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Rest day guilt: a women’s health expert explains the benefits of doing ‘nothing‘

Posted by for Wellbeing

We’re made for feel guilty for doing nothing — but it’s actually good for our health. 

Do you plan to do nothing this weekend? Probably not – you might have plans for drinks with friends tonight, a big Saturday morning workout planned and walking or lunching in the diary for Sunday. 

These things may feel relaxing, but they are not forms of rest. And the truth is many of us struggle with doing absolutely nothing, like sitting on a patch of grass in the sun or spending an evening lying on the sofa watching Netflix. Even if you love doing these things at the time, the guilt over not being productive, active or stimulated eventually creeps in. 

The hustle culture we live in makes the idea of nothingness scary. If we aren’t out with friends, doing a workout, working on a book proposal or tidying the flat from top to toe, we’re made to feel like we’re wasting time. Post-pandemic, the idea of simply chilling out seems to be even more off-putting, as though we have to make up for the two years we were locked away with non-stop plans. 

And there are scary health messages that come from being sedentary. As a nation, we spend too long sat down and not moving enough – that’s undeniable. But one afternoon a week of relaxation time isn’t a cause for concern. And, for the many women who work busy jobs and have active lives, not doing enough probably isn’t an issue – the opposite is actually more likely to be true.

It’s time we reframed how we think about spending downtime. Firstly, because even the idea of doing nothing is untrue. Actually, important things happening to your mind and body during these periods of stillness. They include:

Recovering

Say you’ve had a big week of morning workouts and the hours following were filled with job stress and evenings out partying with friends – when do you think your body has actually recovered from the training you did? 

A woman lying in bed relaxing
When you do 'nothing', your body is actually working hard

“That time when you allow yourself to do nothing is when your body’s adapting, particularly if you have done a lot of training and exercise,” says nutritionist and women’s health expert Renee McGregor. “A full day of rest is an opportunity for your body to recalibrate. 

When you’re physically active all the time, a lot of chemical reactions are constantly happening. The body needs an opportunity to be still to ask itself what’s going on and what needs fixing. It’s during that time the body will fix the bones, tissues and muscles and make the red blood cells that support your immune system.”

De-stressing

That doesn’t give you a free pass to triple book your weekend just because you didn’t have time to jump into multiple HIIT classes. “Let’s remember that the body doesn’t differentiate between stress, right? Whether it’s physical stress or emotional stress, the body just sees stress,” says McGregor. Long days in the office, huge deadlines or even personal, familial stress needs recovery time. 

“If you notice you’re anxious or agitated or life is getting on top of you, just pressing pause gives your body and brain the time to process. If you don’t, you can’t really work out what to do next,” she says.

Dealing with your problems

“To me, lacking the ability to be still means you’re constantly distracting yourself from things that you need to deal with,” says McGregor. “If we find we have to pack our day full of activities, it’s probably because you don’t like the difficult feelings that drum up when you stop.”

There’s no real solution to this other than noticing that behaviour – is your obsession with never being at home really a distraction technique? Is your desire to be busy every single day covering something more complicated than just a concern about your wellbeing? 

Women lying on the floor eating pizza
Spending time with your friends and family should never be seen as doing nothing

Spending time with your loved ones

Sure, you might have friends who you bond with over running. But many of our connections are best made over relaxed dinner times, when slumped comfortably on the sofa or enjoying the laziness of a sunny afternoon.

“Sitting with your family, friends or your partner – even if you’re watching something together and not necessarily talking – is a form of connection. It provides a sense of safety, a sense of belonging, a sense of contributing to something important – that is so important for our well being,” says McGregor.

Helping the productivity process

The best thoughts come to us in the shower, at the supermarket checkout or maybe when you actually have time to sit down and read a book that switches on your creative flow. We need downtime to be inspired, says McGregor. “When I am writing my books, I need to actively put this sort of downtime in where I’m just sitting outside looking at the sky or watching my dogs. That is when, suddenly, my best ideas will come to mind,” she says.

So sometimes we do need to do nothing, despite how much our brain (or society) is telling us that we shouldn’t be sitting on the sofa. Next time you berate yourself for laziness, ask yourself: are you really doing nothing, or are you nurturing your body and mind? Watching season 2 of Bridgerton could be just what your wellbeing needs.

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Images: Getty/Pexels

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).