Taking "active breaks" boosts worker energy

Taking a break to get some exercise results in workers having more energy(Credit: Lushlifegarden.com/CC 2.0)

In our work and information-obsessed culture, many of us spend our lunch break gazing at a computer screen, reading emails while mindlessly eating a sandwich. Having quality "me time" away from work is obviously important, and according to US researchers, the best way to boost your overall energy levels is to engage in an activity during your break.

The study carried out by the University of Florida and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga looked into the work and rest patterns of 38 early-career physicians from a teaching hospital in southeastern Florida.

In the study group, 63.2 percent of participants were male and, on average, 29 years old. The researchers chose medical residents because of their particularly stressful routines – they work 80 hours a week – so their moments of rest are even more important than those of an average person.

The study looked at the time they spent on sleep and leisure, their ability to switch off from work when they were off duty, and whether their downtime was occupied with passive activities (such as watching TV) or active ones (physical exercise, for instance).

The participants were asked to rate their activities at home and at work in terms of how draining or energy-boosting they were. The results revealed that they spent more time working than the time they spent on sleep and leisure activities combined. Even lunch breaks were not detached from work.

The researchers found participants had difficulty detaching themselves psychologically from work and their non-work activities were mostly passive. These passive breaks are not harmful, they say, but they do not boost energy levels beyond the baseline like active ones do.

The pattern the researchers found amongst early-time physicians could lead to burnout, they concluded, which could compromise patient care.

"You can only effectively care for someone if you are in a good state of mind. You have to be in a good place to be able to give your all to someone else," said lead researcher Nicole Cranley.

The researchers believe the best way to avoid that is to engage in active recovery activities outside work, regardless of how much time is available. "It doesn't matter if you only have 45 minutes to go to the gym – you take those 45 minutes for yourself," said Cranley.

The study hopes to help medical schools and hospitals promote a cultural change to decrease the stress faced by early-career physicians, and reassure them it is okay to look after themselves, even if it's only for 30 minutes a day. And that applies to any other professional.

The study was published in a recent issue of Psychology, Health & Medicine.

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