How do you relax?
Modern culture rewards busyness and productivity. However, humans are NOT machines or bots that can toil tirelessly and efficiently without breaks!
Humans are energy beings. The ebb and flow of our energy not only fluctuates throughout the day but is also tied to the seasons. When it’s hot, our physical body craves lighter, less dense foods and, psychologically, we need more down time.
For example, midday siestas are time-honored traditions in Italy and Spain. And, in the U.S. and many parts of Europe, business is typically slowest in August.
Athletes work with this ebb and flow of energy by cycling their training schedule with periods of rest and recovery for optimal performance. Rest is just as important as the training itself, because rest enables the body to repair and strengthen itself between workouts; this allows athletes to recover both physically and psychologically.
When we honor our body’s cycles of high energy and low energy, we are better able to optimize our productivity—without jeopardizing our health.
The benefits of relaxation include:
- Improved mental acuity
- Increased stress resilience (we are better able to tolerate stress)
- Lower blood pressure
- Less muscle tension
- Improved and/or balanced mood
- Improved mental health
- Stronger immune system
- Lower inflammation
- Reduced risk of stress-related illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and autoimmune diseases
As a recovering productivity junkie, I am now mindful of incorporating relaxation into my daily routine. I grew up in a family that equated productivity with worth. Being constantly “busy” was seen as a virtue, and this deeply embedded value shaped my workaholic tendencies.
Until relatively recently, I found it very challenging to “relax”. I always had a running “to-do” list and/or “project” in the works. The idea of “doing nothing” triggered feelings of anxiety, dread and guilt (mostly guilt!). Even “vacations” were typically packed with “must-see” cultural hotspots and “must-do” activities; as a result, “vacations” were rarely “relaxing”.
This has changed over the last few years. My husband and I recently spent a week in Maine. While there, I became acutely aware of how positively my body responded to my relaxed state of being. For example, I had ZERO cravings for dark chocolate and was not even remotely tempted to eat it even though I had easy access. This is significant, as dark chocolate is a daily ritual food for me the way a morning cup of coffee is for others—unthinkable not to have! Other telltale signs that I was in relaxed mode… The occasional stiffness in my right hip, which can flare when I feel overwhelmed or stressed, was absent the entire trip. In addition to awakening without an alarm clock, I found that my body felt tired earlier in the evening, which translated into an earlier bedtime (a feat rarely achieved at home!). And my overall mood was upbeat, happier and calmer.
In deconstructing my time away, I found that the following practices can help create a state of relaxation. The key is to SLOW DOWN. The good news? You don’t have to take an expensive vacation or take extra time off work to implement these relaxation strategies. It simply requires mindfulness on your part. Busy? You can start trying to integrate these practices on weekends.
7 Ways to SLOW DOWN and help your body relax
1. Less is MORE.
We’ve visited Maine in years past, usually with on-the-go, action-packed agendas—hiking, biking, kayaking, sightseeing and exploring foodie hot spots. Now, we spend time in Maine with the express intention of DOING NOTHING other than eating well; going to the beach; walking everywhere; and sleeping hard. We keep our agenda simple and uncluttered…no distractions!
That said, we did our due diligence and planned ahead of time. I booked our hotel room and made restaurant reservations a few months in advance. I chose restaurants that offered gluten-free and diary-free options to avoid the stress of physical discomfort while on vacation. Our plans were loosely structured, but flexible in case of bad weather. Planning on the front end minimizes potential stressors and maximizes relaxation during our time off.
The body and psyche inherently want to slow down during hot-weather months. Avoid spreading yourself too thin. Prioritize one or two tasks you would like to accomplish for the day—rather than trying to complete everything on a long (and overwhelming) to-do list. Keep your goals simple, whether it’s getting two loads of laundry done, taking a 30-minute walk, working in the garden for an hour without interruption, or spending one evening during the week with a friend.
2. Expose yourself to morning light.
While in Maine, my husband and I walked into town for breakfast every morning around 9AM; it was a 30-minute round trip walk without rushing or racing to our destination. I found this both relaxing and energizing.
Going outside and exposing yourself to sunlight in the morning can help increase daytime energy; can promote an overall sense of well-being; and can help regulate melatonin production so that you fall asleep more easily in the evening (1, 2).
Our bodies are governed by a circadian rhythm, our sleep-wake cycle over the course of a 24-hour day. Circadian rhythms are connected to an internal master clock located in our brain. Our circadian rhythms are affected by light exposure, aligned with the cycles of night and day. A prime example is sleeping at night because it is dark (zero light exposure) versus being awake in the morning when we are exposed to full, bright light. Circadian rhythms affect important bodily functions, including how alert or sleepy we feel; the release of hormones (e.g. cortisol, insulin, leptin); as well as our appetite, digestion; and body temperature (3, 4).
Being in sync with our circadian rhythm benefits our physical and mental health: we sleep better and deeper; we have more natural energy; we optimize metabolic processes; and we experience a more positive mood (less depression).
The hormone cortisol (a.k.a., the “stress hormone”) plays a big role in our sleep-wake cycle. Cortisol is a hormone that helps regulate the body’s response to stress. High levels of stress contribute to poor sleep, and poor sleep causes/worsens stress levels. Cortisol has a specific circadian rhythm that is affected by sleep. Cortisol levels drop throughout the day, especially after the sun sets, preparing your body for sleep (it is lowest at the beginning of the sleep cycle). As the sun rises, your cortisol levels also rise, so that you awaken with energy in the morning (5). Going against your natural body clock—for example, regularly sleeping during the day, working the “graveyard” shift—triggers a negative hormonal domino effect, starting with out-of-sync cortisol levels; this sets the stage for weight gain, inflammation, low mood and mental distress. Hardly relaxing!
3. Go barefoot in the sand, grass, dirt or mud.
Sunshine. Sand. Ocean. Going to the beach is always a highlight of our time in Maine. The simple act of walking barefoot on sand feels so good both physically and mentally.
The science behind “grounding” or “earthing” is that walking barefoot on a natural surface—dirt (even mud!), pesticide-free grass (so don’t do this on pesticide-sprayed golf courses!), forest soil, or beach sand—helps lower oxidative stress and inflammation.
Researchers on the effects of grounding on inflammation note that “an earth connection was once an everyday reality in past cultures that used animal skins for footwear and on which to sleep (6).” Primitive cultures often went barefoot or wore moccasins, shoes with leather soles, or minimalist sandals. Today, a direct skin connection with the Earth’s surface has been lost—thanks to high-rise buildings, elevated beds, and modern footwear created from synthetics and/or rubber, materials that block the flow of beneficial electrons (7).
How grounding works… Our bodies generate electricity. Atoms that are made up of positively charged protons, negatively charged electrons, and neutrally charged neutrons are inside our bodies.
Oxidation is a natural process that occurs when oxygen interacts with cells of any kind. For example, apple slices that turn brown after being exposed to oxygen are an example of “oxidation”. Atoms that have been exposed to oxygen will “break” and end up with unpaired electrons, creating unstable molecules called “free radicals”. Having too many free radicals in your body can damage DNA and cell membranes, leading to chronic diseases and conditions.
What causes free radical stress? Exposure to pollution, cigarettes, pesticides, trans fats, and radiation from cell phones, computers, Blue Tooth, Wi-Fi and traveling on airplanes, all of which deplete the body of electrons.
Walking barefoot in soil, grass or sand allows any excess charge in your body to discharge into the earth, relieving the body of excess stress.
New research has revealed that direct physical contact with the earth’s natural surfaces generates an “electric nutrition” that imparts anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects (8). Studies suggest that grounding can improve sleep, reduce pain, reduce stress, speed wound healing and help calm and relax the body (9, 10).
Try grounding at home in your yard, in your garden, or at a park. All you need is a patch of grass, dirt or sand on which you can comfortably stand, walk or lie down. The point is to make regular direct skin-to-earth contact.
4. Take a nap.
While in Maine, I spent my midday hours on the beach, where I often drifted off into a nap. When I came to, I felt refreshed and relaxed.
Our energy level naturally ebbs and flows. For many people, feelings of sleepiness and low energy usually manifest early to mid-afternoon due to to a natural dip in your circadian rhythm. This is when serotonin and melatonin, chemical messengers that regulate our mood, motivation, cognitive function and sleep are naturally lower. A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that our serotonin levels tend to be at their lowest around 2PM (11).
Taking a midafternoon break or nap is common in many cultures, including Spanish, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures. Countries with hot climates often have a tradition of siesta, where businesses shut down at midday, and workers go home for a nap or take a long rest. Yet, in our productivity-obsessed culture, napping is perceived as “weird” or a sign of weakness. Most people choose to power through their afternoon energy slump with caffeine, sugar, or refined carbs—a recipe for weight gain and hormone imbalance.
On the other hand, a short 10- to 30-minute nap can offer the following benefits (12):
- Promotes relaxation. When you feel rested, you feel more relaxed.
- Increases alertness. You feel less sleepy naturally.
- Enhances memory. You are better able to process and retain information.
- Improves mood. You are better able to regulate your emotions.
You will get the most out of a nap if you (13):
- Take a nap before 3PM.
- Limit nap time, anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes.
- Use a sleep mask and/or ear plugs to block sleep disruptors, like noise and light.
- Nap in a comfortable place where you can fall asleep quickly.
- Avoid electronic stimulation (phone, computer, or television) before your nap.
5. Take a post-prandial walk after your last meal of the day.
While in Maine, my husband and I typically ate dinner between 5PM and 6:30PM. After dinner, we would take a leisurely, post-prandial stroll outdoors for approximately 45 minutes to an hour, which always helped us feel more relaxed and eased us into an earlier bedtime.
A leisurely stroll—not power walking—after dinner can help relax the body. Why? Because a post-prandial walk supports better digestion; lowers blood pressure; lowers blood sugar; and, when walking outdoors, you are exposed to decreasing natural evening light (e.g., from dusk to darkness), which can help you fall asleep more easily.
Studies have shown that taking a 30-minute walk after dinner compared to exercising before a meal has a greater effect in stabilizing / lowering blood sugar (14, 15).
This relaxation strategy is beneficial for everyone to adopt—not just diabetics. Blood sugar management is the cornerstone of optimal health and weight management. A significant portion (38%)—96 million Americans aged 18 and older—are pre-diabetic (16). Of Americans, who are 65 years or older, nearly half (48.8%) are pre-diabetic (17).
In one study, researchers found that taking a 30-minute walk approximately 15 minutes after meals showed an improved glycemic (blood sugar) response, especially when those meals contained a lower carbohydrate content and higher protein intake (18).
6. Practice mindfulness / present-moment awareness.
Time often feels like it passes quickly, especially in the summer. While in Maine, I made a concerted effort to “stretch out” my vacation by being fully present in the moment. How? By tuning into the sensory experience of my surroundings: feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin; breathing in the briny scent of the ocean; listening to waves crashing in the distance; enjoying stellar scenic views; or, tasting the sweet meat of a freshly caught, steamed Maine lobster. Yes, sometimes my thoughts strayed. I noticed them, acknowledged how these thoughts made me feel, then retrained my attention on the present.
We lose precious time when our minds wander. This happens when we ruminate about past events (e.g., “I could have / should have done X”). Or we worry about the future (e.g., anticipating outcomes: “What if X happens?”). Or we fixate on what we fear may never happen (e.g., “Will I ever be able to do X?”). On the other hand, by staying in the present moment, we “gain” time.
Present moment awareness means that you are paying close attention to your thoughts, feelings and sensations as they are happening—rather than being preoccupied with thoughts about the past or future. It is a simple and effective way to relax and reduce stress. And it doesn’t cost a penny!
Being mentally present is also associated with increased happiness. A 2010 study of the relationship between mindfulness and happiness was conducted by Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert. The 2,250 study participants ranged in age (18 to 88), socioeconomic status and occupation. They were contacted at random intervals throughout the day via an iPhone app and asked to rate their level of happiness; what they were doing; and if they were thinking about what they were doing. The results revealed that, amid simple, everyday activities, people spend almost half (47%) their waking hours thinking about something other than what they are doing! Mind-wandering occurs even while doing something that is presumably enjoyable, like watching television or having a conversation (19, 20). The important take-away?
Think about what you are doing! If you are doing the dishes, think about doing the dishes rather than dwell on what you “need” to finish on a never-ending “to-do” list. If you are having dinner with a friend, be fully present—instead of obsessively checking your phone every time it pings and replying to texts and emails right then.
Mental presence—matching thought to action—is a better predictor of happiness (21).
7. Reduce screen time.
In Maine, I mindfully reduced my screen time. I only used my phone to check the weather and confirm restaurant reservations; I did not text, email, or post to social media while away. I had my laptop with me, but only used it to check the daily high/low tide forecast. We had a television, but I never turned it on once. Less screen time enabled me to be more fully present in my surroundings and increased a sense of relaxation and well-being.
Our phones and computers have become bodily appendages, so it feels much harder to do a digital detox. I get it.
However, the amount of time that Americans (children, teens, and adults) stare at screens every day can range from 7 to 10-plus hours. Screen gazing is a sedentary activity—with negative health consequences. Excess screen time is associated with less physical activity, higher rates of overweight / obesity, increased risk of diabetes, disrupted or poor sleep and eye strain (22). Excess screen time—whether from watching too much television, being on the computer (video games, work, Internet surfing, etc.), or from social media—is also a significant risk factor for mental health disorders, especially depression and anxiety (23, 24).
Limiting your screen time can feel like a vacation in and of itself. How to start?
- Keep your phone out of the bedroom; put your phone out-of-sight at mealtimes; and commit to quality, screen-free time (use the “Do Not Disturb” feature on your phone) with your child. If you are constantly distracted by texts and emails, you will not be fully present.
- Turn off—or Mute—notifications.
- Upon awakening, spend 30 minutes on self-care before you reach for your phone or turn on your computer.
- Shut down all electronics 1 hour before bedtime.
- Use your offline time to be physically active (outdoors, ideally).
A 2020 Canadian study examined the relationship between exercise, screen time habits and effects on health during the lockdown. Researchers surveyed 4,524 adult men and women (aged 20 and older) and found that participants who engaged in two habits simultaneously—limiting their screen time AND exercising outdoors—they reported better mental health as well as positively rated overall health (25).
1 CDC. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Heath. Effects of Light on Circadian Rhythms.
2 Mead MN. Benefits of sunlight: a bright spot for human health. Environ Health Perspect. 2008 Apr;116(4): A160-7.
3 NIH. National Institute of Medical Sciences. Circadian Rhythms.
4 Gnocchi D, Bruscalupi G. Circadian Rhythms and Hormonal Homeostasis: Pathophysiological Implications. Biology (Basel). 2017 Feb 4;6(1):10.
5 Mohd Azmi NAS, Juliana N, Azmani S, Mohd Effendy N, Abu IF, Mohd Fahmi Teng NI, Das S. Cortisol on Circadian Rhythm and Its Effect on Cardiovascular System. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Jan 14;18(2):676.
6, 7, 9 Oschman JL, Chevalier G, Brown R. The effects of grounding (earthing) on inflammation, the immune response, wound healing, and prevention and treatment of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. J Inflamm Res. 2015 Mar 24;8:83-96.
8 Sinatra ST, Oschman JL, Chevalier G, Sinatra D. Electric Nutrition: The Surprising Health and Healing Benefits of Biological Grounding (Earthing). Altern Ther Health Med. 2017 Sep; 23(5):8-16.
10 Chevalier G, Sinatra ST, Oschman JL, Sokal K, Sokal P. Earthing: health implications of reconnecting the human body to the Earth’s surface electrons. J Environ Public Health. 2012; 2012:291541.
11 Jamie E.M. Byrne, Matthew E. Hughes, Susan L. Rossell, Sheri L. Johnson, Greg Murray. Time of Day Differences in Neural Reward Functioning in Healthy Young Men. Journal of Neuroscience. 13 September 2017; 37 (37) 8895-8900.
12 Dr. Michael Breus. Sleepdoctor.com. Napping. June 28, 2023.
13 Dr. Michael Breus. Sleepdoctor.com. How Long is a Power Nap? July 6, 2023.
14 Colberg SR, Zarrabi L, Bennington L, Nakave A, Thomas Somma C, Swain DP, Sechrist SR. Postprandial walking is better for lowering the glycemic effect of dinner than pre-dinner exercise in type 2 diabetic individuals. J Am Med Dir Assoc. 2009 Jul;10(6):394-7.
15, 18 Bellini A, Nicolò A, Bazzucchi I, Sacchetti M. The Effects of Postprandial Walking on the Glucose Response after Meals with Different Characteristics. Nutrients. 2022 Mar 4;14(5):1080.
16, 17 CDC. National Diabetes Statistics Report. June 29. 2022.
19 The Harvard Gazette. Steve Bradt. Wandering Mind Not a Happy Mind. Nov. 11, 2010.
20, 21 Scientific American. Jason Castro. A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy One. Nov. 24, 2010.
23 Madhav KC, Sherchand SP, Sherchan S. Association between screen time and depression among US adults. Prev Med Rep. 2017 Aug 16; 8:67-71.
24 Karim F, Oyewande AA, Abdalla LF, Chaudhry Ehsanullah R, Khan S. Social Media Use and Its Connection to Mental Health: A Systematic Review. Cureus. 2020 Jun 15;12(6): e8627
25 Colley R, Bushnik T, Langloise K. Exercise and Screen Time During COVID-19 Pandemic. Statistics Canada. July 15, 2020.