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Going to the gym to rest: The emergence of exercise recovery classes

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Gary Burchell | Getty Images

With soothing music, dim lighting and a wall hanging reminding occupants to believe in themselves, the small, square room might well be used for massages and housed within a spa. But there's no massage table or masseuse – only a yoga mat that covers the floor and a "stretch coach" named Josh Sarrapochiello-Castillo.

"One more deep breath," he says, pushing a client's leg across her body into a stretch just deep enough to feel uncomfortable, but not painful. "It's like night and day," he says, noticing how tight the right hip is compared to the left. The 45-minute one-on-one session – a sort of cross between physical therapy and massage – at KIKA Stretch Studios in New York City continues, with muscles from the ankle to the neck all getting attention.

"A lot of times at the end of a session, people will feel light and airy, and they feel better about themselves because we've increased the endorphin flow," says Sarrapochiello-Castillo, a personal trainer now trained in the KIKA method, a customized stretching program that aims to teach people's muscles to completely relax without bands or tables. "They're like, 'what did you do to my body?'"

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KIKA Stretch Studios, which also has two New Jersey locations, is an antidote to high-intensity interval training classes, hot cycling studios, boot camps and other fitness classes that exhaust, rather than repair, exercisers' muscles. Others stretch-happy programs include LYMBR in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Florida, and StretchLab in Los Angeles.

There's also A.C.C.E.S.S., a 60-minute "active recovery" class in New York City marketed as a cross between functional training, yoga, Pilates and gymnastics; Chill yoga at Exhale, which has locations across the U.S.; and the newly-launched Surrender, a low-intensity, stretching- and breathing-focused yoga class that recently launched at all 127 Life Time locations.

In other words, even if it's a rest day, you can still go to the gym. "I think people's eyes are opening up to it now," Sarrapochiello-Castillo says about the importance of including stretching and other forms of active rest in their exercise routines.

That's a good thing, experts say. After all, exercising without proper recovery risks counteracting the positive benefits of physical activity completely. Research has shown that overtraining can lead to poorer athletic performance, higher blood pressure, poor sleep, digestive issues and even mood problems like depression. What's more, neglecting any one area of fitness can hold you back from achieving your goals: Building strength without range of motion, for example, can lead to a pulled muscle on your next heavy lift, while increasing flexibility without building strength renders you unstable in daily life.

"There are three points of fitness that everybody should have: They should have strength, they should have flexibility and they should be working their heart, cardio and lungs," Sarrapochiello-Castillo says. "You can't have one without the others."

At the very least, working out the same muscles over and over breaks the tissues down without allowing them to repair and come back stronger – presumably the point for many fitness fanatics.

"Any top sporter will tell you you can push your body to incredible limits, but you have to recover your body – you can't just keep going and going and going," adds Alexander deYong, a former dancer and Broadway performer who now teaches classes at Exhale in New York City and the W New York – Downtown. "When you're building the muscle it's not when you're lifting the weights, it's when you take the rest."

But taking a day or week off is easier said than done for many gym rats and type A exercisers. That's why organized programs can help. "It's an extraordinary thing that people accept it and go, 'I probably need it,' whereas if a decade ago I said, 'Come sit on a cushion for an hour, no one would come near it,'" says Eric Jeffers, a "master trainer" and yoga instructor at Life Time Athletic Green Valley near Las Vegas. "People are realizing we can't run and run and run without getting exhausted."

If you're one of them, consider these expert tips to craft a more balanced exercise routine:

1. Know yourself.

If you're addicted to fitness classes, enrolling in a restorative yoga class, meditation class or other type of recovery class can help you maintain your routine and community without running yourself ragged. If you'd gladly save the time and money it takes to get to the gym, try foam rolling or stretching while watching your favorite TV show. "A lot of people overlook the idea of flexibility because sometimes it's a pain to sit down and stretch," Sarrapochiello-Castillo says, "but it's so easy to do."

2. Keep an open mind.

For people who identify as heavy lifters, the thought of showing up to candlelit meditation class can feel weak. But keep in mind that without discomfort, you won't grow – both mentally and physically, Jeffers says. "If you're willing to go into class with an open mind, then whatever happens, you usually get the benefits so much faster," he says. Expanding your definition of strength can help, too, he adds. "You can be very physically strong," Jeffers says, "but the ability to be very still even while being uncomfortable is a different kind of strength."

3. Give it time

Just as with a new cardio or strength-training program, it takes time for your body to adjust to a new stretching or recovery routine. Sarrapochiello-Castillo usually sees significant gains in clients' flexibility after five to 10 weeks, for example. The lightness they feel after lingers longer by that point too, which is pleasant enough for them to want to continue making health-promoting decisions, he finds. Jeffers says a similar phenomenon happens with people who take Surrender. "Afterward, you feel unbelievably good. It's not the soreness or fatigue after a workout; it's something else. It's like you've untied a knot," he says. "That feeling gets kind of addictive because you realize it's a balance to everything else you've done."