The Rewards of Relaxation: Why Slowing Down Is Healthy
Relaxation's Health Benefits
As children we recognized how good it felt to experiment with mud or lie on the grass and watch ants carry off sandwich crumbs. Now that we're all grown up, we need to know what we'll get out of an activity before we sign on. But aimlessness provides a significant payoff.
For starters, the problem-solving mind actually functions best during unstructured time. Think of the resting brain as an automated version of an old-fashioned card catalog: When we're engaged in "mindless" activities -- taking a stroll, listening to music, soaking our feet -- our minds are free to sort through the accumulated information stored there, making connections and finding answers that a focused, directed mind is too busy to make. That's why that bit of data you've been struggling to recall -- the name of a childhood friend, a song lyric -- often comes to you as you're falling asleep or taking a shower. According to Hodgkinson, history is filled with examples of the intellectual bounty of idleness: Einstein launched his theory of relativity by wondering what it would be like to ride on a sunbeam; Newton discovered the law of gravity while sitting in an orchard; the premise for the Harry Potter books popped into J.K. Rowling's mind as she was gazing out a train window. It's not that these breakthroughs sprang out of nowhere: All these people spent years reading and researching and experimenting in their fields before the "aha" moment finally hit. Undirected, stress-free moments allow the mind to make connections it can't make when focused on a single task, according to R. Keith Sawyer, PhD, professor of psychology at Washington University and author of Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. The idle mind literally pulls together seemingly unrelated fragments of information stored in disparate regions of the brain and combines them in a way the focused mind can't.
Relaxation also provides well-documented health benefits. Susan Wilson, a personal and business coach in Newton, Iowa, suffered recurrent health problems -- sinus infections, back spasms, heart palpitations -- before concluding that she had to slow down. "I suffered a lot of guilt when I decided to amend my workaholic ways," she says. "But then the change started to have undeniably positive consequences. I really did get healthier."
That's because of the way stress affects both the cardiovascular and immune systems, according to Michaela Axt-Gadermann, MD, coauthor of The Joy of Laziness. Constant busy-ness engages the sympathetic nervous system, which makes the body run in high gear: Blood pressure rises, increasing the risk for circulatory disease, heart attack, and stroke, and cortisol floods the bloodstream, suppressing the immune system and impairing short-term memory. During periods of rest and quiet, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over -- your pulse rate slows, you take deeper breaths, blood pressure drops -- which allows the immune and circulatory systems to reset themselves to normal functioning.