Two of the U.S.’s Best Trainers on the Importance of a Cooldown
Everybody who took a high school gym class knows that cooldowns are key to locking in the benefits of a workout and preventing soreness—what fewer people know is that they’re also key to maximizing the mental benefits. Equinox has recently done a deep-dive into this concept, going so far as to launch an entire class, HeadStrong, that’s devoted to strengthening the mind as much as the body. The high-intensity session (which might look like boot camp to the random passerby) actually ends with a silent breathing exercise akin to Savasana or other type of mental relaxation. The class is the brainchild of long-time instructors Michael Gervais, a meditation, Pilates, and yoga expert, and Kai Karlstrom, a competitive triathlete and T4 educator, both of whom have serious pedigrees when it comes to the subject. Below, Michael and Kai dig into mental health, exercise, and how to maximize both with cooldowns for four of our favorite exercises.
We all know that exercise is good for us, but what are the mental benefits that you see?
Kai: Most people know that exercise releases endorphins that make you feel good, but the benefits are different depending on what you do. Increasing intensity and doing workouts you enjoy will actually release a little bit more endorphins. High intensity and long duration can also help release something called brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which has been called Miracle-Gro for the brain. Low-endurance cardio, on the other hand, can actually buffer out cortisol, which is a stress hormone, faster than it’s created; that’s important because we know that the stress hormone actually kills brain cells.
Doing new things, and trying different movements, helps the brain evolve and fosters neuroplasticity, which allows you to change what you’re doing and the way you do it. It’s really important for optimum brain function.
Michael: Beyond the physiological piece, working out is also a way to become more present. It becomes like a moving meditation, and you can get a lot of the same benefits of focusing on just one thing when you exercise. That’s not necessarily something we can describe physiologically, but becoming more present in your body, with all the noise and all the distraction that we constantly have in our lives, is going to make you feel good.
Developing on that, focused breathing during exercise (what you might do in yoga) will help down-regulate your central nervous system and leave you in a calmer state. Moving slowly and mindfully can actually improve part of your executive function, which is your ability to prioritize and make decisions, too.
How should we tailor cooldowns to maximize the benefits of a specific exercise?
Kai: If you’re doing high-intensity training—lots of sprinting, or heavy lifting, or if you’re doing long-duration cardio or mentally draining kickboxing—it’s important to let your nervous system recover just as much as your muscles, because it does fatigue in the same way. It’s not just your muscles that get sore or drained; your nervous system itself can also get worn out from certain workouts.
Michael: It’s about really intentionally targeting the parasympathetic nervous system, which is going to reap all the physiological benefits of being able to cool down. In HeadStrong, we lead students through a specific breathing technique followed by a guided body scan, so it’s not visual imagery but more like sensory imagery, which is really important in order to train the brain to concentrate on one thing. We end with a relaxed mental focus—the participants take two minutes of quiet to notice how they feel after the whole workout.
What about the mental benefits?
Kai: Even outside the cooldown, think about the kind of workout you do in the first place. So if you’ve had a stressful day, or you didn’t get adequate sleep, you may think you need to go into a really hard workout to work the stress off, but that isn’t always the best thing. It was found in one study that if you work out under 60% effort for less than 60 minutes it will actually reset your nervous system and your stress hormone levels, so on a stressed-out day, do low-intensity work that doesn’t require a lot of thought. Read: kickboxing would be the wrong choice, whereas going out for a run in the woods is probably the best thing you could do.
How can exercise contribute to a strong meditation practice?
Kai: If you think about your nervous system having gears, in order to go from fifth gear into first you have to downshift. Yoga is a great example of an exercise that helps you shift. A lot of times these Vinyasa classes start with something active that gets your blood pumping, that gets you moving and sweating. And then it slowly cools you down so it’s like a spectrum, like a fade, as opposed to just having a lot of intensity and all of a sudden just trying to get quiet and sit down for 30 minutes.
Michael: In HeadStrong, we end with a meditative moment, though we don’t exactly call it meditation. We’re trying to demystify the idea of meditation being something that looks a certain way. Meditation has a lot of baggage around it in terms of what it looks like. It’s one of those things that everyone thinks that they have to be able to do or that they should be able to do, but they think that they’re bad at it.