Reclaiming a Day of Rest

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Add laughing to your day of rest’s to-do list—it reduces levels of stress hormones such as cortisol.
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Indulge in relaxing activities on your day of rest.
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Choose activities that you enjoy for your day of rest. Ask yourself, “Is this restful? Does this restore me?” The answers will be different for everyone.

For many of us, busy work weeks end with weekends jam-packed with back-to-back errands, household chores and other obligations. With these hectic schedules, the idea of taking an entire day just to relax may sound laughable. But while taking a day off might feel like a luxury we can’t afford, a day of rest may actually be a health imperative we can’t afford to give up.

Our bodies require rest to be healthy. The negative impacts of stress range from tight muscles and irritability to increased risk of chronic diseases such as heart conditions and cancer. Not taking vacation time has been found to increase risk of heart attack in men by 32 percent. Rather than considering a day of rest a luxury, we should consider it a necessity.

Testing Out Rest

Humans have long recognized the value of taking a day to relax and abstain from labor. The tradition exists in religions and cultures from around the globe, from modern Christianity to ancient Babylonia. But of course, observing a day of rest doesn’t have to be tied to any specific religion or culture—it’s all about relaxation, whatever that means to you.

Several years ago, in the midst of a way-too-busy life, I decided to create my own weekly day of rest. I wasn’t concerned about limiting my use of cars, computers or other tools; what I needed was freedom. So I decreed that I could do anything my heart desired on Sundays, as long as it entailed no sense of obligation.

Sounds lovely, right? I could not believe how hard it was. Those first few Sundays found me playing computer games for hours. Simple relaxation and self-indulgence were too unfamiliar. I’d been driven for so long by my sense of responsibility that it took many Sundays for me to learn to just breathe and enjoy.

I am so glad I did. Not only did I ease into naps under the oak tree and aimless country drives, but these new habits had a ripple effect throughout the rest of my week. In the midst of a busy workday, I began to notice when I was flagging and would take a restorative break. The result? I cleared my head and got more done.

I still work hard, but learning to balance work and rest is one of the best moves I’ve ever made. In a culture hell-bent on winding us all up to the snapping point, that’s no small matter.

Reasons to Rest

For many of us, the idea of taking a day off every week can be frightening; a day off is a day lost, a day of falling behind on the never-ending to-do list, a day that could be spent doing something useful. Guilty feelings leap up, as if we owe it to others to grind ourselves into oblivion. Our sense of worth is so often wrapped up in what we do—especially for others—that it’s difficult to stop. And when everyone around us works without rest, we fear we’ll appear lazy and self-indulgent if we step off the treadmill.

But driving ourselves to be productive at all times actually makes us less productive. Our bodies require (not just prefer) regular rest in order to function well and keep on going. While stress brings on illness and fatigue, relaxation makes us physically healthier. And many studies confirm the importance of rest, in both small and large doses, in keeping our minds working at peak efficiency. Quite simply, a day of rest makes us more productive the rest of the week.

A day off also can improve our relationships both at home and at work, making us less likely to snap at our children, spouses and coworkers. It lets us unwind and spend unhurried time with friends and family. And most important, it will make us live longer, healthier lives, allowing us to do more to help others and the world for a much longer span.

Linda Ross teaches college English. A couple of years ago, she was burned out, depleted and contemplating a leave of absence. Then she turned to the ancient wisdom of Sabbath practice. Her standard: “On Sunday, I don’t do anything that feels like work.” In the past, Linda dreaded Sundays because they were the last day before Monday, the big workday. “Now I look forward to all of Sunday,” she says. “It’s so restorative, and my life feels balanced.”

Food journalist and cookbook author Mark Bittman (author of How to Cook Everything) decided to unplug one day a week after he realized that only when asleep was he not talking on the phone, texting or checking email. He turned off his phones, TV, computer and PDA, and found forgotten pleasure in reading books, napping, sipping herbal tea, gazing out the window and taking a walk without earbuds. “Once I moved beyond the fear of being unavailable and what it might cost me, I experienced what, if I wasn’t such a skeptic, I would call a lightness of being,” he writes of the experience in his 2008 New York Times article, “I Need a Virtual Break. No, Really.” “I felt connected to myself rather than my computer.”

A day of rest is for filling your well, feeding your soul and rejuvenating your mind and body. It’s about stepping aside, just for a day, from the killing illusion that the world depends on your efforts. It’s a time to surrender to something much larger and deeper than your individual, try-hard self—and to realize that the world keeps right on going, even when you pause long enough to enjoy it.

Design Your Day of Rest

Make up your day of rest any way you want to. Start by considering what you most need a break from. It could be something specific, such as driving a car, or something more general, such as perfectionism. Think about the activities, obligations and attitudes that pervade your days, and ask: “Is this restful? Does this restore me?” The answers will be different for everyone. If you consider cooking a chore, prepare meals ahead of time to eat on your day off, or indulge by going out to eat. If you love cooking, use your day off to make an elaborate feast. Forgo paying bills online if it causes you stress, but don’t ban the computer if your favorite leisure activity is catching up with friends online. For each activity, ask if it helps you relax and, if the answer is no, leave it out of your day off.

If you have a family, include them in planning the day. You may want to share relaxing experiences on your day of rest, or (if you’re usually together) you may want to build in some alone time.

Once you experience the bliss of regular downtime, you may find the healing effects spreading to other days of the week. Perhaps you’ll claim some restful evenings, or pause several times a day for a moment of mindfulness. As self-restoration becomes a habit, you’ll become more in tune with your own rhythms, making yourself healthier, calmer and happier.

Your Easiest To-Do List

Here are some elements to consider including in your day of rest (but not too many at once!):

• A shared meal
• Candlelight
• Music
• Silence
• Reading
• Deep breathing
• Strolling
• Time in nature
• Meditation
• Long baths
• Gazing at the moon and stars
• Opening and closing rituals
• A blessing
• Doing nothing at all

Let It Go

If you’re struggling with feelings of guilt over taking a day to do absolutely nothing, remind yourself:

1. I can take a day off
2. I deserve to
3. I need to
4. The world needs me to

Carol Venolia is an architect and freelance writer whose website, Come Home to Nature with Carol Venolia, and ebook, Get Back to Nature Without Leaving Home, help people connect with the natural world.

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