Float to bust stress & recover

Stress may slow down your recovery from strenuous exercise. We get a personal trainer to test a radical antidote: flotation tanks.

We might be finally waking up to how truly damaging stress is. The final straw was a recent study that confirmed a link between stress and one of humanity’s great scourges: depression.

It showed that repeated bouts of stress trigger an immune response that leads to inflammation in the parts of the brain connected with depressive behaviour. Although the study was conducted with mice, it supported an earlier study on humans, which showed
that untreated depression is linked to higher levels of inflammation in the brain.

This link to depression is really the final piece in a case that health professionals have been building against stress for many years now. The basic mechanisms by which stress damages us are already well known – physical or mental stress can lead to the release of stress hormones called glucocorticoids, which include cortisol.

In small doses, cortisol is important. In the morning it gets you ready for the day by priming your energy system, releasing fats and sugars into the bloodstream. But too much cortisol resulting from continual stress starts to inhibit other systems in the body, including those responsible for growth and healing as well as your immune system.

But when you’re stressed and there are high levels of cortisol in your blood, it interferes with the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines. Cytokines regulate the immune and inflammatory responses to muscle building and injury, so cortisol can slow the growth and healing processes that follow intense exercise.

A study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2017, focused on muscle builders, examining the effects of psychological stress on their recovery. It found that participants who were chronically stressed experienced slowed recovery in addition to increased fatigue and soreness.

“Stress has an impact on recovery from heavy bouts of training,” wrote the researchers. “Those reporting high levels of stress take several more days to recover than those reporting less stress.”

The study concluded that those people who engage in strenuous strength training should “exercise caution when stressed”.

Flotation therapy: the new stress buster

A fast-growing trend in fitness is to use flotation therapy to reduce stress and enhance recovery. This involves floating on your back in a darkened tank full of salty water. The idea is to remove all external stimuli and stressors to put you in a state of deep relaxation.

A Swedish study published in BioMed Central in 2014 concluded that stress, anxiety, depression – and importantly, pain – were significantly decreased with the use of flotation therapy. At the same time, “optimism and sleep quality significantly increased”.

We decided to test this out for ourselves. We sent one of Fitness First’s top personal trainers, Isabella Hakin, to try out the float tank at Flow Revive (flowrevive.com.au) in Sydney’s Paddington.

Flow Revive points out that its tanks not only induce relaxation, but they also relieve your joints and nervous system of the pressure of gravity and speed up your recovery.

During our test, Isabella spent 40 minutes in the tank. “I found it incredibly relaxing. If you’re someone who struggles with meditation, this is a great way of enforcing a state of deep relaxation,” she said.

However, flotation tanks may not be for everybody, she points out. “They provide a peaceful escape for some, but can also actually provide the complete opposite because they mimic the sensation of being in a the womb.

“For many people, this is an opportunity to be entirely in their thoughts, leaving the mind and body feeling clear, refreshed and rejuvenated after a float, which is how I felt post-float. I went into my float feeling clouded, stressed, on edge and I came out with clarity, peace of mind and a clear path of where to go and what to do next.”

But for some, being in your thoughts can be scary; the float tank is dead-still, no sound, no music, no distractions, no noise – it’s you versus your thoughts. The tank may be quiet, but your mind is not, and it could take a few floatation sessions to find peace and clarity.

Top 5 float tank benefits

Lowers stress

After floating in a dark tank for a while, you start to disconnect from your physical environment and most people can’t tell which part of their body is in the water. This makes it easier to relax deeply.

Speeds up recovery

A flotation tank is the only place where your joints and nervous system truly have the pressure taken off. When you float, lactic acid leaves the body faster, reducing stiffness and pain, according to a study.

Improved creativity

The tank removes distractions and makes it easier for you to concentrate, which is why creative people like them.

Improved appearance

Epsom salts can give you a “post-float glow” – the replenishing magnesium sulfate will make your hair more lustrous and recharge your skin.

It’s hardcore

This is not for the weak of heart! It improves the strength and definition of your glutes, lower back and abs. You’re guaranteed to feel it for days.