The secret to a long, healthy life may have more to do with how much, how often, and how well you relax each day, than how many steps you take.
Unfortunately for those who adore their Fitbits, fitness trackers, and other forms of fitness jewelry, their devices can’t capture relaxation metrics. The technology is just too primitive.
We’re a society plagued by a constant burden to have something to show for ourselves: finishing Making a Murderer on Netflix and tweeting at Dean Strang that he’s your hero; walking 10,000 steps before 8pm and posting it on the Facebook; listening to WNYC’s Only Human podcast while doing burpees at the gym, figuring out what you’d do if you lived to be a super-centenarian.
Our focus on accomplishment causes us to ignore two fundamental truths about health: It’s okay to say no to exercise, and it’s okay to relax.
It’s how you relax that is the question.
We know napping leads to improved memory, creativity, and focus. “For some people, naps are as restorative as a whole night of sleep,” said Dr. Sara Mednick, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside and author of Take a Nap! Change Your Life, in an interview with Time in 2014.
But this article is not about napping.
This article is about the art of active rest. It’s called restorative yoga. The goal is total relaxation: laying in a dimly lit room, listening to either silence or calming music (Enya is the obvious the go-to; and yes, she’s still making music) with a blanket draped over you and firm pillows, called bolsters, to support your body. The restoration comes in the state of being just before falling asleep. Getting there is harder than it looks.
According to April Reiersen, a New York City-based family nurse practitioner with a holistic specialty and a 500-hour registered yoga teacher with training in restorative yoga, this practice facilitates a quality of physical and mental rest that promotes balance in the nervous system response.
“It’s a recalibration of the body’s physiological response to stress, away from reactive patterns that lead to chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system—rapid heart rate, rapid breathing, tense muscles, and slow digestion,” Reiersen says in an interview with The Daily Beast.
“This ‘fight or flight’ response is key to human survival; however, when we remain in these states of chronic stress long-term, it is a set-up for disease in the body,” she adds.
The science behind mind-body medicine is rapidly growing. Reiersen cites rising consensus around the undeniable link between state of mind and health of the body. Studies in psychoneuroimmunology and psychoneuroendocrinology show improved immune responses and balanced hormones, respectively. She considers the art of relaxing as a form of preventative medicine.
“Chronic stress triggers inflammatory responses, and increased inflammation plays a central role in many diseases. Studies have shown that relaxation therapies promote a decrease in inflammatory signaling in stressful situations. When the body is allowed to rest we see a physiologic response that promotes the health and healing of the body,” Reiersen explains.
In many ways, it’s easier to exercise—the act of movement—than face the stressors of life head on through a more passive practice like restorative yoga. This may be because we never really learned how to handle stress without exercise. We never learned how to be ok with being still.
While regular exercise has powerful and undeniable health benefits, Reiersen reminds us that these benefits may be counteracted when you dash from an intense, stressful work-life situation to a high intensity workout.
“We have to ask: Are you just prolonging your stress response?”
Restorative yoga is exercise, but of the mind, enabling you to face stress with directness you won’t find on the treadmill. This type of active rest has an entirely opposite effect on our bodies from traditional exercise.
Reiersen describes the process: “Restorative practice promotes the relaxation response, activating the para-sympathetic nervous system—lowering heart rate and blood-pressure, decreasing respiratory rate, and promoting digestion. This is the physiologic state that allows the body to rest and rejuvenate.”
All this leads to good news: It’s time to throw to the curb this incessant need for accomplishment in American fitness culture.
In CrossFit, it’s the number of wall-ball throws you can do in a minute. For Barry’s Bootcamp, it’s how fast you can sprint on the treadmill. And at SoulCycle, it’s the resistance you permit yourself to endure on the spin bike among your cardio-party-seeking sisters and brothers.
What we often forget is the physical havoc these fitness activities sometimes wreak on our body. We perceive the pain and soreness as positive and healthy.
Reiersen asks why our society doesn’t praise the opposite.
“People in the workout community often love to say things like, “I am so sore,” and “I am so tired.” How often do you hear someone say, “I am so well-rested. I just feel so refreshed”?”
Reiersen recommends her patients schedule relaxation time the same way they schedule workouts.
Best of all, the barriers to entry are minimal. No fitness gadgets, jewelry or Kate Hudson fabletic active wear required to partake in restorative yoga.
“You can go in your pajamas, and you are covered under a blanket most of the time,” Reiersen adds.
What’s not to like about that?