How to treat yourself better ... by doing nothing


Do you treat your pans better than you treat yourself?!

In her excellent book ‘Move Your DNA’, biomechanist Katy Bowman writes: ‘The paradox of the modern world is this: Not only do we do less, physically, than ever before, but we also almost never do nothing. Our Bodies, deprived of large movements, are inundated with subtle-yet-continuous physical stimulation from noise, light, data, etc. This constant stream of input is a two-fold stressor, as not only is the frequency of certain environmentally induced loads extremely high, the types of input we are experiencing are unnatural.’

Active but sedentary

Nowadays, an ‘active’ young adult may get up early and spend an hour at the gym, running there and back. They then take the train to work, sit at a desk for most of the day, sit down for lunch, and on returning home, sit at their computer or ‘relax’ with their phone.

Such an adult meets the WHO requirement of performing at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week. Yet with 7-8 hours of sitting per day, the hazard ratios for all-cause mortality start to increase significantly.*

The paradox

The blue wavelength light from LED-based devices (phones, tablets, computers) increases the release of cortisol in the brain, which makes us more alert, and inhibits the production of melatonin, which is needed to fall asleep. And the need to remain in direct contact with one’s phone may indicate anxiety, or the fear of missing out.

To sum up the paradox, we sit around a lot and are constantly distracted. The constant assault of one stimulus after the other can set up muscular tension in the body. We may remain totally unaware of this tension until eventually some part begins to ache or give us pain.

Active Rest is beneficial

As an Alexander Technique teacher I encourage my students to work on themselves by practising Active Rest every day. This takes from five to 20 minutes and requires no special equipment, just a mat or rug and a couple of paperbacks.

When I see my students I ask how they’ve been getting on with their Active Rest. Most of them laugh nervously before confessing, ‘I didn’t do any until last night’.

Active Rest is a simple and pleasant activity. It doesn’t cost money and one generally feels better afterwards. It allows intervertebral discs to rehydrate and it releases areas of hypertonicity.

With these and other benefits on offer, why do people find it so difficult to do nothing?

Reasons offered include: lack of time, nowhere to do it, forgetting, not seeing the value, feeling judged by others, and feeling guilty about taking time out of the day.

The first three reasons can be easily dealt with, the fourth is addressed throughout this article, but feeling judged or guilty are rather interesting.

Is your break really a break?

Many people will say ‘I’m going to break for coffee’ but don’t in fact take a break. They’ll check their emails or catch up with the news or perform some other simple activity as they drink their coffee. They may be so absorbed they hardly notice what they’re drinking.

I remember being impressed by a bus-driver in Sweden. In the space between arrival and departure he pulled out a novel and read for a few minutes. OK, he wasn’t doing ‘nothing’, but it was at least a break from his normal activity of driving.

Retrain your neural pathways!

While other people may think that you’re simply lying around cluttering the place up during Active Rest, you are in fact training yourself in valuable skills. You have the chance to observe your own tension patterns and to begin to release your musculature without the challenge of maintaining upright posture, allowing head, neck, and back to reintegrate. You are, in fact, retraining your neural pathways! The release of muscular tension improves joint mobility, provides a tool for managing painful conditions, and may help reduce stress levels.

Become more efficient

If you set aside a few minutes to practise Active Rest, you may well find you make better use of the rest of the day.

Although you can do it (just about) anywhere, it may help to set up a draught-free and peaceful spot, e.g. by the side of your bed.

If you tend to forget, link it to another activity. For example, it could be something you do as soon as you get back home or after a session on the computer.

Self-care means you can care for others

Do you feel guilty about eating, sleeping, or drinking water? I hope you don’t! If you don’t value self-care, try looking at it another way. You can’t look after others if you don’t look after yourself. Active Rest helps you function more efficiently and may help prevent future problems, allowing you to be available to the people who need you.

Unhelpful habits are like layers of burnt-on food!

Here’s a useful, if not very picturesque, image to help. If you’ve ever burnt a pan you will know that rubbing hard tends not to clean the pan properly. However, if you leave the pan to soak with water and detergent, the residue is then much easier to clean off.

Think of Active Rest as a cleansing soak, allowing layers of accumulated habit to float away, leaving you to function more smoothly and efficiently. Unlike a cleansing soak in a bath, Active Rest is easy to set up and totally free. Try it.


* Chau JY, Grunseit A, Chey T, Stamatakis E, Matthews C, Brown W, Bauman A, van der Ploeg HP. Daily sitting time and all-cause mortality: a meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2013;8(11):e80000. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0080000.