During this post-workout walk, I start to catch my breath, my legs feel restless, and my heart rate returns to normal. My mind clears, and I feel like I’m in a peaceful daze. After about five or 10 minutes, I came home and felt ready to drink some water. Workout: Done
As the type of movement I do during this walk, an active cool down, is one of the best ways I can help my body recover and safely return to baseline levels after exercise. “It’s basically the difference between slamming on the brakes and coming to a slow stop,” says exercise physiologist Sharon Gam, PhD, CSCS. “This gradual change is going to be easy on your body.”
When you exercise, Dr. Gam explains, your body’s fight-or-flight stress response is activated. A big part of recovery is shifting that response (sympathetic nervous system) to the parasympathetic nervous system, the mode we want to operate in most of the time.
“After exercise, a low-intensity activity, something like walking, can help your body tone down that fight-or-flight response and then begin to increase the rest and restore response,” says Dr. Gumm. Your body can make that switch on its own, but an activity like walking will help the transition happen more smoothly and quickly.
Research shows that active recovery of about 5 to 15 minutes can also help reduce levels of lactic acid, a substance associated with feelings of fatigue and soreness that builds up in your bloodstream during exercise, and return your pH to normal levels. All types of active cool downs do this, but Dr. Gum feels that walking elements can be particularly beneficial.
“Walking is a great way to cool down because you’re in an upright posture, but it’s also a rhythmic activity,” she says. “It’s really good for helping to get blood flow back to your heart and your brain,” which is what the cooling process needs.
Walking also has mental uplifts, such as helping to reduce brain fog, making it perfect as an active cool down. Personally, I notice that my mind feels particularly fuzzy post-exercise. This makes sense to Dr. Gum, who says that blood flow redistributes to your brain as well as your body within minutes of exercising, so you’re thinking a little differently. This makes it a cooling time for you to center yourself mentally. For this reason, and all the other benefits of a post-exercise walk, I won’t be letting my dog down any time soon.