, the goal is listening to your body and knowing when to rest.

Recovery is essential because exercise depletes your energy stores and fluids, and the body needs time to replenish these.

While fluids can generally be restocked quite quickly, studies show that it takes at least 24 hours for muscle glycogen (energy used by the muscles) to be replenished after working out — consuming enough carbs and protein helps too.

It's only through recovering sufficiently that you're then able to train effectively when you are working out.

"When training with frequency, intensity, or even to offset a sedentary lifestyle, attention to recovery is critical to achieve results and also ensure longevity," Rob Smyth, CEO and Founder of global gym UN1T, told Insider.

Rob Smyth, founder of UN1T.

Studies prove that recovering properly leads to faster progress

There are both physiological and psychological benefits to getting ample rest around your training, and studies prove this.

You might think you're building muscle by pumping iron in the gym or guzzling down protein shakes and chicken breasts, but it's in fact when we're recovering (and specifically when we're asleep), that our bodies rebuild.

Exercise results in microscopic tears of the muscle fiber. The body needs time to repair, and that's how muscle and strength are built.

A 2011 study compared two groups of individuals on a calorie-controlled diet. Half slept 5.5 hours a night, the other half for 8.5.

The researchers found that those who'd slept for a shorter period of time lost 55% less fat and 60% more muscle mass by the end of the fortnight than the group who slept for longer.

The latest activity trackers focus as much on recovery as movement

Whether you're counting your steps or tracking the calories burned in your workouts, wearing an activity tracker has become the norm over the past decade.

However, the latest breed of wearable health tech focuses as much on recovery as movement. One example of this is the Whoop band.

Originally designed with athletes in mind (and worn by golfer Rory McIlroy and CrossFit athlete Brooke Wells, for example) but now used by regular fitness fans, its aim is to help wearers balance their recovery and their activity, prevent overtraining, be more efficient, and train smarter rather than harder.

The tracker measures three main pillars: sleep, "strain," and recovery. "Strain" is based on cardiovascular load and refers to the physical strain put on your body.

It's accumulated throughout the day in workouts, but also general movement. So activities like cleaning, commuting, and moving house would all build up your strain score.

Each morning users wake up to a recovery score which informs how much strain they should take on that day for peak performance, i.e. how hard they should push themselves in a workout (if at all).

While the Whoop measures calories burned over the course of the day, it — unusually — doesn't count steps.

"Whoop is designed to be a little bit different in that most wearables on the market are telling you, 'Go, go, go! Hit this step count, burn this amount of calories, hit this amount of exertion.' Whereas we're trying to shine more light on sleep and recovery," Whoop product expert Lainie Smith told Insider.

"We're really trying to emphasize that you can be stronger and you can be better if you take your recovery more seriously."

Whoop is by no means the only recovery tracker on the market — Garmin's Fenix and Suunto's fitness watches also help users balance rest and exertion — but it's one of the most popular, with fitness fans increasingly sharing their stats on social media.

Serious exercisers need help doing less, not more

Specifically, recovery trackers appeal to fitness professionals, who often need help to make sure they recover enough.

"I was working 14+ hour days, training hard for around 90 minutes a day, and I was starting to feel the onset of overtraining and under-recovery, so I wanted to start tracking my recovery and make sure that I was giving my body sufficient time to rest and recover," Pele Zachariah, Head Trainer at London gym Rowboats, told Insider of before he started tracking recovery.

Pele Zachariah wears the Whoop tracker to help him avoid over-training.
Pelé Zachariah

Zachariah's tough workout schedule certainly demands serious recovery: He works out six times a week, hitting four strength-focused sessions and two "engine-focused" sessions, which are more endurance-based.

"I also do some mixed modal work combining strength and endurance in the same session to really challenge myself!" he added.

Similarly, Laura Hoggins, trainer at Foundry Fitness and author of "Lift Yourself," was drawn to the idea because she was more interested in making sure her body was ready and primed to perform, than how many steps she'd taken or calories she'd burned.

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GAIN SAFE It’s been nearly a week since the government re-opened our gym, and with lots of hard work behind the scenes to get us ready and Covid compliant, we were focused on ensuring we could provide a safe and comfortable training environment. At @foundryfit we have reduced our capacity by half, we have all new signage to help guide our members through the space, members will also have to wait outside the facility 5-10 mins before their session time. Having pre-booked all our members before entering the gym, we have everyone details to support NHS #testandtrace system to quickly contact people at risk of the virus, keeping us all safe. We will welcome you in to the gym; you will receive a temperature check on arrival, please keep social distancing where you can, and there will be lots of opportunity to sanitize your hands and equipment – you may possibly leave cleaner than you arrived! We all know the important of staying active, fit and healthy, and we are so happy to bring everyone back together to gain safe. Where the safe belong will mean we can enjoy summer safely! #AD #enjoysummersafely #CoverYourFace #WTSB

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Hoggins describes her workout routine as "intense:" She cycles around 100 miles a week through her commute to work, does three strength sessions a week, two Olympic lifting workouts, one sprinting session, and one full rest day of "absolutely nothing."

"I decided to get a Whoop because I felt I was at the stage where I fully understood my activity levels, I didn't want to be doing more — in fact, I'm seeking to be more efficient," she told Insider.

Fitness fans are seeing results from prioritizing rest

It's not just professional athletes and trainers who are increasingly concerned by their recovery though — recreational exercisers are too, and they're seeing results.

Lucy Conlon, a London-based marketing professional and fitness micro-influencer, told Insider wearing a recovery tracker has helped her know how hard she can push herself.

Lucy Conlon works in marketing but is a keen lifter.
Lucy Conlon

"Before, I took rest days very ad hoc and just around my schedule," she told Insider. "I now look at my recovery data before I decide to embark on a difficult workout or take a rest day."

While some may say recovery trackers take away the intuitive nature of listening to your body and how you feel, for numbers-driven people, measurable scores are appealing.

"The data and guidance for sleep, recovery, and training is invaluable," Olivia Tompkins, a nurse and CrossFitter, told Insider.

Olivia Tompkins is a nurse and Crossfitter.
Olivia Tompkins

"It brought balance to my life and an understanding of how the conditions of your body change every day. It tells me what my body is ready for, how much strain I can take so no workout is wasted.

"Before I wouldn't respect my body, I would feel like I would need a rest or to lower the intensity of my training but I would just push on."

Acquiring a recovery tracker has helped Tompkins see how her sleep, nutrition, and lifestyle affects her body, and she adjusts her training accordingly, lowering her intensity when necessary.

"That's something I would never have done before, and as a result, my training has hugely benefited — I've had no injuries since."

Fitness spaces are adapting to accommodate consumers' changing priorities

Forget rest day guilt — the image of health and fitness is now all about balance and overall wellness, and the growing interest in recovery reflects the move towards mindfulness, slowing down, and looking after our mental health as much as our bodies.

"This focus on recovery is brought about by the fact that the general population is becoming more aware and educated on what health and fitness is," Smyth said.

"Gone are the days of trying to sweat as much as possible and burn over 1,000 calories each session (or they should be!).

"The goal is to methodically build your body and its systems, not break it."

UN1T caters to its users' desires to look after their bodies with a dedicated mobility and recovery area, and at boutique London spin studio Boom Cycle, a "Mindful Ride" class was launched this year, focusing on self-reflection and emotional wellbeing, rather than pushing your body to its limits.

"In the past few years there has been a huge shift in the mindset of people when it comes to their health and wellbeing, we're now just as focused on recovery as much as getting a great workout in," Boom Cycle founder Hilary Rowland told Insider.

Lockdown may have increased interest in recovery

Earlier this year, a new type of wellness space opened in central London called House of Wisdom — rather than workout classes, it offers daily empowerment talks and workshops, meditation, yoga, and gong baths.

Luca Maggiora, House of Wisdom's co-founder, believes lockdown has only added to most people's desire to slow down.

A gong bath at House of Wisdom.
House of Wisdom

"We have found that lockdown especially has given people the chance to reflect on their overall health and wellbeing, everyone has been given a chance to analyze every aspect of their daily lives, from stressful jobs to changing their workout regimes and dedicating more time to things that matter most, such as spending time with family and friends and looking after ourselves properly," he told Insider.

"We have found that people in general are now more open about discussing their mental health and wellbeing and therefore are now open to trying out alternative ways of working out their mind as well as their bodies." 

Not working out can often be the best thing for both your mind and body — sometimes, less really is more.

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