What Is Active Rest?

Learn how active rest can help you boost productivity throughout your day

Active rest seems like a conundrum, am I right? How can you rest, and also be active? How can you call yourself productive, if you are resting? Shouldn’t we be hustling every chance we get to make that extra dollar?

The reality is that humans did not evolve to be constantly productive. In fact, leisure and rest played an enormous role throughout human history, including the Feudal era. It wasn’t until the last 200 years, the Industrial Revolution, and the dawn of capitalism that humans were expected to work 8 hours or more throughout the entire year.

Active Rest: An Activity I Can Get Behind

If you Google “active rest” you find a lot of articles about rest days for athletes. In these articles, they suggest that instead of partaking in an intense workout (weights, running, cross fit) that the athlete go for a leisurely walk, stretch, or practice yoga.

If you Google “productive rest” countless searches show up talking about how to optimize your down-time. Sometimes, that means monetizing your relaxation and/or working on tasks that might boost your brain power. Other times, the focus is on letting everything go.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where doing nothing, even for a short 10 minutes, can be seen as lazy. This is especially true if that “nothing” you are doing is at your desk at work. Or, maybe you feel like you’re not optimizing your study time for a test because you took a two-hour break to watch a movie.

Sound familiar?

It does to me. I consider myself a hard worker. I was raised to get things done when they needed doing. But, I also appreciated my downtime, reading, writing, imagining fictional worlds in my head. It was a lifestyle that worked well for me.

When I entered the workforce, especially in an office setting, I struggled with the need to be productive through an 8-hour shift. Even though I finished my tasks efficiently, I felt lazy because there were times where I had nothing better to do than scroll through social media.

What’s more? I knew I hadn’t done much throughout the day, but I was more exhausted after scrolling through social media than I would have been if I spent all day studying for a final exam!

What I didn’t realize is that I needed to practice active rest throughout my work days, as well as the morning and evening.

So What Is Active Rest?

In the fitness world, active rest or active recovery refers to when an athlete practices moderate or light physical activity instead of a full-blown workout. This increases workout recovery by improving blood flow but also protects the athlete from injury or over-exertion.

Active rest is also an integral component of self-care.

When we scroll through Facebook or put on Netflix to mindlessly watch sitcoms, we are not resting actively. In fact, in occupational therapy, they call this leisure. But, it is not the same as rest, and definitely not the same as active rest.

Active rest is a process by which we allow ourselves to let go. This can take place through meditation, prayer, art, or fitness. The key, however, is to allow yourself to exist without responsibilities or distractions, if only for five minutes.

Now, active rest is not a new concept. In fact, it is as old as time.

In Indigenous cultures in Canada, there was an understanding that we should sit quietly with nature.

Buddhism stresses the importance of meditation and calm throughout one’s life.

Judaism and Christianity both observe the Sabbath, a day of the which work was supposed to cease.

But, even in my lifetime, stores are open every day of the week, which means you can run errands any day of the week. Thanks to technology, we can work from anywhere, which means you can work infinitely longer in the comfort of your own home. Moreover, TV, social media, and a consumerist culture stress the importance of consuming media thoughtlessly.

We shut our minds off, but this plugs our ability to re-energize from rest. And rest is an essential part of our self-care.

Why Do We Need To Rest?

In occupational therapy, there are four needs ascribed to human beings: self-care/self-maintenance, work/education, leisure, and rest. Moreover, sleep and rest are considered to be separate. While sleep plays an incredibly important role in our health (which you can read more about here), rest plays an equally important but different role.

Importantly, rest has physical, spiritual, and mental aspects. Whether it is resting your muscles, letting your mind wander, or working to find harmony or nirvana, rest plays an integral role in our health. Furthermore, what counts as rest to one person may not be restful for another.

For example, there were times I found rest doing menial, repetitive tasks (like dishes or yard work). There were other times where I found rest in meditation, or sitting quietly.

In the 1940’s, people with tuberculosis were confined to bedrest where even reading was restricted. Now, in many substance use treatment facilities, a large component of treatment is allowing patients to sit with their thoughts.

However, research shows that frequent breaks away from a task (or away from your computer) actually increases productivity! Why? Because it allows us to re-focus. Rest promotes creativity, and it prevents fatigued. When we rest, we give ourselves more energy to put our best foot forward!

But what actually counts as rest? As I mentioned above, it’s not so simple as scrolling through your feeds or plunking down in front of the screen.

A Personal Case Study

I have a tendency to burnout.

This is something I have started to realize, especially with the cycle of semester to semester to summer job to school again. Especially in the years that I never took a vacation, I was EXHAUSTED.

I would still get my work done. I would still be “productive”.

But I was grouchy. I was tired. Oftentimes, I would lash out at those that were just trying to help me. In short, I was NOT a treat to be around.

I never understood why this was.

My life was pretty great. I would be working at a job that I objectively loved. I was surrounded by people I genuinely loved.

So why was I so unhappy?

Surely, something about this wasn’t right.

What was it?

Only recently did I have my EUREKA moment!

I was not letting myself rest.

That’s not to say I was working all the time (because I really wasn’t), but I wasn’t letting my mind rest. I would push myself at work, and then I would “de-stress” by going on Facebook, or Instagram, or Pinterest.

I would socialize with my friends or family, but then resent them because all I really wanted was to be alone.

Part of me is ashamed that I only connected this irritability to my inability to rest this past week (literally on Monday).

So does resting actually help?

Well, I’ve been meditating more regularly. One of the meditations I listen to is a guided chakra meditation that was suggested to me. While skeptical at first, I have found that this meditation allows me to ground myself and approach life more mindfully.

I have also started journaling more frequently. While journaling is not effective for everyone, it allows me to analyze my thoughts and measure my progress. I can also practice gratitude concretely!

Taking time to sit and measure my own thoughts has increased my energy, improved my mood, and enabled me to connect to those I love. I used to push my family and friends away, but now I can contribute positively to the relationship!

Moreover, I can juggle multiple tasks (office, tutoring, blog, soap-making) without feeling like I am falling behind.

Basically, I can live my life more fully, and I can live happier.

Active rest can take many different forms, but ultimately it improves clarity and energy levels.
Photo by Cristian Newman

How To Practice Active Rest

So how can you practice active rest? How do you full-heartedly accept the idea that you NEED to take time for yourself?

  1. If the need for productivity prevents you from resting, remind yourself that scientific research shows that taking breaks improves overall productivity. Begin to think of your work qualitatively rather than quantitatively. A great quote I once read said “giving your best does not mean working until you’re exhausted; if you are exhausted, you are no longer giving your best”.
  2. Start small. If you are going from 100% on to expecting yourself to effectively meditate for 60 minutes, you’re setting yourself up for failure. For example, when meditating, a lot of people get discouraged when their mind continually wanders. For many, it causes more anxiety! But, much like learning a new skill, it takes time to learn how to shut your mind off. Start with short periods of time, and be gentle with yourself if your thoughts do come and go.
  3. Practice variety. Every person is different. Everybody finds peace in different ways. For some, fishing is the most meditative state in the world. For others, coloring is the key to mindfulness. If your mind can’t stop running during basic meditation, perhaps running will help you clear your head. Time with friends is relaxing to one individual, but another may be refreshed by a week in solitude.

To sum up? Remember that rest is productive, rest is a skill to learn that takes time, and there are many different ways to rest.

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4 thoughts on “What Is Active Rest?

  1. Thanks for such an insightful post. I certainly am guilty of needing to feel productive so this is really interesting.

    1. Hi Zara, I definitely agree! I myself was always stuck between trying to be as productive as possible while only wanting to rest. While restful hobbies (for me that means blogging and making soap) are great, sometimes we need to truly step back to take a break

  2. This is an excellent reminder of how important rest really is. Especially in today’s world where we are expected to be “on” and productive 24/7. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Hi Amanda! Thank you for your comment! I quite agree, and it really puts things in perspective that before the industrial revolution, people worked harder physically but also had infinitely more time to rest than we allow ourselves today.

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