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Thursday
Oct092014

5 Reasons R&R Isn’t Optional

When you think of health - and especially weight loss - how do you imagine rest and relaxation fitting into that picture?

It can strike us as totally contradictory: rest and weight loss. Isn’t weight loss about effort and exertion? I’m supposed to be committing to the diligent labor of health and fitness - right?

The truth is, we absolutely do take on new endeavors when we follow a health journey. We put more care into shopping and food preparation. We hit the gym. We move more throughout the day. We get to bed earlier. In short, we put more energy into taking proper care of ourselves.

However, the underlying concept here - and the crux of real lifestyle change is this: we recalibrate our lives toward self-investment. This concept doesn’t put us on a path of unchecked exertion - but of personal balance.

What really offers us genuine rest?

The problem is, we tend to underestimate the connection between psychological and physiological balance - much to our detriment.

While we all adopt a core set of wellness-focused lifestyle changes, ultimately a health journey challenges us to ask how each of our habits is working - or not working - for our benefit. While this doesn’t mean we should obsessively justify every moment in terms of cost-benefit analysis, we come to believe that we deserve to get more from our choices (just as we deserve to get more from our meals). With practice, we even come to crave it.

Rest, we come to understand, isn’t merely the opposite of work but is what genuinely restores us.

In other words, it’s not a routine evening’s three hours of passivity after a day’s activity. It’s directing our time toward what fills the well again after other tasks and influences have taken their withdrawals throughout the day. 

For example, sitting in front of the television or Internet for three hours at night won’t typically give us the same physical or mental return as other choices. Some days those options might be soaking in the tub, working on a favorite hobby or doing a 20-minute meditation session. Other days, it might be turning in early or going out for a quiet stroll in an area park after dinner. Still other times, it could mean playing some lighthearted Frisbee at the beach or putting on quiet music and reading or talking with our partner. Once in a while, it might be watching a long-awaited movie or favorite show, but we’ll appreciate that entertainment much more when we’re also benefitting regularly from other means of rest and recreation.

At root here are the physiological rewards of lifestyle factors that come not from a good diet or exercise program but from living a fulfilling life. Take a look at these five ways we benefit from the rest and recreation choices that nourish us best.

Your body - and brain - reboot through your natural relaxation response.

Our relaxation response is a potent state of “deep rest” that in essence resets us physically and mentally. Accessible through meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, biofeedback, prayer, deep breathing, guided imagery and even repetitive, meditative activities such as knitting.

Dr. Herbert Benson, who coined the term “relaxation response” has explained that by harnessing this response we can use the mind as we can a drug to counter the physical and emotional impact of stress.

There’s really no overstating how deeply these benefits go either. Research confirms that not only do subjects who regularly elicit their body’s relaxation response experience profound shifts in their brain’s structure and signal activity, but they also demonstrate changes in gene expression associated with systemic inflammation and other physiological stress responses.

Your brain ages more slowly when you “play.”

While we may relegate the importance of play to our children’s development, the truth is, play figures into cognitive functioning throughout our lifespans. Play, as experts like Stuart Brown explains, maintains our brain’s plasticity, its ability to adapt to new inputs and incorporate new information into existing structures. Other research suggests play, including musical play, can enhance our executive functioning, our ability to organize our lives by directing our attention and energy. The result? We’re more mentally agile and cognitively sharp.

Balanced living supports balanced hormones.

Stress, as we can generally sense, results in a cascade of negative effects with potential influence on everything from heart rate to blood pressure, digestion to hormonal disruption. The cascade can encompass a wide span of hormones, including cortisol, insulin, leptin, melatonin and other key hormones. Once the cycle has begun, it can be hard to shut down. A stressful day begets a poor night’s sleep, which can exacerbate cravings and fatigue the following day.

A research review not only associated pursuit of recreational hobbies with lower blood pressure and smaller waist circumference but also lower total cortisol, suggesting our relaxing pastimes can ward off some of the hormonal sabotage that hampers our healthy metabolic functioning. To boot, we also apparently get an immune system boost from the “small pleasures” of socialization and leisure we pursue.

Recreation helps your body bounce back from mental stress, which allows for more physical exertion.

Our bodies hit thresholds when it comes to stress, and they don’t differentiate well between physical and mental sources. In essence, our mental stress can act as a roadblock to our fitness resilience by overloading our ability to recover from the constant stress inputs.

Research shows that those who experience significant work stress, for example, benefit from pastimes that promote socialization and physical recreation. Personal leisure activities, in essence, buffer the impact of our daily stress and stave off burnout. Chronic work stress can take a major toll, with one study suggesting it can shorten telomere length, one believed indicator of aging.

You’ll replenish your motivation for the ongoing journey.

Beyond the physical recovery we need to support the body’s repair cycle, we should also respect our need for personal rest and restoration. When we commit to a health journey with the intention of making a lifelong change, sustainability is critical.

Are we balancing our personal needs and nourishing ourselves with the right inputs? Are we continually aligning with our energy in a day all while steadily and healthily expanding our fitness abilities, or are we steamrolling the messages our bodies keep sending us?

When we seek to optimize the benefits of each aspect of our lives, including our rest and recreation time, we set ourselves up not only for the most effective health outcomes but a more fulfilling and expansive life.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Are you interested in learning more about recovery and stress? Check out our library of articles for more information and strategies you can apply to your healthy way of life.

In health, Jennifer Wannen, Content Manager

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

 

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