Chill out - why relaxation is just as important as being active

Chill out - why relaxation is just as important as being active

Despite the importance of having an active lifestyle, we may sometimes forget the mutual importance of relaxing. Allowing our bodies and minds to slow down has manifold health benefits, and most athletes know that relaxation is a major factor in performing their best. So as well as scheduling time for gym visits, should we also be scheduling time out from our busy lifestyles to just do nothing?

Dr Michael Mosley believes we should. Despite his now-famous lifestyle additions of the 5:2 diet and high intensity exercise, he is still searching for something to help him relax. This week on BBC2’s “The Truth About Personality”, he endeavoured to improve his anxiety, chronic insomnia and tendency towards pessimism by taking up meditation and improving his optimism levels, a target he was able to successfully  achieve.

A relaxed attitude to life is increasingly recognized by science as being a critical factor in our health and well-being. Far from having to live life to the max, follow rigid diets, and schedule ourselves around the clock to squeeze in work and exercise, it appears that the simple act of relaxation may be the foundation to a happy, healthy and long life. For example, the “The Truth About Personality” included data collated from veteran townspeople in Ohio which showed optimism could add seven years to your life. As the elderly folk sat relaxing with their friends in a bar one 90 year old exemplified their chilled-out approach to life, saying: “What’ll come will come. And when it comes, it comes.’

Recent American studies have also looked at ‘strategic renewal’  - taking lunch breaks, sleeping longer hours, taking frequent holidays – and discovered that taking time out boosts health, productivity and work performance. Harvard scientists have found that relaxation by meditation or similar methods actually switched on ‘disease-fighting genes’. While global research continually confirms the detrimental effects of stress – including increased blood pressure, heart disease and reduced immunity -  it’s believed that a state of relaxation actually has the opposite effect.

So what happens when we relax? Our parasympathetic nervous system is switched on, which in laymen’s terms means our body is resting and happy. Benefits begin immediately, with boosted levels of feel-good chemicals and growth hormones, leading to lowered heart-rate, improved digestion, oxygen levels, memory, immunity, and fertility, among many other benefits. 

Although evidence shows deep relaxation achieved by methods like meditation is particularly beneficial, any form of relaxation is a treat for our body. So whether it’s yoga which does it for you, or simply taking time out for a cuppa, the biological effects are essentially the same.

Your body isn’t the only thing to benefit. A relaxed mind also appears to be a mind working at its optimum level. Have you ever been trying hard to solve a problem by thinking it out, only for the solution to arrive when you mentally relax and do something else? Scientists from London and Vienna similarly discovered that those much sought-after creative ‘Aha! moments’ were achieved by relaxing the brain, as opposed to paying focused attention on a problem. It’s believed relaxation makes the brain more receptive to free floating ideas. For example, Archimedes’s only discovered his famous principle when he was relaxing in the bath.

With the UK’s strong hard work ethic relaxation can be a hard thing to justify to other people. Tell them you’re training for a marathon, juggling two jobs or training to become a psychologist and you will receive many comments of admiration. But tell them you’re dropping your hours at work, or have decided to have lunch with friends rather than play squash and the response isn’t quite so approving.

Giving up doing lots of things may also be difficult for those of us who are naturally busy, active people. We are concerned that if we don’t push ourselves hard then we fail to achieve our goals, or our brain cells will wither away. I personally find myself getting twitchy and feeling guilty if I sit and read a book before I’ve ‘got everything done’.

It’s often getting rid of that ‘should’ thought and just doing what you want to do for a change. If you find this hard to do, try scheduling in time to relax alongside work commitments. 

Our quality of life improves as we become less reactive and are more willing to spend time doing simple, non-productive activities. Many people rediscover themselves and their relationships when they give themselves permission to just enjoy the little things. In Mexico they refer to retirement as Jubilado which means ‘joy’. In fact, the whole Mexican culture places great value on the small, joyful moments of daily life such as stopping and talking to a friend rather than rushing off to stick to your workout schedule. Everything moves more slowly, perhaps because of the heat.

It’s undoubtedly worth making time in your busy schedule to relax, and if there’s ever a good time to slow down it’s during this current heat wave. Resist the urge to be busy all the time. Instead, relax in the knowledge that by sometimes doing nothing you are doing something wonderful for your health and your life.  

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