Award-winning BBC broadcaster and writer Claudia Hammond investigates our complex relationship with rest and relaxation, and shares the top 10 activities the world turns to when winding down
How are you feeling as you read this? Are you reclining in a hot bath, taking in all the magazine has to offer? If you are, you’re ticking off two of the top 10 restful activities according Claudia Hammond’s latest book, The Art of Rest: How to Find Respite in the Modern Age.
An astonishing 18,000 people from across 135 countries took part in The Rest Test survey, explored in her book, and in their collective opinion bathing and reading rank right up there for restfulness – in addition to spending time in nature, being alone, and doing nothing in particular.
Rest was the sole subject of exploration, during a two-year residency at the Wellcome Trust in London. The 45-people strong team behind The Rest Test and further research, included psychologists from Durham University, neurologists, artists, and Claudia Hammond, writer and long-standing presenter of Radio 4’s All in the Mind, and the World Service show Healthcheck.
Claudia’s new book explores the findings from this, and delves deeper into why each of the activities in the list helps us to relax, as well as the necessity of prioritising rest for good health.
It’s an important topic, as Claudia explains. “There’s a lot of research now on how sleep is really important for your health. If you don’t get a lot of sleep, it increases your risk of lots of different diseases. Now I think we need to start taking rest seriously as well – waking rest rather than sleep itself. Both are important.”
It seems that many people agree. Two thirds of people who responded to The Rest Test said that they needed more rest, and those who didn’t had significantly higher wellbeing scores.
Interestingly, ‘spending time in nature’ and ‘going for a good walk’ also made the list, proving that rest doesn’t have to be a sedentary activity to be deemed relaxing – something Claudia is keen to impress upon readers. “Rest doesn’t have to be passive and doing nothing. We found that 38% of people who responded thought walking is restful, and 8% said that running was.
“I find running restful,” she continues. “I hate it for the first few minutes, but then something kicks in that stops me worrying for a while, and thinking about all the work I have to do.”
The way Claudia sees it, that forward momentum in any shape or form – whether it’s walking, running, being on a train, or generally travelling somewhere – gives you that permission to pause and rest.
I think choosing activities that give you permission to rest is quite powerful
“People feel so guilty about resting, and sort of need permission to be able to do it. Resting while you’re moving is easier in some ways because you’re getting somewhere, so you don’t feel so guilty about it! I think choosing activities that give you permission to rest is quite powerful.”
That guilt can seep into other parts of our lives, and we feel hesitant to take time out for ourselves. The contemporary issue of ‘busyness as a badge of honour’ is a good example of this, and something that can feed those feelings of guilt if we don’t constantly have a jam-packed schedule. Restrictive perceptions around the state of personal ‘busyness’ is a common problem, and one that even Claudia occasionally falls foul of.
“When people ask me how I am, I tend to say: ‘I’m busy’ or ‘A bit too busy really,’” she shares. “In one way that’s true – it feels true – but on the other hand, it is also a way of saying: ‘I’m busy and therefore in demand.’ How much is that a claim to status, and how much of that is because we feel we need to be busy to be ‘valuable’?”
It’s a relatable feeling, and one that emphasises our need to reassess our relationship with rest – and our resistance to it. Rather than being viewed as a negative trait or selfish, rest is the self-care act everyone needs to consider and, as the list from the Rest Test survey suggests, it can be free, available to all of us and, most of the time, we can do it alone.
Yet, with the huge volume of information so easily accessible online and in the media nowadays, it’s easy to feel confused, with so many conflicting recommendations with regards to your wellbeing. This is one reason why Claudia is such a champion for analytical and evidence-based thinking – and fortunately she has a great talent for making scientific and neurological studies easily accessible to the widest possible audience.
“One of the main things I want to do is communicate the wealth of research that’s out there, because I think it would be great if more of us were able to put it into practice in our lives.
“There’s an enormous amount of nonsense online, but it’s not based on any evidence, it’s not based on anything,” she says, passionately. “And we hear in the media ‘you should do this, you should do that’, and I think it’s really important, as consumers and audiences, to constantly think: ‘Why are people saying we should do that, and is that really the case?’”
Claudia’s insights on the information we consume really are thought-provoking, and she’s keen to share them with as big an audience as possible, through the written and spoken word, and in person at events, including the inaugural Life Lessons Festival in February 2020.
I leave my desk and just go in the garden for a short amount of time, and the calm that comes over me is just amazing
However, Claudia is happy to give us a sneak peek, and share a few life lessons of her own. “Firstly, I’d suggest one of the things I’ve been doing myself – prescribe yourself 15 minutes of your favourite resting activity.
“For me that is gardening. While I’m working at home, sometimes even when I’ve got loads to do, I leave my desk and just go in the garden for a short amount of time, and the calm that comes over me is just amazing.
“It won’t be gardening for everybody – I know some people hate it, but I can forget everything else and just be taken out of myself for 15 minutes, and that’s really powerful. So choose and prescribe something that works for you.
“Also, follow the evidence when thinking about whether something is good or not, and finally, try really hard not to worry so much about what other people expect of you and want you to be. Try to work out how you will be happy for yourself.”
‘The Art of Rest: How to Find Respite in the Modern Age’, by Claudia Hammond (Canongate, £16.99) is out now
Hear more from Claudia at the first-ever Sunday Times Life Lessons Festival from 15–16 February 2020 at The Barbican, London. Dr Rangan Chatarjee, Megan Jayne Crabbe, Ruby Wax, Kimberley Wilson and many others will also be speaking at this thought-led festival with a focus on wellbeing – and Happiful will be there too!
Find out more at lifelessonsfestival.com