Your Monthly Check-Up: Meditation, Down Time and the Power of a Good Night’s Sleep

Part I: Relaxation

We’ve talked a lot about exercising, eating right and the benefits of corporate wellness to your bottom line in our monthly column. But something we haven’t discussed is how sleep, relaxation and meditation all contribute to your overall health and well-being.

The March 2013 issue of EXPERIENCE L!FE magazine is chock full of information related to all three of these areas that seem to fly under the wellness radar. Many people don’t realize that rest, recovery and relaxation are just as important to a healthy lifestyle as nutrition, exercise and hydration. Relaxation in particular is beneficial in the workplace, since giving your brain a break lets it recharge and gear up for the next big task.

In “Take a Break,” the EXPERIENCE L!FE team urges that, “Random moments of ‘unproductive’ time don’t just make you healthier, happier and more resilient. They help you work smarter, too.” For example, have you ever come up with a brilliant idea whilst showering? We have, too – and so have plenty of other people, which prompted a discussion of this very topic in “Take a Break”:

You’ve no doubt heard the rumored story of Archimedes, who shouted his now-legendary ‘Eureka!’ when he stepped into the bath, saw his bathwater rise and suddenly understood that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the part of his body he’d submerged, abruptly intuiting the answer to what had previously been an intractable mathematical problem.

“There’s a reason so much genius has occurred in bathrooms…and it’s the same reason we often get great ideas while puttering in the garden, getting a facial, taking a walk or just waking up from a nap,” the article states. “Because these are precisely the types of circumstances in which we’re not trying to come up with genius ideas, or really any ideas at all.”

Cognitive neuroscientist Mark Jung-Beeman, PhD, a researcher at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., has dedicated his working life to studying the brain circuits involved in these eureka moments and offered up his insight for the article:

The body is relatively relaxed; the brain is being allowed to do whatever it likes, its circuits freed up for whatever associations and information-shuttling activities it deems worthwhile. And it’s those random associations that seem key both to large-scale breakthroughs and handy “aha!” moments. … While the brain lays much of the groundwork for insight by expending focused attention on a particular problem, certain parts of the brain must actually relax and be allowed to wander a bit for the necessary connections and associations (most of which are churned up by the more loosely organized right hemisphere) to be made.

According to the article, psychologist Joy Bhattacharya, PhD, a researcher at Goldsmiths, University of London, has perpetuated this point by using electroencephalography (EEG) to predict these aha moments up to eight seconds before they even occur. One key indicator is the presence of alpha waves – the brain-wave pattern associated with relaxation – emanating from the right hemisphere of the brain. Bhattacharya suggests this activity makes the mind more susceptible to new and creative ideas.

The moral of this story is that, “Beyond a certain point, sitting for hours at your desk and working harder to solve that problem or come up with that big idea may actually work against you.” The article suggests listening for your “ultradian rhythms” – bodily cycles that occur many times throughout your day – and paying attention to when your body is telling you it’s time for a break. Get up for 20 minutes after every 90- to 120- minute cycle of energy expenditure and let your brain recharge. You’ll end up being more productive than if you don’t!

Stay tuned next week when we cover Parts II and III of our series - Meditation and Sleep!