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Friday, August 20, 2010

Take Back Your Weekends


More and more, work-related worries and responsibilities are invading our off-hours. Here's how to reclaim the downtime you deserve

Jessica Girdwain

T.G.I.F.? Not necessarily. Friday used to mean you were facing a weekend of fun and relaxation, but now those two bliss-filled days have become a lot less, well, bliss filled, thanks to a laundry list of chores, take-home work, and a jam-packed social calendar.

A bummer, to be sure, but cramming your life full of endless obligations is also a health hazard: Studies show that when you shift gears, you can actually make yourself sick, likely because you're throwing off your body's natural rhythm, which can mess with your physical well-being. In the journal Psychological Topics, clinical psychology professor Ad Vingerhoets, Ph.D., calls this modern malady "leisure sickness."

The Inability to Unplug
Here's what's happening: Your body churns out adrenaline, often in response to work demands, but nowadays the flow of that energy-producing hormone isn't stemmed come Friday night. And the continuous release of adrenaline when you don't need it (i.e., during downtime) can create a "physiological disturbance that puts you at risk for developing fatigue and headaches," says Vingerhoets. Also, staying plugged in after you clock out is one of the reasons sleep problems have become a monster issue affecting some 70 million Americans, according to the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research at the National Institutes of Health.

And because the average woman works nine hours more each week than she did in 2004, according to data collected last year by the Center for Work-Life Policy, more of the domestic to-do list—sorting laundry, shopping for groceries, plowing through piles of bills—is saved for the weekend.

"We run our lives like seven-day workweeks because we think we can use our weekend time to catch up," says psychologist Rachna Jain, Psy.D., "but it's exhausting." That might explain why Monday is often not the most productive workday, according to Accountemps, a staffing firm that maximizes productivity. "If the highs of stress during the week aren't offset by the lows of leisure on the weekend, your cortisol levels can remain sky-high, hampering your body's natural ability to bounce back and recharge," says Stephanie McClellan, M.D., coauthor of So Stressed: The Ultimate Stress-Relief Plan for Women. "Too much cortisol can even accelerate aging." (Bet that got your attention!) And chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease, as well as anxiety and depression.

Decisions, Decisions
Another reason weekends tend to wipe us out: They're not as structured as weekdays, where tasks are laid out for us. "Most people aren't prepared to function with free time," says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D., codirector of the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University in California. "We end up being overwhelmed with a sense that we need to fill each minute with quality stuff. We often end up wasting our days by not doing anything interesting, rather than planning things that produce happiness."

So how do you go about making the most of your days off? According to McClellan, it's all about "balancing times of exertion with times of quiet and leisure." We asked some experts to offer up their smartest tricks for restoring the replenishing power of the weekend.

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