We don't rest enough. We don't move enough.
Those are the paradoxical conclusions from a series of studies that got a lot of media attention last week.
In the New York Times, Olivia Judson cited a series of recent findings that we're more vulnerable to obesity and to early death from a wide range of diseases if we spend too much time sitting, even if we work out dutifully every day for an hour at a gym. Part of the explanation is that sitting is one of the most passive activities we can do and burns very few calories. The other explanation is that when you're sedentary for too long, the body does a worse job at metabolizing sugar and fat, and causes more of it to accumulate in the abdomen.
A second study, from the University of California Berkeley, demonstrated that a 90 minute nap in the middle of the day dramatically increased the subsequent capacity of the nappers to learn new information, compared to non-nappers. The researchers' explanation is that the hippocampus, where memories are stored in the short-term, can reach capacity. Napping apparently allows the hippocampus to clear space for the storage of further learning.
So what's the common denominator here? It's that the relentlessly continuous ways we live and work make us less healthy, less capable and less productive.
Human beings are not designed to run continuously -- or to be sedentary for long periods. We're rhythmic beings, and we operate best when we pulse between spending energy and renewing energy. Nearly every system in the body operates best when it pulses. We're hard wired to oscillate, but we live increasingly linear lives.
By putting in long continuous hours, we expend too much mental and emotional energy without sufficient renewal. That's why a midday nap can be so powerful -- even one as short as 20 to 30 minutes. Conversely, by living mostly desk-bound sedentary lives, we expend too little physical energy. Movement not only burns calories and builds our physical capacity, but also serves as a powerful source of mental and emotional renewal.
Inactivity, by contrast, not only makes us progressively weaker ("Use it or lose it"), it also makes us fatter, less productive and ultimately more vulnerable to disease. The antidote is to make waves, both by moving frequently and by intermittently resting throughout the day.
At night we sleep in 90 minute cycles, moving between light and deeper sleep and then back out again. A full cycle gives us the most complete rest, which is why a 90 minute nap is especially effective. During the day, we operate best when we align with these same 90 minute cycles, taking a break at the end of each one as our energy begins to flag, rather than overriding it, as so many of us do.
Test the assumption for yourself. This week, try building the following into your day. Take one true renewal break for at least 15 minutes at a designated time in the morning, and go for a walk outside. Take a second break in the afternoon, but this time use it to solely to relax, as deeply as you can. If you have the option to actually take a 20-30 minute nap during that time, that's ideal.
Institute these two breaks for a week. I can almost guarantee you'll not only feel more energized, you'll also be more productive.
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