The Rewards of Relaxation: Why Slowing Down Is Healthy

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Men, Women, and Stimuli

This complaint is almost universal in our culture. According to Tom Hodgkinson, author of How to Be Idle, we can thank our cultural forebears, the Puritans, for the notion that every hour must spent productively. For them hard work was the route to salvation because it provided distraction from temptation. Hence the axiom "idle hands are the devil's workshop." But if history and religion have colluded to demonize indolence and reward constant work, then why do so many men -- not to put too fine a point on it -- seem utterly at peace with their inner lazy bum?

"I've decided it's genetic," says Legare Vest, a wife, mother and science teacher from Nashville, Tennessee. "Somewhere on the Y chromosome, next to the anything-can-be-made-into-a-gun gene, is the pace-yourself gene. Multitasking just doesn't seem to be in the male DNA."

Vest is on to something, confirms Marianne J. Legato, MD, founder and director of the Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine at New York City's Columbia University and medical adviser to Ladies' Home Journal. While a man may work like a Trojan at his profession, logging frantic hours at work, when he's home, which is not (to him) a sphere for competition or endeavor, he's able to relax completely. This biological single-mindedness also enables men to tune out a lot of unnecessary stimuli, which may explain why they can fail to notice the dust bunnies and the sink full of dirty dishes they passed on their way to the La-Z-Boy.

The female brain, by contrast, is much better able to perceive and process several impressions at the same time -- a trait that is enhanced after childbirth. According to Dr. Legato, estrogen levels rise during pregnancy in a way that boosts neural interconnectivity. "Women, and particularly mothers, are capable of activating several areas of the brain simultaneously," she says, "far more than is the case with men." This tendency probably evolved as a survival technique: In primitive societies, if a mother couldn't focus on a task (gathering food, for instance) and listen for her children at the same time, the family might perish. Unfortunately, multitasking has endured as a trait in those of us not at risk of either starving to death or having our infants eaten by predators. Hence we have a much harder time savoring the breaks we actually allow ourselves. As Christine Ives, a stay-at-home mom in Morrison, Colorado, puts it, "There's always a mile-long list of tasks I need to complete, and I feel that list hanging over my head if I dare sit down." Besides, what pleasure can we derive from putting up our feet if our multitasking brains won't let us ignore the unfolded laundry and our culturally conditioned consciences beat us up for frittering away any of that precious time?

Continued on page 3:  Relaxation's Health Benefits


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