I know the importance of breaks in a workday. The science clearly shows that taking a cognitive timeout helps us to work better and feel better, and personal experience confirms that.
Like many Americans, I sometimes find myself working right through lunch. I get lost in my work, or I think, Hey, if I just finish this project, it will be out of my hair and then I can relax.
But a newly published study suggests this is the wrong approach. It turns out that taking a deliberate break from work with a short walk in the park or a bit of mindful relaxation can have powerful effects on our end-of-day concentration, stress, and fatigue.
In this study, participants in cognitively demanding fields—such as public administration, education, engineering, and finance—were randomly assigned to either take a slow, 15-minute stroll in a park (without much physical exertion) or do 15 minutes of mindful relaxation exercises during their lunch breaks every workday for two weeks. The relaxation exercises consisted of progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, and paying attention to thoughts and sensations in a non-judgmental way. Both groups were instructed beforehand on how and where to take their walk or mindfully relax.
Before, during, and after the two-week experiment, participants were “pinged” twice a week near the end of their workday and asked to report on how well they were able to concentrate at that moment, and on their stress and fatigue. In addition, they filled out a short questionnaire every night, asking how much they enjoyed their lunch break, and if they were able to detach from work during it or not.
When individuals practiced mindful relaxation or took a walk, they showed significant decreases in end-of-day stress and fatigue, as well as better concentration at work, compared to days when they took regular lunch breaks. Mindful relaxation was particularly helpful for stress relief, even more so than walking in the park.
In analyzing the results, lead researcher Marjaana Sianoja and her colleagues found that when individuals did the mindful relaxation or took a walk, they showed significant decreases in end-of-day stress and fatigue, as well as better concentration at work, compared to days when they took regular lunch breaks. Mindful relaxation was particularly helpful for stress relief, even more so than walking in the park.
Because these results occurred in a naturalistic setting, they are particularly promising, says Sianoja.
“These two restorative activities have benefits on well-being in a real work setting—as compared to laboratory settings with only student participants—and the benefits are observable some hours after the lunch break,” she says.
Why did the experiments have these benefits? Theoretically, walks in nature can lead to “attention restoration”—recovery from cognitive overload after intense focus—while also being enjoyable, while mindfulness can increase our positive emotions, relieve stress, and boost focus.
Indeed, Sianoja found that the enjoyment experienced during walking and the greater detachment from work during mindful relaxation seemed to account for participants’ increased well-being and concentration later in the day. Though she’d expected strolling in nature to produce greater detachment from work, it was apparently less effective than the mindfulness practice in this regard.
Still, she says, “Both of these activities should shift the attention away from work-related issues quite efficiently and offer a break completely free from demands if compared to a regular lunch break.”
Because of the practices’ differing effects, Sianoja recommends that people take breaks incorporating mindful relaxation on days when they experience high work demands, and thus need to detach from work, and park walks when they long for a change of scenery and more fun. Her experiment didn’t allow for choice, but she believes that choosing one’s preferred activity may produce even stronger benefits.
Though Sianoja did not look at benefits to the organization, she also suggests that taking breaks like these could have a positive impact on productivity.
“Park walks and relaxation exercises were related to increased concentration in the afternoon and thus might have potential in maintaining productivity throughout the working day,” she argues.
Whatever the case, it’s clear that workers benefit when they take a restorative break mid-day. So, put on those walking shoes and head to a park or meditate at lunch—even if you only have 15 minutes.