Some time in the tub can be just the dose of relaxation and recovery that you need after exercise. Here, how to set up the perfect self-care bath.
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Few things feel better post-workout than slowly sipping into a warm bubble bath—especially when your workout involved chilly temps or snowy terrain. It's the perfect blend of recovery, relaxation, and self-care.
"Exercise puts the body in a temporary state of stress, thus stimulating our sympathetic nervous system," says Susan Hart, C.S.C.S., an Equinox Tier X coach based in Boston. "It's important we are able to down-regulate post-workout and find a more parasympathetic state as we go about our day or wind down in the evening."
After exercise, a bath can calm the central nervous system, bringing you back to baseline. Here, how to master the art.
Dry Brush Beforehand
"It's a great way to increase circulation, kick-start detoxification, and help along the body's lymph drainage system," says Laura Benge, the national spa director for Exhale Spa. Use a brush with firm bristles, brushing up toward the heart with long vigorous strokes. Start with your feet and work your way up your legs, stomach, arms, and underarms, she says. "It also gives a full-body exfoliation, which is key to having skin look fresh and glowing." (Just don't forget to moisturize afterward!)
Keep Water Warm, Not Super Hot
Muscles recover better after endurance exercise when warmed up—not chilled down, according to a recently published study in The Journal of Physiology.
"Warm baths provide moist heat, which is the most beneficial type of heat for muscle repair and recovery," says Katrina Kneeskern, D.P.T., a physical therapist at LifeClinic Physical Therapy and Chiropractic in Plymouth, MN. Since our bodies are 70 percent water, moist heat can seep deeper into muscles and tissues, allowing them to relax, she explains. "Post-workout, this can enhance recovery."
But everyone has experienced a too-hot bath that leaves you sweaty (not relaxed) after only a few minutes. In The Journal of Physiology study, bath water was just about 96.8 degrees. That's warm enough to see benefits but not too hot to soak in for 20 minutes, an amount of time that gives your nervous system and tissues time to adjust and relax, says Kneeskern.
Use Epsom Salts
Epsom salts aren't actually salt, rather a mix of important minerals, mainly magnesium—an essential electrolyte that plays a role in muscle, nerve, and heart function.
While there isn't extensive research on Epsom salts, the idea is that soaking in the salts—versus eating foods with magnesium in them—bypasses the digestion process, speeding absorption, says Kneeskern. No, you can't "detox" from an Epsom salt bath, but magnesium can help with inflammation, sore muscles, and recovery, adds Hart. (Try Dr. Teal's Pure Epsom Salt Soaking Solution, $5; amazon.com.)
Look for Lavender
Research finds that the scent of lavender can calm the central nervous system, lowering feelings of stress and anxiety—ideal for soothing your body and mind post-workout. Hart is a fan of lighting lavender-scented candles—but you can also use an Epsom salt bath product with lavender essential oil mixed in, or try a lavender face mask while you soak. (Related: What Are Essential Oils and Are They Legit?)
Besides being more fun, a layer of bubbles actually acts as an insulator, keeping the bath water warmer for longer, says Hart. Also: "It's pretty tough to be immersed in a bubble bath and not let out a huge, gratifying sigh."
A bath can be a great place to create a zenned-out environment. Turn on some relaxing music, light candles, lower the lights—whatever you need to make the time your own.
Hart also likes an app called CBT-i Coach. "There's a great feature on this app called Quiet Your Mind, which takes you through guided imagery through forests, beaches, or something as simple as a guided body scan," she says. "This is a great way to practice meditation, especially for those who may be new to the whole meditation thing."
Kneeskern focuses on a mantra. "I use 'Sat Nam' which in Kundalini Yoga means 'true identity,'" she says. "Even if you can't stop the 'monkey chatter,' just keep breathing and before you know it, it will become easier in time. As with anything in life, practice is what improves any habit, behavior, or lifestyle change."