Written by Jolene Hart, CHC
Rest doesn’t need to be slow or quiet— there’s compelling evidence that some of the most effectively recharging pursuits are active! Here’s how to recharge by planning a summer of ‘active rest.’
Although the hottest temperatures do slow us down at times, the abundant sunshine of the summer season also allows us to be more active, more social, and more energized than at any other time of the year. The good news? Being active can also be restful for mind and body, especially when we take our individual needs into account. Let’s explore how active rest can recharge us just as deeply as stillness.
What is active rest anyway? It’s a dynamic way to recharge, often involving movement or companionship, balancing out forms of rest that are static or solitary. (It’s a bit different from the fitness term ‘active recovery’). Active forms of rest, like taking a walk, going for a swim, tending to a garden, or sketching a picture, excel at recharging creative energy and dispelling tension from your body and mind. Through active rest, the parts of your brain that govern creativity light up, and you make space for your subconscious to develop new insights. Research shows important boosts in relationships, mental health, and physical well-being even after short bursts of active rest a few times a week.
Active rest with a friend is especially effective as a stress-reducer for women, who generally lean into the body’s ‘tend and befriend’ response of the parasympathetic nervous system. When faced with stress, women often find strength in connection— a healthy behavior that releases oxytocin and enables women to process stress together. Asking a friend to join you for exercise, a creative project, or a new adventure creates a welcome opportunity for connection as well.
Summer might just be the best time to make it a priority. Here's how to incorporate more active rest into your routine, without overdoing it:
Consider your unique body above all. If socializing at a crowded gathering leaves you drained, connect with just one or two friends at a time. If a 5-mile hike feels too optimistic today, try a breezy walk instead. Always base your rest choices on the current state of your mind and body. Learning to be active without pushing yourself beyond your personal limits is the sweet spot for active rest.
Go with the flow. Release expectations on time, distance, output, or level of activity. When your end goal is fixed, you lose flexibility and often compromise a restful outcome.
Try short doses. Aim for 15 to 30 minute blocks of activity, especially on hot days, and increase only if you’re able. Remember to rehydrate often with electrolytes, which are essential for brain and adrenal function, if you’re sweating in the heat.
Share the planning. Planning and scheduling — before your activity begins— can be the most mentally exhausting aspect of active rest. Aim to be more spontaneous with your plans, or trade off planning duties with a friend who wants to join you.
Make it playful! The act of play is restorative to the brain— it grows resilience, stress-coping skills, and even new neurons. But most adults come up short on opportunities for play in daily life. Choose active rest that feels fun and playful. If you’re at a loss, start with the activities that brought you joy in childhood.
Be active in nature. The inherently grounding, nervous system-quieting effects of nature make the outdoors a great companion to active pursuits. You’ll likely find that active rest becomes even more restorative to your body and mind when it’s practiced outdoors.
Note your menstrual cycle. During the luteal phase of your cycle, the two weeks leading up to your period, you may find that you’re more fatigued, sleepier, more prone to injury (ligaments can actually become stretchier during this time!), and in the mood for lighter activity. Listen to your body and adjust your activity choices in turn.
Jolene Hart is a certified health coach and six-time wellness author. You can read more about active rest, and other ways to recharge, in Well-Rested Every Day: 365 Rituals, Recipes, and Reflections for Radical Peace and Renewal, out now.
STUDY: The practice of active rest by workplace units improves personal relationships, mental health, and physical activity among workers. Journal of Occupational Health, March 2017. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27980249/