These are the top five relaxing activities, according to science

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Moya Crockett
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When was the last time you felt properly rested?

In today’s ultra-busy, hyper-connected world, relaxation can seem like something of a dirty word. All too often, we conceive of downtime as a luxury: something we’d love to partake in, if only we had the time.

But according to a major new study, this association of restful activities with laziness is fundamentally misplaced. A global survey of 18,000 people from 134 countries – spearheaded by Durham University, and dubbed ‘The Rest Test’ – compiled huge amounts of data on people’s varying experiences and attitudes towards relaxation and busyness.

The results of the survey were broadcast on the BBC in a radio programme called The Anatomy of Rest. And they indicate that, far from being something we can afford to opt out of, relaxation is essential for our mental and physical health. 

“The survey shows that people’s ability to take rest, and their levels of wellbeing, are related,” said Dr Felicity Callard, a social scientist at Durham University, who led the Rest Test project.

She added: “We’re delighted that these findings combat a common, moralising connection between rest and laziness.”

Researchers were also able to identify the most restful activities, according to survey respondents.

“It’s intriguing that the top activities considered restful are frequently done on one’s own,” said Dr Callard. “Perhaps it’s not only the total hours resting or working that we need to consider, but the rhythms of our work, rest and time with and without others.”

Without further ado, let’s take a look at the top five restful activities, according to the Rest Test – and the science behind why they can make you feel so damn good.

1. Reading

Reading for just six minutes can be enough to reduce stress levels by up to 68%, according to a 2009 study from the University of Sussex. Researchers found that reading silently to oneself works to help slow down heart rate and ease muscle tension – and does this more effectively than other traditionally ‘relaxing’ activities like listening to music or having a cup of tea.

“By losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world and spend a while exploring the domain of the author's imagination,” says cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis, who led the survey.

2. Being in the natural environment

There’s plenty of scientific research to support the idea that spending time outdoors benefits your mental and physical health. One recent study conducted in the Netherlands suggests that gardening can help elevate mood and fight stress by lowering the levels of cortisol – aka the stress hormone – in our bodies.

Adults who spend more time around nature also tend to have higher self-esteem and appreciate their bodies more, according to a study published in August 2016, while a team of scientists at the University of Essex reported in 2010 that spending just five minutes exercising around nature can boost our happiness.

3. Being on your own

Different people have very different reactions to spending time on their own. Some of us treasure our me-time, while others can find that being alone quickly tips into loneliness.

But while too much isolation isn’t good for us, spending a little bit of time away from other people is seriously important.

“Constantly being ‘on’ doesn’t give your brain a chance to rest and replenish itself,” writes Dr Sherrie Bourg Carter in Psychology Today. “Being by yourself with no distractions gives you the chance to clear your mind, focus, and think more clearly. It's an opportunity to revitalize your mind and body at the same time.”

According to a 2015 US study cited by the Science of Us, many people feel awkward about spending time on their own in public – going to the cinema, for example, or dining in a restaurant – because they’re worried about the judgement of strangers. However, researchers found that once people faced that fear and headed out on their own anyway, they usually enjoyed the experience just as much as they would have done with friends.

4. Listening to music

You probably don’t need a raft of scientific research to tell you that kicking back with your favourite relaxing playlist can make you feel a whole lot better. But whether your tastes are more Laura Marling or Gustav Mahler, it’s been found that listening to slower musical beats can alter our brainwave speed, putting us in a semi-hypnotic, meditative state.

For some people, listening to slow music can also be a therapeutic way of reducing stress, headache pain, and even symptoms of PMS. And classical music, in particular, can help improve sleep quality and treat insomnia.

5. Doing nothing in particular

Having nothing to do can sometimes leave us feeling oddly adrift, panicky or guilty – as though we’re slacking off, wasting precious time that we could be putting to productive use. However, many psychologists and neuroscientists now argue that setting aside time to just do nothing is vitally important.

A review of brain research on downtime in the scientific journal Nature shows that the brain in a “do nothing” resting state is not doing nothing at all. In fact, it’s working hard to help us process our experiences, consolidate memories, reinforce learning, regulate our emotions and attention, and keep us productive and effective in our work and judgments.

Images: iStock