The Benefits of Short Breaks

It’s a long afternoon in the office, and your focus is waning. After staring out the window for a few half-conscious minutes, you tell yourself, “Maybe I’ll just get up and take a lap. I’ll get some water or see what my buddy is doing down the hall.”

It turns out your break is more than just a cubicle “coping mechanism” or even a recharge for a distracted mind. New research out of Australia shows that frequent breaks with even a modest amount of movement (like standing and stretching) have significant physical benefit. The study measured the impact of “light activity” on a number of health markers in 168 healthy adults.

This healthy group, who ranged in age from 30 to 87 years, kept an activity diary and wore an accelerometer during all waking hours for 7 days, the researchers report in Diabetes Care. The accelerometer, worn firmly around the trunk, measured the duration, type, and intensity of physical activity in counts per minute.

The researchers considered accelerometer counts of less than 100 per minute as sedentary periods, and counts of 100 or greater as active time. Light-intensity activity was from 100 to 1951 per minute and counts more than 1951 were periods of moderate-to-vigorous activity.

Overall, participants spent 57, 39, and 4 percent of their waking hours in sedentary, light-intensity, and moderate-to-vigorous intensity activity, respectively. On average, their breaks lasted less than 5 minutes, with accelerometer counts of 514 per minute.

They found that the number of breaks from sedentary activity positively correlated with lower waist circumference, lower triglycerides, and lower 2-plasma glucose scores.

via Medline Plus

While no one is saying those few steps to the water cooler will keep you healthy, it appears frequent “up and about” breaks add to a person’s overall picture of health. The breaks, according to researchers, “complement” other kinds of physical activity. Cool, huh?

And it makes total sense. It’s unlikely that Grok had the chance to sit and veg in front of the fire for countless hours at a time. At least not to the extent that modern man has seen. The human body is made to move, and plain old, everyday activity counts for something now as it did then. Gardening, cleaning, woodworking, strolling, stretching and sauntering around the neighborhood or office: it all helps. Next time your boss gives you a quizzical look (or evil eye) for making the rounds, tell him/her that Grok’s just grooving his body.

Thoughts? Tricks for office breaks? Do share.

Lex in the City Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Physical Inactivity Linked to Prostate Cancer Risk

Stress Relief at Your Desk

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14 thoughts on “The Benefits of Short Breaks”

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  1. Actually, Grok DID have lots of time to sit by the fire (or indigenously squat) and tell stories, hang out, weave clothing, and generally chill. Estimates are that hunter-gatherers used/use only 10-20% of their time in survival activities. It wasn’t an easy life, but it wasn’t one of constant frenetic activity, either.

    Now they definitely didn’t have their 64-oz. Big Gulp, or a box of doughnuts, or a jar of M&Ms either, so that probably made a difference. And they were outside much of the time (estimates are that we only spend 3% of our time outside). And when they were active, their activities were a heck of a lot more strenuous than ours.

    So I really think it’s likely you can chill a lot if you do intensive work periodically. And I think being outside a lot also makes a significant difference to overall well-being.

  2. I have read recently that researchers found that taking a six minute nap at work is very refreshing as well. That it is healthy for you to do so.
    Getting up to stretch and walk is very important, keeps those “office kinks” from forming

  3. Charles – I have a hard time imagining Grok sitting in front of a fire or on a rock for, say, 8-9 hours during day light hours like many office workers do. If I had to hunt/gather, take care of children, keep myself from being killed be some other animal etc. I don’t think I’d be sitting on my butt all day. Man’s ability to work in a sedentary position all day and then drive (not walk mind you) home to the couch where one watches tv until they decide to walk a few feet to bed to sleep and do it all over again is a modern invention. In the very least, Grok would get up and move around from time to time – even if there was plenty of leisure time – out of sheer boredom, no? I know I can go an entire day without even leaving my padded leather desk chair unless I make a concerted effort to get up, stretch, walk around etc. because I am preoccupied.

  4. Other Donna, of course you’re somewhat right, but I think you would be surprised at the amount of social, non-working time reported in many hunter-gatherer cultures.

    My point, perhaps not well stated, is not that a HG life was comparable to sitting in an office all day. It was that it’s an illusion to believe that working all the time is the natural state of humans.

    I would also agree that sitting on your butt in front of a computer or a calculator or a bunch of papers is not comparable to hanging around a fire with the rest of the clan.

    But I gotta tell you that the more I work out and eat right, the less able I am to sit on my butt all day. I have too much energy for that, and my body tells me very clearly to get up and get out.

    So I would suggest that the tendency to sit for hours at a time is more effect than cause. And the cause is a body that’s not tuned up or tuned into.

  5. This is something I’v been very concious of doing. It’s especially important after I play racquetball at lunch. If I just sit in the chair for an hour afterwards, I might not be able to walk when I do get up!!. One tip I would suggest for those who might be able to use it. I work on the first floor of a two-story building. Whenever I need to ensure that the plumbing is still operational, I take the stairs and use the upstairs facitily (taking the elevator counts less).

  6. I’m all about doing a physical activity at lunch, and then a mid afternoon break doing something: “Closed door meeting” to rest the eyes, walk outside for a few, maybe even call home for a few moments. Sometimes a 2-15 minutes mini power nap is all you need!

  7. Great information so don’t misunderstand me here, but why do things like this always assume people work in an office all day? It would be nice if we could all have our own desk and work in an air conditioned office, but there are many other jobs out there that people do that don’t include sitting behind a desk. Like I said I like the article so don’t bury me, just wanted to point this out.

  8. Wayne,

    No intention to bury you! I understand what you mean. Maybe in this case the assumption is that non-office workers are more likely to have at least somewhat active jobs. I don’t work in an office either. (I work at home.) My child keeps me up and around so much that the short break thing isn’t so much an issue for the day, but I have to remember to get up and stretch when I work during the evening. I used to work in a lighting factory where we stood all day but moved around quite a bit. Despite the heavy lifting, my back was in much better shape then than now.

  9. Jen, great explanation and it makes a lot of sense. It’s very true that people who do work in offices often don’t exercise enough, and don’t have time, so that’s why I feel the information is great for those who do happen to work in an office. I just notice that the media and society always talk like everyone works in an office. I’m not singling out MDA so nothing personal Mark, keep up the good work.

  10. It’s true that short breaks will help us become more productive. An employer or boss who encourage short breaks will motivate more his employees. In our country, our law requires that employees should be given short breaks between working hours.