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Lakeside Editorial Feature

Use your cottage weekends to create a healthier you

The cottage has always been synonymous with relaxation: a place to unwind, relax and rejuvenate before returning to the hustle and bustle of life. But what if it could do more? What if it could actually help you live a longer, healthier life?

We’ve reached out to the country’s leading experts in sleep, mindfulness and goal setting to help you get the most out of your weekends away and feel more prepared for your workweek after you return home.

Drop the distractions
If you are sitting at the dock right now, wondering where the serene magic of your retreat has gone, you’re not alone.

A generation ago, most seasonal properties were wooded lakeside cabins, with a landline phone available for emergencies.

Today, it’s hard to disconnect. And while today’s tech has its advantages, Dr. Charles Samuels, Medical Director for the Centre for Sleep & Human Performance in Calgary, says our connectivity is paying a major toll on our health.

“We have generations of young people who are attached to screens, creating very unhealthy behaviour,” says Dr. Samuels. “And with COVID, more professionals are working at home and the cottage, making it even harder to separate our work from our rest time. It is not healthy.”

If you’ve already set up a remote office at the cottage, now’s the time to develop boundaries around your screen time, and create a structured system to respect your sleep. This includes keeping your cell phone out of your bedroom, and creating a screen-free space in your schedule to allow your body to unwind before bed.

Fill your sleep bank
If you’re like many of us who struggle to get enough sleep during the week, Dr. Samuels says you can use the cottage as a designated space to catch up on those precious Zzzz’s.

There are many reasons why you may not be getting enough sleep during the week, from long commutes to long shifts. While sleeping in on the weekend or taking a midday nap may feel self-indulgent, Dr. Samuels says sleep banking is good and necessary for those who aren’t making their daily sleep quota. While there’s no reason to feel guilty over lost sleep, it’s essential that you take time to make up for those lost hours during the weekend.

The key, he says, is twofold: you must know how much sleep your body needs to function each night (this number is different for everyone), and you must not dip so far below your required sleep hours that it’s impossible to recover and replenish your sleep bank.

For instance, if you’ve missed an hour of sleep every day the past five days, you must be willing to add five extra hours of sleep to your weekend rest time.

If you can’t make up that sleep, it’s likely that you’ll suffer the effects of chronic sleep debt.

“With chronic sleep debt, we often see a loss of concentration and memory. We see an impact on weight control and mood. And a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.”

Fortunately, the cottage is the perfect environment for sleep; we just need to be intentional about getting the rest we need.

Limit the drinks
Few things are more enjoyable than relaxing in a Muskoka chair with a cold beer in hand. But have too many drinks and you’ll guarantee yourself a restless sleep.

“Drinking is part of the cottage culture. People go to the cottage to relax, so they drink. But drinking is brutal for sleep,” says Dr. Samuels. “If you’re going to the cottage to make up on sleep, and you’re drinking more than you should because you’re trying to relax, the sleep you’ll get is very low quality.”

While Dr. Samuels says he isn’t expecting that you cut alcohol out completely, he says mindful moderation will better your chances of a restful weekend.

“Whether we’re discussing caffeine, nicotine or alcohol, it’s all about the amount you’re having over the course of the day and the proximity to bedtime.”

Enjoy your morning joe outdoors
We often hear about the importance of getting outside to exercise in the morning, but if you’re looking to boost your energy during the day and get a more restful night’s sleep, Dr. Samuels has a sweat-free hack that anyone can master: Enjoy your morning coffee outdoors on the deck, with the sun’s rays on your face.

According to Dr. Samuels, by getting the morning sun into your eyes, even on a cloudy day, you can get enough lux of light to stabilize your circadian clock.

“On a sunny day, we get 100,000 lux of light. All we need is 10,000 lux of light to produce the effect in our brain that we need to set our circadian rhythm each day.”

Just be sure to leave the sunglasses inside, to make sure the sunlight gets in your eyes.

Keep your mind at the cottage
While cottage weekends are great for making up for lost sleep, they can also be perfect for a mental reset. That is, if you have the right tools to get into “cottage mode.”

This is where mindfulness and meditation can be so valuable.

If you share a busy cottage with your family and friends, it may be difficult to find time alone, but even 10 minutes of quiet meditation each day can have a huge impact on our mood, anxiety, stress, cognitive functioning, and immune system.

If alone time isn’t possible, practicing mindfulness techniques will help you enjoy every cottage moment.

“Meditation is intentionally bringing some sustained attention to something on purpose while developing certain qualities of attentiveness. Whereas mindfulness is being more aware of whatever’s going on,” says Dr. Jaak Reichmann, Director of the Centre for Inner Freedom in Barrie.

As a psychiatrist who has specialized in the treatment of anxiety disorders for the past 30 years, Dr. Reichmann says our brains are designed to wander. While wandering thoughts aren’t a bad thing, they can lead us to dwell on the stress of our busy work weeks and cause us to feel anxious about the days following our cottage vacations.

“When you’re at the cottage, ask yourself if you’re actually at the cottage,” says Dr. Reichmann. “Because we carry with us all kinds of stuff from the rest of life.”

Tune into your surroundings
A simple way to make sure you remain in the present is to focus on your body and your five senses: what we feel, hear, smell, taste and see.

“Focus on what you’re seeing on the lake, what you’re hearing in the air – whether your family’s laughter, or the birds, or the rustling wind in the trees,” says Dr. Reichmann.

From there, focus on your physical sensations in your body. If you feel tension in your body, pay attention to it.

“If we fight the tension, it becomes bigger to us. That tension is often tied to a problem that’s stressful, and that tension can then take us away from the richness of the present moment,” says Dr. Reichmann. “If we can open our scope of attention, we avoid becoming tunnel visioned. We can keep the problem in perspective, without allowing it to take our mind away from our cottage time.”

Be playful
While the cottage is a space dedicated to rest and relaxation, it is also the perfect opportunity to have fun, explore your passions and be creative.

“When we are in 9-to-5, our nervous system is in a sympathetic state where we are in fight or flight, with a constant release of cortisol, which hinders our thought process. But when we’re at the cottage, we can recalibrate our nervous system, get into the parasympathetic state,” says Karthika Jeyamohan, a certified life coach in Durham Region, who specializes in helping women find their passions and accomplish their goals. “When your mind isn’t as cluttered, there’s space for thinking logically, spiritually and creatively.”

If you’ve never waterskied, give it a try. If you have a beautiful view, paint it.

“Just go out and play, and try new things,” says Karthika. “We can forget what we’re passionate about later in our lives, especially when we’ve taken on so many roles and responsibilities.”

Once you’ve found something you like to do, carve out an area at the cottage and allow that passion to fuel you.

“The cottage is a perfect place for fun, because we can eliminate the distractions that can hold us back from being creative.”

Focus on yourselfBeing in nature is also a great way to reconnect with yourself and think about your goals and desires.

“Taking a nature walk can be so good for the mind and soul,” says Karthika. “Or just find a quiet place outside and journal.”

When journaling, Karthika says it’s best to allow yourself to write whatever comes to mind. The goal is to allow your inner thoughts to come to light, then rid yourself of the ones that are no longer serving you.

“Each of us has conditioned beliefs. When we allow our mind to clear, that’s when our inner voice can come in and we can centre ourselves and be where we should be.”

Being quiet in nature also gives us a creative space to think of ways to use our passions outside the cottage.

“A lot of people have the assumption that passion should be our career. You can still have your 9-to-5 and have passion on the side. It doesn’t have to be of monetary value.” says Karthika. “Volunteering is a great way to feel fulfilled. Our passions can be side projects and hobbies, but they can also be connecting with people.” That can take place at the cottage – there are many organizations in Muskoka where volunteers can contribute their talents, and most of them are only too happy to welcome seasonal residents.

Whether you want to explore new passions, or simply want to relax and catch up on sleep, don’t let this cottage weekend float by. By eliminating distractions, focusing on taking care of yourself and being present with your loved ones, you can reclaim the cottage and make this summer season the best one yet.

Avoid driving tired
Did you know that GTA residents have the longest commutes in Canada? No wonder we’re tired!

“The GTA has the worst commutes, with many spending up to two hours a day in rush hour traffic. And that commute is the number one thing attributing to sleep deprivation,” says Dr. Charles Samuels, Medical Director for the Centre for Sleep & Human Performance in Calgary.

And while sleep deprivation can lead to chronic health risks, it’s also an immediate safety risk that needs to be addressed.

“Falling asleep at the wheel and killing people is what worries me,” says Dr. Samuels. “Especially when hopping in the car and driving two hours at the end of a long week without getting enough sleep. It’s a substantial risk for motor vehicle accidents.”

If you’re feeling too tired to drive to the cottage, take a nap before you hit the road, for your sake and others on the road.



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