In our modern day, it is easy to feel controlled by deadlines and to-do lists and push yourself to be productive every minute of the day. While this may give short-term benefits of crossing tasks off your list, it’s not the most sustainable way of life for your brain or your body. Taking short, frequent brain breaks during the day can have a major positive influence on your mental and physical health.
What is a brain break?
A brain break can be any activity that offers a pause to prolonged mental work, giving the brain and body a chance to rest and recover resources that get used up while working. Taking brain breaks during the day to recover these resources has been shown to help the mind relax, allow our emotional energy to recharge so that we feel better throughout the day, and refresh our cognitive resources so that we are more productive when returning to our work. It has also been shown to contribute to a better night’s sleep on average, leading to a reduced chance of burnout.
What makes a brain break good?
Brain breaks don’t have to be long; anywhere from five to 15 minutes will do it. Recent research has identified a few tips when picking activities to get the most benefit from these short brain breaks.
Pick a non-work-related activity that you enjoy. Every person will have a handful of activities that they find truly enjoyable, so put these at the top of your list for a break. A 2016 study found that people who used their break to do an activity they preferred experienced fewer symptoms of fatigue (eye strain, headache, body aches), increased job satisfaction, and decreased emotional exhaustion.
Take your brain breaks early and late in the day. You may feel the most alert and ready to work hard in the morning, particularly after a cup of coffee or tea, but as the day progresses, you may find yourself becoming more and more fatigued, and taking an afternoon break doesn’t seem to help as much as it should. The longer you work without taking a brain break, the faster your cognitive resources will drain and the harder it will be to replenish them throughout the day. Taking short breaks both in the mornings and afternoons has been associated with less symptoms of fatigue throughout the day, and better productivity when returning to work.
- Unplug for your breaks. Using your breaks to scroll through social media or answer messages may be just as draining on your cognitive resources as not taking a break at all and contributes to cognitive and emotional fatigue. It is perhaps best to leave the device alone when taking a brain break!
Activities to get relaxed
Meditation. Meditation can be defined as a mental ‘training’ capable of producing connection between the mind, body and spirit, and aims to help people achieve balance in life, relaxation and self-control. Research has also uncovered positive effects on health linked to meditation practise, such as lower arterial pressure, increased cardiovascular efficiency, better emotional regulation, reduced stress levels, and better ability to sustain attention and concentration during the day.
There are many different forms that meditation can take, from something as simple as taking 10 deep purposeful breaths with your eyes closed in a quiet place, to partaking in a guided practice. The Love Your Brain Foundation offers an assortment of meditation practices in their library that you can try anytime anywhere if you need a break. Neurovine has also launched a meditation program designed for individuals in concussion recovery. Check out the program here!
Mindfulness. Mindfulness can be considered a type of meditation that aims to help you live in the moment. Practising mindfulness entails focusing your attention on what you sense and feel at any single moment in a day without judgement or interpretation. Mindfulness is all about slowing down to notice the little details you are experiencing, and how those details may resonate with you.
Mindfulness exercise can be structured, such as listening to a guided mindfulness meditation session, or unstructured, such as taking a bit of extra time to enjoy your favourite food.
Mindfulness can have health benefits on our minds and bodies. A 2019 study showed that employees who completed 10 to 20 minutes of mindful meditation a few times a week for eight weeks felt improved well-being and perceptions of workplace social support, and less distress and job fatigue compared to those who did not partake in mindfulness, and that this improvement was still in effect months later.
ACTIVITIES TO GET MOVING
Get out for a walk or wheel. It’s no secret that physical activity in all its forms can have a positive impact on mood, cognition, and of course, physical health. Having a few indoor and outdoor walk or wheel routes around your workplace can really help keep you motivated and active all year long, especially when the weather is a bit too cold for comfort!
The Take Your Break Initiative recommends making these walk or wheel breaks something you are comfortable with and could maintain for life. Getting into a healthy habit that gets you moving and gives your brain a break is always good practise.
Do some stretches. Stretching at work is a great way to take a break and still get some movement in on a tight schedule. Getting your body up and moving in a gentle way has been shown to ease some of the tension that builds up from staying in one position for too long, and can help you feel refreshed, reduce fatigue, improve your posture, and prevent muscle strain. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety has a few recommended exercises that can be done from your office to help relieve pain and strain from head to toe.
ACTIVITIES TO GET INSPIRED
Reorganize your workspace. Take 10 minutes to step back from your work and organize your desktop, a drawer, a bookshelf, or any other space that could use a quick tidy. Reorganizing and decluttering your workspace can make you feel accomplished, in control of your surroundings, and contribute to a calm, clear mind.
Make yourself a healthy snack. Hunger can play an influential and distracting role on our attention and cognition while trying to work on a task. Taking a short break to make yourself a healthy snack can act as both a brain break from your work, and a natural energy booster to keep you focused when you return.
Choose as many natural ingredients in your diet as possible to ensure you are giving your brain and body the proper fuel for the day. Foods such as berries, nuts, and even dark chocolate have been shown to contain nutrients that can give your brain and mood an extra boost.
These activities make up only a few suggestions for what to do during a brain break. The Take Your Break Initiative from the Canada Life Workplace Strategies for Mental Health is a good resource for information on the health effects of taking brain breaks and gives new ideas each week for activities you can use during your breaks. Being disciplined in taking your breaks throughout the day, regardless of the work you do, is important for keeping your energy, cognitive, emotional and physical well-being in check.