Forget work, workouts and the wonders of physical activity. When the sun beats down and the temperature rises, most of us secretly long for a hard day of doing nothing much at all. Subconsciously, we edge towards shady, quiet corners, with nothing more to occupy us than a cold drink and a good read.
And then, for many of us, our internal nag kicks in. “We can’t spend hours doing nothing,” it chides. “Life is short and the list of things to achieve is long. Get up and get at it because those who reach the top – physically, financially, romantically – never stop striving. Downtime is for the downtrodden.”
But there’s another side to this argument, and it’s a persuasive one. Doing nothing is good for us, at least some of the time.
Downtime, if you do it right, is time well spent. Being inactive is not the same as being lazy, and can actually speed your climb to the top. One of the reasons is because the human body – and especially the male body – evolved to embrace long periods of inactivity.
Our hunter-gatherer forefathers mixed periods of intense activity – hunting antelope, fighting foes – with long periods of rest and relaxation. When our ancestors gathered under a shady tree to tell stories, or etched works of art on to the walls of caves, you can be sure that no inner voice was nagging them to do something more productive.
And today science is beginning to re-evaluate the idea of being lazy, or at least the innate desire many of us have to spend long periods doing nothing. An increasing body of evidence suggests that it’s not such a bad thing after all.
Where our physical bodies are concerned, it’s an easy argument to make. Just as science has discovered the benefits of exercise, it is also discovering the benefits of not exercising. Increasingly, researchers are pushing the advantages of regular time away from our workout schedules.
Of course, they’re not saying you shouldn’t exercise. But, too often, the weekend warriors among us overdo it.
According to experts, not exercising is just as important as exercising when it comes to a healthy body. That’s because exercise creates pains and strains and tiny tears in muscle that need to be repaired.
John Brewer, an expert in sports science at the University of Bedfordshire in the UK, says that most exercise injuries come from not giving yourself enough downtime: “Rest and recovery are often overlooked, but are as important as exercise itself.”
In other words resting up, which might seem like being lazy, is just as important as working out. Fail to rest properly and you risk weeks away from your training regime with an entirely avoidable injury.
That’s even more true if you’re training for a marathon or other high-endurance event. According to a study by researchers at the University of Melbourne in Australia, overtraining for these events can damage the heart.
“Affected athletes may be at risk of reduced performance – a cardiac over-training syndrome – or it may cause arrhythmia [an erratic heart beat],” said lead researcher Dr Andre La Gerche.
The researchers didn’t suggest that marathon runners stop, but they did say that athletes needed to adopt sensible training regimes that factor in plenty of time for rest and recovery.
Even those of us who exercise simply to stay fit or lose weight may have to accept that pushing ourselves further, faster and harder might not be the best way to accomplish our goals. For instance, a study published by McMaster University in Canada found that 10-minute bursts of intense exercise, repeated three times a week, were as good for building fitness as 10 hours of moderate exercise over a two-week period.
Other studies have shown the value of even shorter bouts of exercise, and found that as little as one, vigorous, minute a day can have significant health benefits.
All this seems to hark back to our hunter-gatherer forefathers, whose own short, sharp bursts of activity would be followed by some serious downtime. According to at least one book on laziness and health, they had it about right.
The authors of The Joy of Laziness: How To Slow Down And Live Longer, go further than most when they claim – against accepted medical wisdom – that high-energy activities such as running and workouts actually accelerate the ageing process and make us more susceptible to illness.
While that’s deeply controversial, they’re on firmer ground when they talk of the benefits of doing nothing.
According to co-author Dr Michaela Axt-Gadermann, “Laziness is important for a healthy immune system because special immune cells are stronger in times of relaxation than stress. During relaxation, or downtime, your metabolism is less active, which means the body produces fewer free radicals.”
Free radicals are unstable oxygen molecules that are thought to contribute to ageing and various illnesses. Relaxed downtime helps to reduce the number of free radicals in our bodies.
The book goes as far as to say that people who would rather laze in a hammock instead of running a marathon, or who take a nap instead of playing squash, have a better chance of living into old age.
And while most experts would argue that you need both – the exercise and the hammock time – they would agree that the hammock is certainly an important part of a healthy mix.
That’s because relaxation does far more than simply giving muscles time to heal. According to the famous Mayo Clinic in the United States, relaxation benefits include increased blood flow to muscles, reduced tension and pain, reduced anger and frustration, increased concentration and boosted confidence.
But you need to be properly relaxed to make the most of it, which means doing pretty much nothing, or at least nothing you don’t want to do. That might be tricky to start with, but Mayo experts say that, “As with any skill, your ability to relax improves with practice.”
And then there’s something called deep relaxation, which is as close to doing nothing as it’s possible to get. Deep relaxation is the state of calm achieved by practitioners of yoga or meditation.
Researchers at Harvard Medical School recently discovered that genes that can protect us from disorders such as pain, infertility, high blood pressure and rheumatoid arthritis were ‘switched on’ in people who practised deep relaxation, but not in others.
There’s hope for all of us, though, because the Harvard researchers then asked a group of people who wouldn’t know a yoga mat from a bath mat to start practising relaxation techniques. After two months, those protective genes started to switch on.
Our forefathers seemed to know instinctively that doing nothing, some of the time, was good for us. Today one problem is that, as a society, we’ve been taught to see doing nothing as useless. What’s more, accepted wisdom has it that the more action we take (whether in the gym or the office), the better we feel.
But one recent experiment found that deciding to do nothing is sometimes the best decision of all.
Economist Ofer H Azar of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel studied how goalkeepers in professional football teams tried to save penalty kicks. When the keepers dived to the left they saved the kick 14 per cent of the time, and when they dived to the right they saved it 12.6 per cent of the time.
Very few goalkeepers stood still in the centre of the goal, but those who did, had a far higher success rate – one in three, or around 33 per cent – than their diving peers.
Azar theorised that most goalkeepers didn’t take the ‘do nothing’ option, despite its better success rate, for reasons that apply to us all in all sorts of situations. We’ve been lead to think that it’s better to be seen to do something – even if it ends in failure – than it is to appear lazy.
In fact, as this study found, and as science confirms again and again, sometimes doing nothing is not laziness, it’s the best decision you can make.