The day after a brutal workout, exercising more might be the last thing you want to do—but here’s why you should: Light activity can help ease soreness just as well as a massage, according to a new study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
For the study, Danish researchers asked 20 women to perform shoulder exercises. Two days later, the women received a 10-minute massage on one shoulder and performed 10 minutes of exercise (a lighter intensity version of the original moves) on the other. Turns out, participants felt equal amounts of relief in both shoulders.
While the study didn’t explore why exactly exercise can help ease muscle soreness, researchers believe that, since it increases circulation to muscles, physical activity may help speed up the body’s drainage of the metabolic waste and chemicals linked with muscle aches, says lead study author Lars Andersen, PhD, a professor at the National Research Center for the Working Environment in Copenhagen.
Previous research has also shown that increased blood flow speeds delivery of nutrients to damaged muscles, makes tissues more elastic, and increases range of motion—all of which can help ease pain and boost recovery.
Just remember that recovery workouts are supposed to feel quick and easy, similar to a warm-up, says Andersen. To get blood circulating to specific muscle groups, your routine should focus on similar moves to what caused the soreness in the first place—but at an easier intensity. Or, if you’re sore all over, do a light workout on an elliptical machine or in the pool, suggests Jaime Edelstein, DScPT, CSCS, a physical therapist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
Of course, moving your muscles isn’t the only way to keep them pain-free. Try these other ways to ease aches:
Similar to massage, foam rollers increase blood flow to your muscles through applied pressure—but without the hefty price tag, says Edelstein. And since you decide which muscles you work, you can make sure to focus on the areas that need the most TLC.
Skip ibuprofen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. While they may make you feel better, they’ll also halt your body’s production of a group of lipid compounds called prostaglandins, which research shows help muscles heal. Acetaminophen (aka Tylenol) can help temporarily curb pain without preventing muscles from repairing themselves, says Edelstein.
Stretching—after a warm up
Limbering up relaxes and lengthens tight muscles, says Edelstein. But since stretching “cold” muscles can cause injury, she recommends waiting to stretch until after you’ve done a light warm-up.
Warm temps can increase blood flow to sore muscles big time, says Edelstein. Soak in a hot bath, or if the pain is isolated, apply heat directly to the spot that’s giving you trouble. Many peel-and-stick heating pads can stay in place for hours and are thin enough to wear under clothing.
Taking a fish-oil pill once a day reduces soreness and eases inflammation 48 hours after a strength-training workout, according to research published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. Omega-3s—which are also found naturally in foods such as salmon, spinach, and nuts—may help boost circulation to sore muscles while also reducing inflammation.