During this post-workout walk, I start to catch my breath, feel my legs relax, and my heart rate returns to normal. My mind clears, and I feel like I’m in a peaceful daze. After about five or ten minutes, I feel ready to go home and get some water. Training done.
It turns out that the type of movement I’m doing during those walks, 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 hitting the brakes and coming to a gradual stop,” says exercise physiologist Sharon Gam, PhD, CSCS. “That gradual transition is going to be easier 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 switching from that response (the sympathetic nervous system) to the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the mode we want to function in most of the time.
“After exercise, a low-intensity activity, like walking, might help your body tone down that fight or flight response, and then start to turn up the rest and bring the response back up,” says Dr. Gam. His body can make that change on its own, but an activity like walking will help the transition go smoother and faster.
Research shows that an active recovery of about five to 15 minutes can also help reduce levels of lactic acid, a substance associated with feelings of fatigue and pain that builds up in the bloodstream during exercise, and return its pH to normal levels. All forms of active cooling do this, but Dr. Gam believes that elements of walking could be especially beneficial.
“Walking is a particularly good way to cool down because you’re in an upright posture, but it’s also a rhythmic activity,” she says. “That’s really good to help get blood back to the heart and brain,” which is what the cooling process requires.
Walking also has mental benefits, such as helping to reduce brain fog, which make it well suited as a form of active cooling. Personally, I have noticed that my mind feels particularly fuzzy after training. This makes sense to Dr. Gam, who says that blood flow is redistributed in his brain as well as his body in the minutes after exercise, so he’s thinking a little differently. That makes the cooldown a time for you to focus mentally. Because of this, and all the other benefits of walking after exercise, I won’t be letting my dog down anytime soon.