Hi. I miss y’all. It really bugs me that I can’t do bodywork right now, right when you need it the most. I know how good it is for calming anxiety, lowering cortisol levels, and relieving stress – and all of those things are good for boosting immunity.
So, since I can’t help you with my hands, I’m going to share some of my favorite online de-stressing and healing resources with you. Most of them are free, and you can do them anywhere you have a little space and your phone.
My hope is that you’ll try a few, and find something that’s a good fit for what you are looking for right now. I’ll post over the next few days, and keep a central list here, as well. Here’s one to get you started:
This 2017 paper reports “significant reduction in the severity of anxiety, stress and depression” in multiple sclerosis patients who received reflexology treatment. The differences were noticed both immediately after treatment and two months after treatment stopped.
I’ve been using the Polar H10 chest strap the longest, both for morning heart rate variability (HRV) readings and for tracking exercise. I started using the Polar A360 in October for wrist-based heart rate tracking. The A360 isn’t made anymore, but the A370 is very similar and has nice new features like all-day heart rate monitoring and GPS. Then I also need two free apps: Polar Beat (for the H10) and Polar Flow (for the A360 and bringing all the data together). I know it sounds kinda clunky, but in practice, it’s pretty simple. Here’s how I use all of this to guide my active recovery.
My current goal is to recondition after a long illness. One of the problems with adrenal fatigue is that if you overdo physical or emotional stress, you can knock your recovery back days or weeks. It took me a year to figure out that 20 minutes of gardening, sweeping the deck, or moderate exercises like a few pushups and situps constituted “entirely too much exercise.” I would wake up feeling good, overdo it, and get knocked back to the couch for several days. It was incredibly frustrating because I rarely felt good two days in a row. For, like, two years.
So I wanted a way to quantify how much work I was doing and have some data to help me understand how much was too much. The key data I needed were my morning heart rate variability (HRV) scores, and some way to measure how much energy I was actually expending not just during workouts, but during daily activities, chores, walking to meetings, etc.
I’ve already talked about measuring my HRV. I largely did that with the H10, though Welltory also let me measure it with my finger on my phone. (I ended up abandoning Welltory – it seemed less accurate over time and didn’t give me much uniquely useful info.)
For exercise tracking
Use with the Polar Beats app. Start the app, tell it what kind of exercise you are doing, and press “Start.”
If you leave the app open, you can see your heart rate moment-to-moment on your phone – if you can put your phone someplace visible while you exercise.
Five “zones” are color-coded from 1-5 based on your maximum recommended heart rate (220 minus your age).
For me, Zone 1 (50-60% of max HR) is 88-105 bpm because my max HR should be 176.
Zone 5 is 90-100% of your max (158+ for me), and I avoid it like the plague at this stage of my reconditioning.
Building on what I learned from the Morpheus band, Polar Zones 1-3 are recovery, Zone 4 is conditioning, and Zone 5 is overreaching. In practice, I aim a little lower – I think my conditioning zone probably starts around 130 bmp, which is 75% max or “Zone 2.5” and I don’t like to go above 150/Zone 3.5/85% max right now.
The 360 and 370 work basically the same way. You can use them as a wrist-based HR tracker for exercise, though it is not sensitive enough to track HRV (use the H10 for that). It is supposedly very accurate for walking and jogging, but less good for weightlifting and cycling. It also has an all-day activity monitor, and a sleep monitoring feature I’ve not used much at all.
The reason I got it is because I wanted to see my HR during exercise on my wrist, not my phone – I often use my phone to play workout videos and can’t see both apps at once. I also wanted to be able to track exercise on the fly during the day – e.g., walking to a meeting, or giving a presentation – because I suspected that many of my daily activities were more strenuous than I’d realized. It works great for this – I can see the same fitness zones on my wrist that I had been getting from the H10, and I regularly set it to record my activity while I’m at work.
You track day-long activity on the Polar Flow app. This will also take in info from Polar Beats, so if you do use the H10 for certain exercises, all the data gets collected into one place and count toward your daily activity. What’s slightly confusing is that “activity” is broken into different “zones” than training. Here’s a table…
Polar Training Zone
Morpheus Recovery Zone
HR range (BPM are for age 44)
Polar Flow Activity Level
·Resting + sitting
·Low-Medium intensity (breakpoint around 65%)
·Medium-High intensity (breakpoint around 75%)
·Very high intensity
·Dangerous during recovery from adrenal fatigue
To keep things simple, I mostly just look at the Polar Activity chart during the day. On “good” days, when my morning HRV reading is 8-10 on Elite HRV and 7.5 or above on HRV4Training, I go for 15 minutes of “high intensity” activity (HR above about 130). On days my HRV reading is around 6.5-7.5, I avoid high-intensity activity entirely but generally try to get in some low-medium intensity activity around Zone 2/HR 105-120. On days when my HRV says I’m overtaxed, I really try to rest as much as possible, including having my husband drop me off in front of my building at work, always taking the elevator, and going to bed an hour early.
I improved steadily through 2018, and I am MUCH better able to handle physical activity now! In Feb. 2018, I was pleased that that my edge was to do 20 minutes of gardening on Saturday AND Sunday, and feel fine on Monday. In September 2018, my edge was 3.5 hours a day of vigorous t’ai chi, on a Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, and though I was a little tired the following week, it wasn’t a real setback. I don’t think I’ve come close to pushing past my physical boundaries since then (3 months), though I am learning the toll stress and allergies take on my HRV scores. But that’s another post. 🙂
The Morpheus band and system are the only gizmos I know of that actually calculate how much a particular workout helps you recover, or knocks you back. (Update Feb. 2019: Biostrap also appears to do this, as well) Joel Jamieson, the creator, has done a ton of work around active recovery and avoiding overtraining. Probably 95% of what I know about recovery training came from his info. So I was very excited to try this tool.
You take a morning reading with the Morpheus band (on arm or leg) and get a baseline score and your set of target heart rates. There are three zones: recovery, conditioning, and overtraining, each with a heart rate range based on your age and your current state of fitness. Then you exercise – using the Morpheus band, or another HRV monitor such as the Polar 10 chest strap – and at the end of the workout, it calculates your recovery points. For me, I was always trying to maximize recovery points, and generally avoid negative recovery point (a sign that you worked really hard – which is great for hardcore athletes but not good for people desperately trying to avoid overexertion as they recover from a long illness).
Recovery scores were super-helpful! I learned that my body is “recovering” at much higher heart rates than I’d imagined.
My max recommended heart rate is about 176 (220-age), so I’d thought a good “recovery” heart rate maxed out at 110. But no – I was reliably seeing high recovery scores up to about 125-130bpm. And critically, I was seeing higher recovery scores at 125 than at 110.
I did take with a grain of salt Morpheus’s recommendation that on good days, I would be recovering up to 143bpm – that felt like way too much exertion for me at this point in time.
What I thought were good “recovery” activities (seated yoga, light t’ai chi) actually were calculated as “rest” and had little or no impact on my recovery scores.
The upshot is that I dramatically increased the intensity of activity I was doing, and continued to feel better.
Morning baseline readings were also helpful, but I was already getting very similar information from my chest strap and Elite HRV/HRV4Training apps. All of them seemed to agree pretty well.
The daily variation of HR zones was less useful than I’d expected, because they were nearly always the same. On a good day, the breakpoint between recovery and conditioning was about 143. On a bad day, it was about 135, which was not a very meaningful difference to me. In addition, this corresponds pretty well to the Polar zones 1-3 for recovery, 4 for conditioning, and 5 for overload.
The app doesn’t let me easily track HRV changes over time. It’s very much a “what should I do today” sort of device.
The app gives no information on LF/HF readings, which are useful for understanding how my parasympathetic system is/is not engaging. I don’t want to give up that info, so every morning, I was taking 3 simultaneous readings with two different devices.
The band is impossible to use during exercise. It was constantly slipping off my arm, and I don’t even sweat heavily. So I had to use my Polar chest strap during all exercise, but the Morpheus armband for the initial morning reading. (Update: Morpheus apparently now has a chest strap, which might help with this.)
You can’t just take a reading to see how you are doing “right now,” except for once a day in the morning. There were many times when I’d come home from work, and want to get info on how much my day had taken out of me, but it’s not set up to do that. That info was somewhat reflected in my next morning’s reading, but it didn’t help me narrow down non-exercise stressors.
The app and community were definitely focused on high-performing athletes and avid gymgoers. No one could really answer questions I had from the perspective of someone in deep recovery mode.
I ended up returning the Morpheus during its 60-day no-questions-asked return period. I do still occasionally miss the recovery score readings, but I wasn’t willing to pay $150 to keep having them – especially since I seemed to be able to track that data solely with my Polar chest strap.
Once I got to the point where I could work full days 5x/wk, I started feeling strong enough to begin exercising. But I kept overdoing it, in shockingly short periods of time (e.g., 20 minutes of gardening on Saturday left me tired through Monday). Following the guidelines of Active Recovery, I set the following exercise goals:
Prioritize recovery and stress reduction over building strength
If energy is good (judge by feel and HRV numbers), THEN alternate “long slow” and “strength/cardio” workouts. NO set frequency or schedule, to avoid overdoing it, or feeling guilt
Work on posture and breathing to increase available energy
I take an HRV reading every morning and compare that with how I feel. I use a Polar 10 chest strap gadget and the Elite HRV and HRV4Training apps simultaneously (I know, I know…I’m comparing them…gimme a break) to determine my morning HRV. If most signs point toward needing to take it easy, I rest or do a recovery activity in zone 1 (or low zone 2 since it’s often hard to stay in zone 1). If both readings are good, then I do exercise in zones 2-3. If I feel great, I aim for zones 3-4, but no more than 15 minutes at a time and no more than 2x/week at this point.
I wear the Polar chest strap or Polar A360 fitness watch to track the intensity of my workouts and some of my regular activities, like canning or walking up stairs or giving a presentation at work. Its app shows my heart rate AND the zone I’m in from moment to moment, then tallies up my time in each zone per workout and day/week/month. Here are some sample activities:
Activities Aug. ’18
Total rest –
Active Recovery –
Easy motion; often hard to stay this low
·Gentle sun salutations; seated active yoga
·Tai chi warm-up
·Walk to meeting
Light – base fitness – feels like “I’m actually doing
·Flowy tai chi
·1 flight stairs
·“Taking a walk”
Steady state – improve aerobic – feels like I’m working hard
·2 flights stairs
Tempo – speed/stamina – breathing very hard
·Mowing flat part of yard
Max – increase max performance – starting to worry
If you want to try this at home, there are tons of gadgets and apps out there. You absolutely need something that can measure heart rate variability – most FitBits and whatnot don’t do this, even if they can track your heart rate. I think HRV4Training can actually measure HRV using your phone – so that can be a good way to get started. It’s also super helpful to have a way to track your heart rate (pulse) as you exercise, so you know immediately if you need to slow down. I use the Polar A360, because it pairs nicely with the Polar chest strap, but if you’re using a phone app for HRV and have a Fitbit or similar, you’ve probably got all the data you need.
Short version: Using HRV for adrenal fatigue recovery
Your goal is to learn how much you can do without “overdoing it,” then restrict yourself to that amount of activity. This will be very hard. You may be surprised how little you can do at first. Take heart! You will improve faster if you can prevent overdoing it in the first place.
Take your heart rate variability each morning before you start your day (use the bathroom, then lie back down and take the reading). HRV is very personal, so it’s hard to tell you what number to look for, but after a week or two, you should be able to tell what “good” numbers look like for you.
Use the pulse meter to learn what activities put you in what heart rate zones. I was very surprised to learn that things I thought were very easy (like light gardening, picking beans, watering) put me in high Zone 3, and things I thought were moderate exercise (like seated yoga) were so light, they didn’t even register as light exercise.
Use the day’s reading to guide your activity that day.
If the app says you can train as per usual, aim for exercise in zone 3 (70% max heart rate). Start with no more than 15 minutes, twice a week, until you dial in what tires you out.
If the app recommends active recovery, aim for zones 1-2 (50-60% max heart rate).
If the app recommends rest, not only should you not raise your heart rate to Zone 1 with exercise, you should take steps to reduce other physical activity. Avoid stairs. Let someone else cook dinner. Go to bed an hour early. Do breathing exercises. Receive bodywork.
If you feel tired the morning after a certain type of workout, you’ve overdone it. Make a note and adjust your regimen accordingly.
I had to dial back my activity three or four weeks in a row until I got to a point where I had a sustainable activity regimen. At first, it felt pathetic – I barely felt like I was doing anything – but as I stuck to it, I got out of the overdo-then-crash cycle, and my overall strength improved rapidly.