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Devoted To Rest: How Sabbath Can Restore Health, Ease Stress & Promote Purpose

Donavyn Coffey
By Donavyn Coffey
mbg Contributor
Donavyn Coffey is a Kentucky-based health and science journalist. She's a graduate of NYU's Science Health and Environmental Reporting Program and has a background in molecular nutrition and genetics.
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Image by Jimena Roquero / Stocksy
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It's tempting to view Artika Tyner, J.D., as an icon of our hustle culture. She's a civil rights attorney and law professor. She runs her own publishing house and bookstore. She founded a nonprofit leadership institute and started her own consulting firm. And on top of her accolades, the 40-year-old is deeply invested in her family and rooted in her community. She's exactly the kind of person we point to and say, "She does it all." Except she doesn't. 

The secret to Tyner's high-intensity life, she says, is that she only lets it consume six days of her week. On the seventh day, she stops.

She and her community—Victory Christian Center in the historic African American neighborhood of Rondo, Saint Paul, Minnesota—are committed to practicing Sabbath: stopping everything once a week in the name of rest, restoration, and connection to God.

The religious roots of Sabbath.

The tradition of Sabbath, or Shabbat, generally prevents work and, by extension, commerce one day (24 to 25 hours) a week. Chores, shopping, and errands are all left for another time, too. Some Sabbath-keepers also disconnect from social media or technology on that day. 

The tradition originates in the Jewish faith. As part of the Ten Commandments, God calls for the Jews to remember the Sabbath day—or Shabbat, the Hebrew word for "to stop"—and keep it holy by ceasing to work.

We Sabbath for two reasons according to Scripture, Rabbi Stephanie Dickstein, MSW, a chaplain in senior care who emphasizes Sabbath for the spiritual care and healing of her patients, tells me. First, to imitate God, who rested during the seventh day of creation, and second, to celebrate being freed from slavery and the oppression of work in Egypt.

While it has religious roots, Matthew Sleeth, M.D., a leading Protestant teacher on Sabbath in the U.S. and author of 24/6, says the day isn't just for practicing Christians or Jews. Having taught on faith and health at more than 1,000 churches, campuses, and events, Sleeth interprets Sabbath as a period of rest for all life—believers and nonbelievers alike.

"I think it's the only thing that sustained me [through the pandemic]," Tyner recently told me of this day of rest, as she was ironing a tablecloth for her Sabbath meal on Sunday. "Both on the side of faith and social justice, and on my inner balance."

What if less really is more?

There's research to show that taking the Sabbath enhances health, regardless of your religion. One 2019 study1 followed 10 women with no history of practicing Sabbath and found that the new practice increased the rest-keepers' self-awareness and enriched their relationships.

One of the famously studied Blue Zones—areas where people consistently live to be over 100—is in Loma Linda, California, a hub of the Seventh-day Adventists. On average, people of this denomination live to be about 10 years older than the average American. Their longevity has been attributed, in part, to their mandated weekly Sabbath2 (in addition to their commitment to exercise, plant-based diets, and abstinence from smoking and drinking).

As for why Sabbath seems to be such a healthy practice, Sleeth thinks it's because it makes rest, reflection, and simply being a priority—just as important as more active pursuits.

His family is a testament to the benefits of this reframing: His son was the youngest person to graduate from the University of Kentucky Medical School, and his daughter bypassed high school and headed to college at 15 after missing only two questions on the SAT. Sleeth says his children are bright and hard workers—but the family also has something others don't: 24 hours once a week to "be human beings, not human doings."

Why we need to start seeing rest as productive.

In a culture that honors busyness and celebrates a 24/7 work ethic, taking a day off to rest is a radical, if not seemingly impossible, idea. But it's more important now than ever: These days, only 10% of Americans prioritize sleep according to the National Sleep Foundation, and while most of us are sleeping less than people were 50 years ago, CDC data3 shows working-age Americans are the least likely to get enough rest. 

For more than a decade, heart health trends have revealed a spike in cardiovascular events like heart attacks on Mondays as the workweek begins. A more recent study suggests that this Monday peak may be dissolving, but for a disturbing reason: Since we've adopted more of a 24/7 work culture, the workweek really never starts or stops.

Taking one day out of the week to rest is a way to reclaim your time—and a completely free one at that.

Barbara Baker Speedling, M.A., a Sabbath researcher and wellness coach based in Minnesota, chose to study Sabbath because, unlike many other aspects of wellness, it's accessible. "It doesn't require special equipment or special training," she says (though she does add that some people are unable to take a day of rest, be it because they're caregivers or living paycheck to paycheck). But admittedly, just because it's free doesn't mean it's effortless.

How to find your right way to rest.

So how can you do it? How can you create a pattern of rest for yourself in a world that demands action? While there's not necessarily a wrong way to rest, Sleeth says, there might be a right way for you.

For example, Speedling found that some of the women in one of her studies on Sabbath-keeping had tried a day of binge-watching Netflix as a Sabbath but found it didn't really give them energy. For one woman, journaling was a more rejuvenating way to rest. Speedling has met some people who find errands to be enjoyable or time with family to be renewing. Others prefer to prioritize alone time and silence.

Rabbi Dickstein practices a more conservative Sabbath where she totally disengages from technology and doesn't drive anywhere for the 25-hour period. This practice forces her to be present where she is and removes the compulsion to hurry, she tells me. 

Taking one day out of the week to rest is a way to reclaim your time—and a completely free one at that.

Many people incorporate a communal meal into their Sabbath—but preparation is essential: Every Sabbath-keeper interviewed for this story prepares for and prioritizes for the day all week long. Dickstein was sure to wrap up our Friday morning conversation in time to get to the farmers market for the fresh vegetables she'd need for her Sabbath meal.

Social scientist at Duke University Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, Ph.D., is not surprised that Sabbath-keeping requires so much intentionality: The less common a practice is within the mainstream culture, the more difficult it is to keep up with.

Therein lies another often overlooked obstacle of starting or maintaining a Sabbath: telling other people about it. Sabbath is so countercultural that Speedling says many of the women she's interviewed feel strange explaining it to their friends and community. 

But keeping your Sabbath to yourself might make it harder to maintain long term. In a 2019 retrospective study4 on clergy members, Proeschold-Bell and other Duke researchers were surprised to see that while Sabbath improved their quality of life, it had little to no effect on major health outcomes.

Proeschold-Bell suspects this was at least partially due to struggles of keeping Sabbath: Clergy didn't always inform parishioners of their intended rest period, and so they were frequently interrupted on Sabbath day. To prevent such interruption, Tyner and Dickstein both practice the Sabbath as part of a larger community. It's helpful to resist the "world's hectic pace" together, Tyner says. 

Some of the clergy in the Duke study also misunderstood rest to mean they had to force stillness and do nothing. An upcoming study currently awaiting publication, however, found that a little instruction on how to Sabbath well could help clergy keep the practice going. After attending a short workshop on Sabbath, 25% started a weekly practice within four weeks, and 46% picked it up within nine months. The interest and motivation were there, Proeschold-Bell says, and the workshop appeared to help with the execution.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about Sabbath is that it doesn't require total militant stillness. Instead, it's a day when you do different activities than you would the other six days a week, adding what brings you joy and energy and stepping away from the things you feel you need to "accomplish." 

Sleeth, Speedling, Tyner, and Dickstein all use their Sabbath to focus on the bigger picture: It's a time to consider your calling, connect to God or a higher power, and relish in nature.

"I've met people 50-plus who aren't sure what their purpose is—they are just going through the motions," Speedling says, concluding that if we don't take the time to rest, reconnect, and consider our purpose, it's too easy to put off.

The bottom line.

If rest or purpose is something you're craving, Sabbath-keeping might be worth a try. Since resting takes a surprising amount of practice these days, feel free to start small, maybe with just a four- or eight-hour Sabbath. Much like exercising, Sleeth says doing too much too soon might leave you sore rather than strong. Plan for it. Tell people about it. Think big picture. Maybe, like Dickstein, it will give you the freeing "knowledge that I can stop once a week."

Donavyn Coffey author page.
Donavyn Coffey

Donavyn Coffey is a Kentucky-based health and science journalist reporting on healthcare, data sovereignty, and anything you can CRISPR. Her work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science, Scientific American, and Medscape. A graduate of NYU's Science Health and Environmental Reporting Program with a background in molecular nutrition and genetics, she's always looking for the next unexpected food story and digging into the data on the newest wellness trends. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.