How to Recover from a Tough Workout
How Inflammation Affects Your Workout
When Meghan Rabbitt, 32, was living in Boulder, Colorado, she couldn't get enough of the great outdoors -- biking, hiking, swimming, you name it. But so much opportunity for activity left her with regular aches and pains. "I was feeling so sore one day that I went to yoga to try to stretch myself out," she says. "And my instructor, ironically, started talking about how muscle inflammation is actually a gift; that achy feeling is our body's way of telling us to back off and let it heal so it can make us stronger. That one little gem has really changed the way I think about exercise soreness and inflammation. I now look at it as an important part of the process rather than something I can't wait to have end so I can get back to the gym."
Most of us hear the word inflammation and images of swollen ankles, puffy knees, and ice packs quickly come to mind, followed by fears of being sidelined with strains, sprains, and other annoying injuries. But inflammation is also part of a vital balancing act going on in your body every time you work out. "I call it the Goldilocks effect," says Shawn Talbott, PhD, a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine and author of Natural Solutions for Pain-Free Living. "You need enough inflammation to trigger a physiological response that makes your body fitter and stronger and helps it recover after a workout, but not so much inflammation that it slows the body's natural repair process."
To appreciate inflammation's impact on your workout, it's important to first understand how it affects the body in general. Part of the immune system's protective mechanism against injury, foreign substances, and infection, inflammation can be acute and short-term, like when you sprain a ligament, or low-grade and chronic, like when it's related to such ongoing conditions as sinus infections or Lyme disease. Here's how inflammation works: When the immune system senses something is amiss -- you twist an ankle or sprain your wrist, for example -- it expands the blood vessels leading to the injured area and seals off those leading away from it. The body then sends in a double dose of inflammatory cytokines and white blood cells (think of them as your internal repair crew). With the "enter" door open and the "exit" door shut, the cytokines and white blood cells pile up, working overtime to repair and rebuild injured muscles and ligaments. Once the trauma has been reduced and any infections in the area have been eliminated, the body automatically reopens the "exit" blood vessels for the cytokines, and the swelling goes down.
The immune system produces some degree of inflammation to heal any kind of injury or illness. Levels that are too high, however, can damage healthy muscle and tissue cells while trying to repair the unhealthy ones, leading to additional aches and pains. In the case of exercise the problem may become chronic: You take a tough kickboxing class; afterward, your knees are slightly swollen as the healing process begins to repair and rebuild your tendons and ligaments. But if you take another class before you're fully recovered, you add more swelling to the already inflamed area. Eventually your body can't keep up. "Too much joint inflammation can lead to arthritis," cautions Steven Lamm, MD, professor of internal medicine at NYU School of Medicine in New York City. "It's unhealthy in other areas of the body as well: Excessive inflammation in the lungs can cause asthma, and in the intestines it can lead to colitis."
But how much inflammation is too much? What are the signs that you're hurting instead of helping your body? Discover the secret to mastering this fine balancing act.
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