In 2016, Fifty-nine white-collar workers (40 males and 19 females) were asked to perform what researchers called an “active rest” program.
During lunch breaks the workers did a warm-up, cognitive functional training, aerobic exercise, resistance training and a cool-down for 10 minutes per day, 3 times per week for 10 weeks.
The results of this workplace study were published in the journal of occupational health. The study showed that regular practice of active rest improves personal relationships, mental health, and physical activity.
In the years that followed this study, our own research has found that active rest, which we call active recovery, is a critical part of the flow cycle.
What’s a part of an elite athlete's life that is missing from the corporate executives? Active recovery.
Active recovery is the approach to enhancing recovery by participating in specific actions that prevent burnout.
In this article we’re going to examine why active recovery is necessary for long-term performance and how you can incorporate active recovery into your own daily routine.
The Danger of Burnout
Burnout is a syndrome caused by stress that has not been successfully managed. This type of stress is usually found in the workplace.
Stress and burnout affect multiple systems in the body. Burnout has serious consequences for your health and cognitive performance. Burnout is even recognized as a legitimate medical disorder with its own ICD 10 medical code.
Mariana Beltran, who studies the symptoms of burnout for the Institute of Occupational Health has found that people experiencing burnout have:
- Impaired sleep.
- Higher risk of depression.
- A 13% higher risk of abusing alcohol. 4.
- An increased risk of developing diabetes.
- Impaired memory.
- A 16% higher risk of getting heart disease.
Any of these factors can be disastrous to your career, lifestyle, and profitability over time. Employees who get burned out have more absenteeism at work and higher health insurance costs.
And burnout isn’t just a personal problem. If you manage people, make sure that they are recovering for the health of your organization. It only takes a few burned out employees to wreak havoc on a company’s bottom line.
Burnout is a big problem at work, but what about highly-productive people? Should performers who spend most of their day in flow state worry about recovery?
The answer is “yes” and we’ll examine why below.
Flow State and Active Recovery
Extreme athletes are often labeled “adrenaline junkies.” The dark side of pushing the limits of athletic performance is that the mental crashes can be even more costly than broken bones.
Extreme athletes, like snowboarders and rock climbers, spend a lot of time in deep flow states. Flow uses a ton of energy and releases a lot of feel-good neurochemicals to do so. Any behavior that provides a chemical reward can become an addiction. If athletes don’t learn to prioritize active recovery, they’re playing a dangerous game.
You can learn more about the dark side of flow here.
Flow is a big high followed by a deep low because it exhausts your feel-good neurochemistry. A lot of people try to cut that low feeling with things like drugs, sex, and gambling. That’s not a good recipe for long-term peak performance.
If you’ve read any of our other posts that explain the flow cycle, you’ll learn that recovery is the last stage. And it’s really critical to enjoying flow long-term.
Especially after the best flow states where you’re the most productive, you’re going to feel down coming out of it. Don’t take these negative emotions too seriously. They’re a natural byproduct of the process.
The way to prepare for them is to know that the low is coming and build in the time needed for active recovery.
Not all recovery has equal results. There’s a big difference between active recovery and passive recovery. One leaves you feeling refreshed and fulfilled. The other further depletes your mental and physical health.
Active vs Passive Recovery
If you had a long, stressful day at work you may feel like turning on the television, grabbing some chips and a cold one, and just zoning out. We all do this from time to time.
However, this type of inactivity isn’t aiding recovery as much as you think.
Electrical pulses from neurons produce different frequency brain waves. Here’s a quick rundown of the types of waves that are produced.
- Alpha—these waves aid in mental coordination and learning. They are great for being in flow and doing creative tasks.
- Beta—these are the waves of executive function. They appear when we are most alert and making decisions.
- Theta—these waves occur when you are sleeping or in a deep meditative state.
- Delta—these waves appear during the deepest stages of sleep.
- Gamma—the highest frequency waves of all. They relate to simultaneous processing from different brain areas responding to high stimulation.
Visual stimuli like television and computer screens induce gamma waves in your brain. While you may be trying to veg out on the couch your brain is still working very hard.
If you really want to mentally and physically recharge, you need to skip the television and beer to schedule more time for active recovery.
Active recovery protocols include:
- Getting enough quality sleep (dark room, colder temperature, no screens nearby, close to 8-hours).
- Cold/heat therapy (like ice baths and saunas).
- Focused breathwork.
- Sensory deprivation chambers.
- Moderate exercise (like a short run or hike in nature).
- Quality conversions that come from uplifting socializing.
- Yoga and massage (try this 30-minute twist and detox yoga flow).
It’s also important to remember to hydrate, not just during active recovery, but all the time to support maximum cognitive function. As our executive director Steven Kotler says, “We get stupid so fast when we’re thirsty.”
Play the long game and think about the eventual consequences that your present decisions will have. When you commit to active recovery you are buying yourself more flow later. This will lead to higher productivity at work and a more enjoyable life.
How Peak Performers Think About Recovery
A successful active recovery practice starts with your mindset.
A professional athlete will spend most of their time in training or active recovery and only a small percentage of it competing. In contrast, a typical executive spends little to no time in training or recovery and twelve-plus hours a day working (corporate competing).
To build active recovery into your life, you need to become an corporate athlete.
The way average performers work is called “linearity.” With the linear approach to performance, you work continually while experiencing diminishing returns until reaching total burnout. Working ten hours a day in a linear fashion destroys your health and performance over time.
A Harvard Business review study called “The Making of a Corporate Athlete” found that well-being is the foundation of sustained peak performance. Your time is fixed during the day, but the energy available is variable. To better manage energy output, you need to Oscillate, or switch, between energy expenditure and recovery throughout the day.
Stress + Recovery = Adaptation (better performance).
Think of yourself as a light bulb; you want to be “on” working effectively, fully engaged in a deep flow state or “off” unplugged and in active recovery.
Living like a lion is another way to think about recovery. Lions are either sleeping and conserving energy or sprinting full out to capture prey.
Schedule your day to avoid the dreaded “grey zone.” These are the times when you are neither fully on or off. If you’re editing a presentation while eating a snack and texting a friend you are in the grey zone. You’re expending a lot of energy without being your best at anything. This is a recipe for frustration and burnout.
Some people spend most of their lives in the grey zone—an unbalanced limbo where it’s impossible to be happy, healthy, and fulfilled.
Active recovery is fulfilling because it prepares our bodies and brains to have more flow later.
Learning to live like an executive athlete will give you a competitive edge because failure to recover properly will eventually destroy anyone’s performance.
No matter how hard you work, it is possible to never burnout again by applying active recovery.
Want to learn more ways to unlock peak performance? Train with us.