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How Leisure Rewires Your Biology for Health and Happiness

Fast-paced, consumerist cultures have a tendency to value perpetual productivity at the expense of the individual. Although the 40-hour workweek continues to be standard practice, productivity continues to decrease. Being "on all the time" is unrealistic, and excess busiwork can lead to stress, burnout, fogginess, and demoralization. Balance and mindful action are key, and to continue growing we must recharge our energy and protect our spare time.

Whether you like to get out into nature, read, sleep, sweat, or create, leisure is a powerful healing tool for the body, mind, and spirit. There's nothing like the feeling of getting lost in a parallel literary universe, entering flow through art, music, or dance, or the natural high of a great workout. Our passions give us purpose, elevate our consciousness, and rejuvenate and refocus us.

Why is leisure so valuable?

1. Physical Healing and Regeneration

De-stressing supports cell repair and renewal. According to LiveStrong, unwinding helps you manage stress and lowers depression.

Sleep, a deep relaxation and recovery state, facilitates the repair of double-stranded breaks in DNA that accumulate during the daytime. When you relax, your DNA relaxes, and that helps it undergo repair. Sleep is important for so many reasons, including development, energy conservation, clearance of neural waste products, modulation of immune responses, cognition, and performance. Insufficient quality sleep increases the risk of infectious diseases, cardiovascular disease, cancer, depression, and dementia later in life.

Move and dance: Several studies show that even a single workout session can significantly increase BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which supports neuronal survival and growth. These effects were more prolonged with regular exercise. Another study showed that dance as opposed to repetitive exercise led to greater increases in brain matter density in more brain regions, including the cingulate cortex, insula, corpus callosum and sensorimotor cortex.

Meditate: It's no secret that meditation is great for you. Meditation has been shown to improve brain plasticity and memory, increase telomerase activity, reduce oxidative stress, increase brain gray matter density, elevate BDNF, and upregulate the anti-inflammatory cytokine IL-10, strengthening your immune system.

Live naturally: Industrialization heralded an era when humans willingly separated themselves from nature, domesticated themselves, built walls around themselves, and flocked to cities in droves. Despite medical advances that prevent infectious disease and increase lifespans overall, unique circumstances (such as lifestyles of excess, pollutants, and other systemic factors) have increased the incidence of autoimmune diseases in the West.

Environmental risk factors, including exposure to lead, mercury, aluminum, cadmium, arsenic, manganese, solvents and some pesticides have been linked to neurotoxicity, mitochondrial dysfunction, and protein aggregation in AD (Alzheimer's disease) and PD (Parkinson's disease). Additionally, a recent study showed that living close to major roads increases the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like PD and MS (multiple sclerosis). Taken together, these findings show that human health is maximized by living closer to nature and fresh air.

2. Creativity Expands with Distance and Time

Humans seek novelty and self-expression in the form of music, dance, writing, and art. Downtime is necessary for creativity. There is ample evidence that the production of art is healing and can alleviate mental health conditions from anxiety to depression to PTSD. Music can also improve one's abilities in math.

Leisure is good procrastination--it leaves you less stressed, which accelerates productivity. Procrastination reveals your true priorities, so don't beat yourself up over doing something you enjoy or feel guilty for not doing something else. Be all in whatever moment you're in. Follow the path of least intuitive resistance. Let your gut guide you where you need to be. Things will occur at the precise time that they're meant to happen.

Major ideas may need time to incubate before they surface. For example, my most productive editing happens after I've forgotten about my writing for a few days and return to it with fresh eyes. I also work much better if I go to sleep and continue studying in the morning, when my head is clear and my senses are reawakened.

Relaxation sends us into a state of elevated consciousness and diffuse focus. Daydreaming or diverting our focus for a period of time leaves space for intuition and ideas to emerge. Counter-intuitively enough, sometimes when we're feeling stuck or creatively blocked, taking a break could catalyze the creative flow we've been seeking.

3. Spiritual Progress

Making time for yourself is both healing and revitalizing. It seems so simple, but once we get the chance to just be, our essence is revealed. Every single moment, there you are, so invest in yourself.

It's amazing how you can go for a walk within your mind, truly seem to mentally wander somewhere else, only to wake up from your daydream with the realization that your mind is its own universe. This profound breakthrough can catalyze the desire to connect with others, which is also powerful stress relief. Once we take care of ourselves, we are best poised to help others grow and thrive, further fueling the positive feedback loop of love and connection.

Make time to do what calls you, what makes you happy, and surrender to the flow.