Relaxation could help you live longer. Whether you’re taking a leisurely stroll around your favorite shady park or carving out five minutes during your lunch break for meditation, science shows it’s time to prioritize rest. And there’s no better time to do it: 34% of Americans say that their level of stress is “completely overwhelming most days,” according to a poll by the American Psychological Association.
Chronic surges of stress hormones can take a significant toll on your overall well-being, setting the stage for life-shortening health issues like cardiovascular disease and cancer. Thankfully, relaxation can curb those hormonal spikes to support longevity.
The good news: Relaxation can make a real difference by curbing stress hormones and ultimately supporting longevity. Here are five facts science has revealed about how relaxation could add years to your life.
1. Residents of 'Blue Zone' regions prioritize sleep and relaxation
There are five areas in the world where people consistently live to be over 100 years old: the so-called Blue Zones. There are lifestyle commonalities among these five regions — Ikaria in Greece, Okinawa in Japan, the Ogliastra region on the Italian island of Sardinia, Loma Linda in California and Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica — that are often touted as the playbook for better health and, of course, longevity.
And rest is at the center of their healthy lifestyle. Centenarians from Blue Zone regions not only get a solid seven to nine hours of sleep each night, but they also take frequent naps.
Researchers have found that people who live in Blue Zones enjoy movement naturally throughout their day-to-day, have a sense of purpose, have stress-busting routines (like happy hour or naps) and generally belong to a faith-based community.
Dana Udall, a licensed mental health care provider and chief clinical officer of Headspace, tells Yahoo Life these “meditative or contemplative” practices are ways of regulating the body to decrease its stress response. “Also, coming together in community has been shown to have a host of benefits, including decreasing loneliness and depression and increasing longevity as well,” she adds.
2. Regularly engaging in 'waking rest' can be as restorative as sleep
Science has long celebrated quality sleep as a way to boost longevity. But living longer isn't just about napping. Consider waking rest — defined as quiet, reflective time that gives the brain a chance to acknowledge and work through thoughts that occur spontaneously. Studies show that ways to relax and restore the body and mind can boost immunity, self-control and the ability to retain information — all aspects of health that can add years to one’s life.
The alternative isn't pretty. Dr. Elizabeth Sharp, CEO and medical director of the New York City-based concierge medical practice Health Meets Wellness, tells Yahoo Life, “Poor sleep is a fast track to factors that can negatively impact health and longevity: increased levels of inflammation, poor eating habits, decreased levels of physical activity and mood changes, including symptoms of depression and anxiety.”
In a 2019 letter published in the journal Sleep, researchers noted that “waking rest can be incorporated into one’s life not only during periods of insomnia but also during the day to facilitate mental rejuvenation,” and “creating time for waking rest may be especially important for our feelings and emotional control and may help remedy various mental health and sleep problems.” They conclude: “We need to make waking rest culturally acceptable to increase health and well-being for our generation and those to come.”
Serena Poon, a longevity wellness expert, tells Yahoo Life that wakeful rest is just as helpful to overall health and longevity as sleep, because it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, a network of nerves that aids in rest.
And engaging in regular wakeful rest activity — something as simple as a daily meditation practice, especially before bed — can help combat symptoms of stress and can help you live longer, adds Sharp.
3. Meditating can slow cellular aging
Science also shows just how powerful a meditation practice can be to slow cellular aging: Research published in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences found that meditative practices can lower stress hormones and reduce oxidative stress, which can damage cells, proteins and DNA and is linked to various life-shortening diseases (such as diabetes, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's). “When we meditate, we are lowering our blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen consumption, which results in higher energy levels and better immunity and sleep,” Udall says.
A similar analysis published in Frontiers in Immunology, which analyzed 18 previously published studies, found that mind-body practices like meditation and breathing exercises appeared to suppress the expression of genes and genetic pathways that promote chronic inflammation, which can take a toll on physical and mental health.
Udall notes that the beauty of meditation is that it doesn’t take long to prove beneficial. “Training your mind to be in the present, to be aware, to be welcoming of whatever comes up, can immediately decrease stress and can boost mood and focus and concentration in a very short period of time,” she says. “You don't have to meditate for 20 or 40 minutes every day. You can build up a practice that is really a few minutes.”
4. Slow, controlled breathing has been linked to longevity
Maximize your heart rate variability (HRV) and potentially live longer. That is according to research in the journal Breathe, which finds that controlled slow breathing practices appear to be an effective way to maximize HRV, or the variance in the timing between each heartbeat.
The study finds that "controlled, slow breathing appears to be an effective means of maximizing HRV and preserving autonomic function, both of which have been associated with decreased mortality in pathological states and longevity in the general population."
In other words, breathing slowly activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart rate and reduces blood pressure and could help you live longer.
“On the flip side, reduced heart rate variability is tied to immune dysfunction, inflammation, cardiovascular disease and mortality,” says Poon.
5. Spending time in nature can reduce life-threatening diseases
Getting outside is study-proven to offer a bevy of benefits that could prolong your life. Using data from the U.S.-based Nurses’ Health Study prospective cohort, which studied approximately 100,000 women nationwide, Harvard researchers found that women who lived in areas with the highest level of greenness had a 12% lower rate of death compared with women whose homes had the lowest level of greenness. They even broke it down further, finding:
13% lower rate for cancer mortality
35% lower mortality related to respiratory disease
41% lower rate for kidney disease mortality
Another review, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, notes that time in nature decreases depression and anxiety, improves cognitive function and helps prevent chronic disease. “These are all important factors of living a long and healthy life,” says Poon.
These benefits may be attributed to the fact that spending time in green spaces has also been shown to decrease stress levels, she points out.