Anytime I think about rest, I picture myself sleeping or just relaxing on my bed with its nice fluffy pillows -- but, according to Matthew Edlund, MD, author of the book The Power of Rest: Why Sleep Alone Is Not Enough, this restricted vision of rest limits the benefits that we get from it. Dr. Edlund is a proponent of what he calls "powerful resting," which involves a lot more than snoozing, reading or watching TV. "Rest doesn’t mean just immobility," he explains. "It is anything we do with the intention of regenerating the body." There are other ways of resting, he says, that can help you increase productivity and improve your mood, health and pleasure -- and even help you maintain a healthy weight.
In Dr. Edlund’s view, lying around on the couch or sleeping are classic examples of passive rest -- which has value, of course. However, Dr. Edlund’s primary focus is something else -- the pursuit of active rest. This includes activities and exercises that he describes as "restorative in that they rebuild and rewire body and mind... let you retune and reset... and consciously direct your body and brain to be more capable of doing whatever you want to do."
A common mistake people make is to consider active rest as little more than engaging in "fun activities," such as the things we all tend to do on vacations. But that view is incomplete, he says. In fact, active rest is not just fun -- it contributes to longevity and health by creating a better mood and balance in your life as well as reducing stress. In Dr. Edlund’s mind, that is why it should be a regular part of our lives.
Exercises for Active Rest
Dr. Edlund has identified four life areas that provide opportunities for active rest and offered a specific exercise to experience and enhance each of them...
- Physical rest. Sleep is just one part of physical rest, Dr. Edlund points out. He suggests that we all can benefit from performing simple physiological tasks while we are awake to bring a calm, relaxed state and mental alertness -- without taking a nap.
Suggested activity: "Paradoxical Relaxation." Close your eyes and feel the motion of your eyeballs, which will automatically continue to move under your closed lids. Target any area of your body where you can feel muscle tension -- if you can’t think of one, try your left eye (or the right one if you are left-handed, since it is easier to focus on the body part that you don’t automatically use). Keep your mental focus there, and experience the intensity of tension as the muscle moves -- without trying to modify or change it in any way. Do this for several minutes, then shift your focus to another area of tension in a different body part, such as your neck, shoulder or hand, where you will repeat the same activity.
Benefit: The paradoxical aspect of this exercise is that paying attention to one specific area of tension, in this case your eye, relaxes muscles throughout the entire body. This can be a good trick to help you get to sleep as well.
- Mental rest. Actively resting your mind quickly produces relaxation and focus that can bring greater awareness, concentration and achievement.
Suggested activity: "Walking to Music." Find a place where you have enough space to walk around comfortably for about one minute, such as a long hallway, a parking lot or, better yet, a park. But before walking, use a portable music player or just your imagination to "listen to" one fast tune and a slow one for about 30 seconds as you stand without moving. Then replay (on your device or in your head) the fast song and walk with its rhythm, getting your whole body into the beat. After you really start to feel it in your body (for most people, that’s about 20 seconds), switch to the slow song for the same period of time and adjust your gait accordingly. Notice how different your muscles feel and how each tune affects your mood. If you’re feeling good, you can continue this exercise longer and feel even more enlivened.
Benefit: Walking to music takes you away from your current thoughts and worries while also focusing your brain and engaging your muscles simultaneously. This in turn produces a quick boost of energy and activates the pleasure center of the brain (like dancing does). It will improve your mood!
- Social rest. The power of social rest comes from connecting with others, thus creating feelings of belonging and togetherness, both of which promote good health.
Suggested activity: Walk to lunch with a colleague, friend or neighbor. To do this, consider who in your life you would like to know better and spend more time with -- say a coworker who is really in the know about your workplace, a neighbor who is full of good cheer, a friend who has long been special to you. Every few weeks, invite one of them to lunch. Here is the catch -- you are to choose a place for lunch that takes about 10 minutes to walk to. As you walk to and from the restaurant with your companion, let him or her do most of the chatting initially while you pay close attention not only to the words but also to his or her carriage and posture, facial expressions and emotions.
Benefit: Focusing on someone else can take you deeper into the dynamics and flow of your relationships and at the same time remove you from a focus on your own life, producing a relaxing and enriching break.
- Spiritual rest. This type of rest connects you to larger and greater aspects of life (such as a higher power) while also promoting a sense of internal balance.
Suggested activity: "Moving through Time and Space." This is a journey of the imagination that will take three to five minutes. As you sit at your table or desk, close your eyes and picture life as it was in that specific location one year ago... 10 years ago... 100 years... 1,000 years... and finally reaching all the way back to prehistoric times and then beyond, to the time before everything began. Stay in each time period for a few seconds before reversing the pattern and, just as quickly, moving forward. Then take another mental "trip," but this time, focus on internal space, beginning by picturing your heart... then zooming in to the left side of it and the valves there... then the arteries... the blood vessel branches... the cells... the molecules... and, finally, the atoms. Once again, reverse the pattern -- now quickly imagining your internal structure from the tiniest elements and zooming out to your heart in the present.
Benefit: This provides perspective and a sense of awe about the vastness of the universe as you take yourself backward and then hurtle forward through time and space.
Each of these activities -- and others that Dr. Edlund describes in his book -- takes only a few minutes to accomplish. They are easy to fit into your day whenever you feel the need to "power up," as he puts it. You can catch your breath by calming down, bringing the focus back to who you are -- all truly regenerative and restorative, just as he says.
Matthew Edlund, MD, is a sleep, biological clocks, performance and rest expert, and author of The Power of Rest: Why Sleep Alone Is Not Enough (HarperOne). He is director of the Center for Circadian Medicine, Sarasota, Florida.