Yet rest is as important as exercise to a healthy life. Without it, our stress levels skyrocket, leading to accelerated heart and breathing rates and increased blood pressure, says Jonathan C. Smith, PhD, director of the Roosevelt University Stress Institute in Chicago. "Without rest, we're constantly charging up the body for an emergency," he says. "It would be like running your motorcycle or vacuum cleaner at high speed for 24 hours a day. Eventually, it's going to wear out."
Let this point be clear: Rest is not laziness. Rest is building breaks into our lives before we collapse so we don't collapse. So, then, why is it so hard to put our feet up? "We're raised with the idea that we're supposed to be serving all the time," says Lynne M. Baab, author of Sabbath Keeping: Finding Freedom in the Rhythms of Rest. "Many women put the needs of other people before themselves. But we have to stop and avoid burnout." You can't serve others if you're a wreck yourself.
A break doesn't have to be long, says Smith, author of Relaxation, Meditation, Mindfulness: Free Internet Exercises (lulu.com/stress). "Two or three minutes of sustained mental quiet after an hour of work can do wonders," he says. Swivel your chair away from the computer and just close your eyes. (If you're worried about coworkers thinking you're slacking, hold some papers in your hands so you look like you're reading important memos.)
"You need to take yourself off-line and become engaged in something other than your normal activity," says Esther Sternberg, a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health and author of The Balance Within. Pop a CD into your music player, put on headphones, close your eyes, and sip a cup of hot tea sweetened with some honey. Block out 20 minutes for a mini-spa treatment, says Jill Murphy Long, author of Permission to Nap. Give yourself a hand massage with lavender- or sage-scented lotion.
A firm believer in taking one day a week to herself, Baab and her family began observing the Sabbath about 20 years ago when they lived in Tel Aviv. The Sabbath literally means to rest, and in Israel all work ceases from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. "The Sabbath says to women, 'Fine, spend six days a week putting other people's needs ahead of yourself and working, but spend one day stopping,'" Baab says. She uses the time to draw closer to God, but you don't have to be religious or spiritual to spend time nurturing yourself. Go with your family to the park, or have a lengthy picnic. "Spend one day a week enjoying who they are," Baab says.
Get a massage. There's nothing more relaxing than an hour on the table in the hands of a professional massage therapist. Studies have shown repeatedly that a rubdown washes away worries while increasing serotonin and dopamine, hormones that make you feel happy and relaxed, says Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine. If money is tight, look in the Yellow Pages for a massage school that offers student massages, which cost as little as $25 per hour.
For many of us, getting away is hardly relaxing. In a Gallup poll, 54 percent of vacationers say they returned home feeling more stressed out and tired than before they left. To avoid this, at least once each year take a relaxing vacation where you're not rushing to visit family or trying to pack two weeks of sightseeing into seven days of vacation time. Spend a week (or at least a few days) going somewhere where you have nothing planned. Sleep in, read by the pool, walk along the beach, gaze at the stars, linger over breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Call upon your memories of high school physics class and make Newton's first law of motion your creed: Any object at rest tends to stay at rest.