How stretching, tea and meditation optimize break time

With many of us still working from home, we may feel like we never get a break from our jobs. Taking regular pauses from work, however, are crucial to productivity and preventing burnout.

One of the advantages of working from home is that it is more convenient for optimizing break time. Simply zoning out and staring at our phone and drinking another latte may be tempting, but such activities don’t deliver the mental and physical health benefits of STeaM: Stretch/Strengthen – Tea – Meditate/Mobility.

Wandering isn’t wonderful

Mindfully focusing breaks on concentrated activities may seem like more work, but numerous studies have shown that meditation and exercise during break times can be more relaxing and improve our mood more than just letting our minds wander, which, it turns out, can be a bummer. A study that asked participants to record how they were feeling into a smartphone app found even during neutral or pleasant mind-wandering they were unhappier than when focused on their current activity.

The challenge is that our brains are “hard-wired” to wander, according to a clinical study that used a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) device to examine people’s brains. In the study, the mind-wandering part of participants’ brains was more active while performing familiar tasks versus tasks they thought were new, which is likely not a surprise to any of us who have daydreamed in the shower or while doing household chores.

Let your legs do the wandering

Meditation is not the only break-time activity to help reduce mind-wandering and improve mental and physical health. For example, research shows stretching, yoga and other types of mobility and aerobic exercise are more effective at treating depression than a prescription antidepressant medication.

In a related study, researchers had one group of participants exercise just 30 minutes (after a 10-minute warm-up) at 70% to 85% of their maximum heart rate three times a week. Another group was only prescribed an antidepressant and a third group exercised and took medication. After 10 months, the exercise-only group reported the lowest rates of their depression returning compared to the others.

Similarly, an in-depth review of human and animal studies concerning exercise and brain function found that that consistent physical activity has a positive effect on multiple aspects of brain function and cognition for all age groups.

Switch to Tea

Coffee is synonymous with work breaks, but too much caffeine over the day only ratchets up our anxiety and interferes with sleep without improving work performance when taken in excess. Herbal tea, on the other hand, typically has only small amounts of caffeine, if any, and contains antioxidants and polyphenols, which may have health-promoting properties. A review of scientific literature of tea found associations with a lower risk of death, heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Researchers also found beneficial associations with several types of cancers, skeletal, cognitive and maternal outcomes.

Change your mind with meditation

Because our brains are programmed to wander, it takes consistent practice to help us to focus on our current activity. Mindfulness meditation can help us prevent such distractions during our breaks and when working or relaxing with our friends and family.

After all, being more “present” during these activities and not letting our minds wander have been shown to deliver a greater psychological benefit. For example, researchers found that even just seven minutes of a meditation called loving-kindness meditation “increased feelings of social connection and positivity toward [strangers] on both explicit and implicit levels.”

One theory is that mindfulness practice, such as meditation, changes our brain’s gray matter in the areas associated with learning and memory, emotion and sense of self. Other researchers studied the minds of experienced meditators, also with an fMRI, and found the mind-wandering parts of their brains did not activate as often as the novice meditators. That is likely why in a separate randomized controlled investigation, a two-week mindfulness-training course improved both GRE reading-comprehension scores and working memory capacity while reducing distracting thoughts.

Work breaks are important, but like the rest of the day, shouldn’t be wasted. Incorporating STeaM into your breaks can make your workday more productive and less stressful while improving your mood and well-being.

About the author:

Sherry McAllister, DC, is executive vice president of the Foundation for Chiropractic Progress