The Surprising Role Your Senses Play in Recovery
What you hear, smell, see, taste and feel can help you bounce back from workouts faster. Get ready to tap into each.
Walk into any yoga studio or spa and you'll likely see healthy-looking plants, hear relaxing music and smell calming scents. All of that creates more than just a vibe—science shows that certain sights, sounds, smells and more can reduce heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension, helping put your mind and body at ease.
"Tapping into your senses can calm down the brain areas responsible for your flight-or-fight response, shifting you into the parasympathetic nervous system, where you're able to rest and digest", says Shaheen E. Lakhan, MD, PhD, the executive director of the Global Neuroscience Initiative Foundation.
With training in particular, all five senses can affect your recovery—and you can get the benefits right at home. Here's how.
Smell Certain Oils
"MRI studies show that fragrant scents can cause multiple parts of our brain to light up or turn off", says Lakhan, who led a study published in the journal "Pain Research and Treatment" on the subject. "Inhaling essential oils via aromatherapy could help treat anxiety, muscle tension, sleep problems, nausea and even pain, as various areas of the brain are involved in all of those". (Oils aren't a cure for any of these issues. If you're experiencing them regularly, talk to your doc.)
Research suggests that just sniffing certain scents after a workout—namely, lavender, eucalyptus, lemon and rose essential oils—can reduce heart rate and blood pressure, which can put your body into repair mode faster. It can also reduce tightness in your muscles that can lead to soreness, says Lakhan.
Set up a diffuser to distribute essential oils in the room where you relax and stretch, whether that's your living room or bedroom, advises Lakhan. If you aren't going to be home after your workout, keep a portable aroma stick in your gym bag.
"Tapping into your senses can calm down the brain areas responsible for your flight-or-fight response, shifting you into the parasympathetic nervous system, where you're able to rest and digest".
Shaheen E. Lakhan, MD, PhD, Executive Director of the Global Neuroscience Initiative Foundation
See Earth Tones
Research suggests that colour can actually influence pain and emotional states, with "red being the worst", says Lakhan. The theories range, but Lakhan says it's likely because red is the biological caution signal (think blood and poisonous plants), so it might stimulate the fight-or-flight response. On the flip side, blues, greens and neutral colours remind us of nature and can therefore be soothing. A review published in "SAGE Journals" found that blue can help lower blood pressure. You could go so far as to paint the walls of your home gym a sky- or sea-inspired hue, or you could simply purchase a yoga mat in that colour.
Then there's décor. "Having plants in your environment can positively impact your recovery because they can emit therapeutic light waves", says Lakhan. In fact, simply having pictures of nature in your space can help. In a study by Gregory Watts, PhD, a professor of environmental acoustics at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom, wall art featuring outdoor scenes reduced anxiety and increased tranquillity for people in a health centre's waiting room. The combo could also help lower heart rate and blood pressure, contributing to a faster recovery time.
Listen to Chill Music
Ever wondered why so many massage therapists put on whale sounds while they work? In Watts' study, listening to the sound of gentle waves breaking on the shore helped people relax. Any slow and steady music that you find soothing, be it R&B or jazz, has the potential to help you downregulate, lower cortisol levels and heart rate and speed recovery, according to a 2018 study in "Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise". Plus, "by synchronising with the rhythm of the music, you could lower your breathing rate and come back to a resting state more quickly", adds Leighton Jones, PhD, a senior lecturer in sport and exercise science at Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom.
Create (or find) a chill playlist, and update it frequently to avoid boredom and repetitiveness, which can lessen the positive effects over time, says Marcelo Bigliassi, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow in the department of sport sciences at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, who led the 2018 study. Play it right after your workout for maximum benefits.
Really Taste Your Food
"When we eat in a more mindful, slow and relaxed way, where we really taste the flavours of our food, we can better digest our meals", says nutritional psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, MD, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. Flavours are the brain's experience of self-nourishment and pleasure, he explains, and research takes that further: Studies show that slowing down and chewing more can actually increase nutrient absorption and help you feel fuller for longer.
Rather than scarfing down a chalky protein bar, choose a post-workout snack, drink or meal that's healthy but tasty, and take your time consuming it. That might be a smoothie with peanut butter, banana, cacao, cinnamon, ice and kefir, if you want to follow in Ramsey's footsteps. If you find yourself sipping too fast, set a timer for 20 minutes and try not to finish up before it goes off.
Take a Light-Touch Approach
"Our skin contains several different types of nerve cells, each responding to a different depth of touch", says Lia Bonfilio, a massage therapist in New York City and the founder of Lia Bonfilio Massage. "For many people, a light, barely there touch is more effective than deeper pressure in stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system and thus getting you into a state of rest".
To stimulate both that resting state and circulation, Bonfilio recommends lying on the floor with your legs resting up on a wall at whatever angle feels safe and comfortable for your lower back. Then use your hands like rakes to very lightly trace your fingertips downwards from your knees to your hips, hand over hand (as if you're drawing in a rope). Repeat for as long as feels good to you, then sit up and do the same from ankle to hip.
Put It All Together
To maximise recovery benefits, Lakhan recommends engaging more than one sense at a time. You can combine smell with touch, for example, by adding a few drops of rose oil to body lotion and gently massaging it into your skin. Do that in a blue or beige room with a snake plant and background classical tunes, smoothie on hand—and you're set up for some solid sensual healing.