Physical capacity can briefly be described as a person’s potential to endure physical activity and daily activities. An exercise physiologist advises people to balance exercise with recovery, because recovery is an essential part of developing fitness. In Jyväskylä, women’s physical capacity has become an important research topic.

Essential components of physical capacity include a person’s rate of maximal oxygen uptake and muscle strength, and perhaps also the improvement of these qualities. Physical capacity is not just the ability to lift greater weights at a gym or to run a longer distance. For many, physical capacity is about coping with their everyday tasks.

– In the beginning, the improvement of one’s physical capacity can start from everyday things: use the stairs instead of an elevator or when going for shopping, for instance, leave the car farther away from the entrance, so that you take more steps each day. Then again, if you wish to improve your physical capacity by means of exercise, the key is consistency, summarises Project Manager and Postdoctoral Researcher Ritva Mikkonen from Vuokatti Sports Technology Unit, Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences.

Ritva Mikkonen

Mikkonen herself is a former competitive skier and her research work deals with physical capacity.

In addition to consistency, she emphasises progressively increasing volume and/or intensity.

–For many novices increasing volume rather than intensitymay be easier. There is no upper age limit for increasing volume of physical activity. Mikkonen reminds that physical capacity influences our present capability to do things, but the impacts extend also to our potential to cope with our future including aging-related changes.

– It is natural that physiological capacity decreases with aging, but people with higher capacity in their early adult years tend to have more room for decline, so to speak, Mikkonen points out.

Rest is equally important as physical performance

Exercise and other physicial activity stimulates the enhancement of physical capacity, but recovery is when development takes place. Recovery is an important part of our everyday lives. Both physical and mental recovery are important – for example eating a varied and adequate diet is essential.

– If recovery is neglected, it can disturb adaptations and prevent development. In other words, exercising or other activity will not yield expected responses and thereby adaptations: strength levels will not improve, running speed will not increase.

Adaptations induced by exercise refers to the expected or desired changes in physical condition, such as the growth of muscle strength or mass after strength training or more economic functioning of the cardiovascular system after endurance training.

After taking up a new sport, some people may be keen to put on their running shoes or sweat suits again as often as possible.

Can we speed up recovery?

– There are certain means by which recovery can be enhanced or sped up, but I would ask a more philosophical question: Should try to speed up recovery?, Mikkonen says laughing.

Such means may take you out of the frying pan into the fire.

– It is natural that the body reacts to stress and the cause of stress. If one uses excessive or perhaps the wrong means for recovery, it decreases the intended physiological response to exercise. For example, cold baths: If cold baths are used excessively after strength training, it may impede muscular growth. Or for instance, the use of pain killers for aching muscles may also slow down development.

Poor recovery may be experienced, for instance, as low quality of sleep and higher heart rate. Accordingly, it is good to monitor your own recovery primarily by listening to your own body. Many physically active people use e.g. smart watches and rings to monitor their well-being.

Nevertheless, Mikkonen advises people to listen carefully to their own bodies.

– Smart watches and similar devices are tools, not dictators. Using these devices can help facilitate discussion with your own body, because they can tell you information about your body that you may not be able to sense or make sense of. Regrettably, however, some of us have learned not to listen to our bodies and sometimes we plan activities relying solely on data displayed by our smart watches.

Recovery from overtraining can take a long time

Insufficient recovery can lead to a state which is generally called overtraining. In overtraining, the autonomic nervous system is in “shock” and the body cannot function normally. Often a person’s physical capacity is no longer improving but has become stagnate or started to decline. One’s own life situation is always good to consider when increasing physical activity. A stressed body does not necessarily call for any high-intensity exercise.

Overtraining is not only a problem for elite athletes but can also be a problem for recreationally active individuals. For both populations the so-called fundamentals – i.e. sleep and rest, nutrition, and mental balance – must be in order for continued improvement in physical capacity to occur.

Overtraining may not solely be due to exercising too much but can be induced by high levels of stress, too little rest and recovery during periods of high stress and, for example, either consciously or unconsciously limited eating.

Overtraining affects the autonomic nervous system, and the responses can vary depending on several factors. Generally, either the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive. When the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is in overdrive a high resting heart rate may be observed. When the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system is in overdrive, resting heart rate decreases.

Parasympathetic overtraining can be more difficult to identify, because some of the symptoms are similar to adaptations expected from endurance training. is the primary symptom common to sympathetic and parasympathetic overtraining is that physical capacity no longer develops or even begins to decrease.

To identify overtraining, one needs to listen to their body. Here smart watches, for example,can be useful tools. If “something doesn’t feel right” during daily activities or exercise one feels tired and no longer motivated, or one finds it necessary to slow down substantially, these may be signs of excessive physical or psychological stress. These symptoms can also be indicative of many illnesses and diseases, thus excessive fatigue should always be evaluated b by a health care professional. Recovery from overtraining can be dificult and may take months or, in some cases, even years.

– Recovery depends on how badly unbalanced the body is. In many cases, recovery from overtraining requires multiprofessional help. If overtraining is associated with inadequate energy.

supply or eating disorders, for instance, there is need for nutritional or psychological help. When hormonal dysfunction is involved endocrinological/gynaecological may be necessary. Similarly, a physiotherapist may be needed if overtraining has caused musculoskeletal problems.

University of Jyväskylä engaged in research of women’s physical capacity

Compared to men, research into women’s physical capacity and physiology has been relatively limited. According to Mikkonen, one of the primary reasons for this is that, compared to men, research of women’s physical capacity is more complex. Researchers need to consider and control several things such as the menstrual cycle, use of hormonal contraception, pregnancy, breast-feeding, or menopause.

University of Jyväskylä has engaged in research of women’s physical capacity. Picture: Touho Häkkinen

– In addition to this complexity, a major reason for the more limited volume of research into women’s physiology and physical capacity is the male-dominance of this field. Currently, most of the researchers of female physiology are women, Mikkonen continues. Menstrual cycle, hormones, nutrition, and energy balance are essential issues not only in Mikkonen’s research but also, for example, in the research work of Senior Lecturer Johanna Ihalainen in the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences, University of Jyväskylä. The latest undertaking on this theme are the NaisQs and No-REDS projects, which are led by Mikkonen and Ihalainen, respectively. Both projects are funded by the Ministry of Education and Culture.

The NaisQs project seeks to gain knowledge about the effects of endurance training on the risk of cardiovascular diseases, body composition, physical fitness, and quality of life (PMS, mood, body image) in women at fertile age, by comparing training periodised according to the menstrual cycle to traditional training. No-REDS focuses on relative energy deficiency in sport.

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