Relax when you must – but not for too long

A good rest can be bad

Our bodies are designed to move – and strange things start happening after just 24 hours of immobility. Longer-term, regular exercise helps to ward off heart disease, diabetes, dementia, many cancers and depression, so we can all benefit from doing as much as possible to maintain our strength, balance, flexibility and mental wellbeing.

When to rest

Most of us need six to eight hours’ sleep to recharge, and to fend off daytime sleepiness, obesity, heart disease and diabetes. We also need rest after heavy exercise, which gives our muscles and energy stores time to recover, or if we have infections or inflammatory conditions, when our immune systems are working flat out.

And we may have no choice after an operation or injury, but even if we’re seriously ill in hospital, we’ll be encouraged to get moving as soon as we can afterwards.

Use it or lose it

Our muscles quickly start to atrophy (lose bulk and power) if we lie in bed for more than a few days. They are also harder to rebuild as we get older. Natural reflexes that protect our blood pressure when we stand up, together with our balance and sense of where we are also quickly deteriorate, so we’re more likely to fall and injure ourselves.

And, as bed rest also drains calcium from our bones, they eventually will become weaker and more prone to osteoporotic fractures.

The old adage ‘Never stand when you can sit, never sit when you can lie’ is bad advice. Sitting or lying with bent joints makes them feel briefly stiff, but longer-term it can permanently restrict our range of movement.

Inactivity can also damage our hearts and lungs, change body fluid composition and distribution, and make our blood more likely to clot. Our skin may get sore, our digestion slows down, and we use less energy, so we’re more likely to sleep badly, and/or gain weight, adding to our health problems.

How we feel

Feeling weak can make us feel depressed, lethargic and even less enthusiastic about exercise, creating a vicious circle. Check whether you’re dehydrated or stressed, as these can feel like physical fatigue.

If we stay indoors, we get no sunshine, so our vitamin D levels will fall, which further weakens our muscles and bones. And we may also turn down or miss out on social interaction that could lift our mood.

10 ways that you can ensure that you avoid resting

1. Make moving, not resting, your number-one priority, every single day.

2. List all the ways you could move, taking into account your capabilities, time and other restrictions, then what you will do.

3. Choose something you like, for example jogging, a Zumba class, the gym, team sports, a home exercise programme, stepper or just dancing along to music.

4. Put exercise in your diary several times a week, and keep that appointment.

5. Get an exercise buddy (or a dog!) to keep you motivated and on track.

6. At home or at work, get up and do some stretches or move around for at least five minutes every hour (or do them sitting or lying if you’re chair- or bed-bound).

7. Be house-proud – even tidying up uses energy and makes us bend and stretch.

8. Move to the next level – use the stairs, or find a hill whenever you can.

9. Walk or cycle to the shops, get off the bus early, or park far away from shop entrances.

10. Aim for 10,000 steps a day. Use a pedometer, fitness tracker or smartphone app to monitor your progress.