The Science-backed Benefits of Taking Frequent Breaks At Work - An Updated 2024 Guide to Boost Your Health and Productivity

The Science-backed Benefits of Taking Frequent Breaks At Work - An Updated 2024 Guide to Boost Your Health and Productivity

April 11, 2024

12 Minutes

Picture this: Your brain tirelessly churning, your fingers tirelessly typing yet the cursor on your screen doesn't seem to be moving. Suddenly, the system starts to freeze up, the pace reduces, and you feel drained. Sound familiar? At this point, you may need a temporary pause from your work duties.

However, for many of us, being productive means spending more time working. It seems intuitive that the more time we spend on job tasks, the more we can get done, no?

Absolutly not. Even thought it sounds counterintuitive - continuous work without breaks can have detrimental effects on brain health and productivity. Recent research suggests that consecutive hours of work without rest can lead to cognitive fatigue, which negatively impacts mental performance and productivity.

So, how do we address our declining well-being and restore our productivity, focus, and well-being? 

The secret is to take regular breaks at work. 

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes...including you.”
– Anne Lamott

In this ultimate guide to Taking Breaks At Work In 2024, we dive deeper into the science behind these facts, the potential risks of not taking breaks, what to do on your daily breaks to truly relax and boost your productivity, and strategies to most effectively incorporate breaks into your work routine - and stick to it.

Sounds good?

Let’s dive in.

Why We Need to Get Serious About Taking Breaks At Work

burnout twoman stressed at work

In this fast-paced world, where the lines between our personal and professional lives are becoming increasingly blurred, the concept of 'work breaks' (some might call it 'rest breaks') tends to stir a bit of controversy. Are they truly beneficial, or are they just a fancy way to waste time?

Yes, it's tempting to just want to "power through" one more hour of work. You don’t want to take breaks because you think you can get more done. But did you?

One day you started realizing that your neck, wrist, and back are hurting, despite being an otherwise health-conscious, active lifestyle advocate.

Whether you’re an employee or project stakeholder, hours spent sitting at a desk and staring at a screen puts a strain on your productivity and health.

Take a look.

Our Bodies Suffer

There is a lot of pressure to sit in the office - it’s how you get your work done. 

Especially if you are working from home, you are probably spending more days working at home, where you don’t need to get up and walk around to talk to people. You are not walking to meetings, you don’t even need to commute. 

You are more exposed to the danger of sitting too much.

Researchers have linked sitting for prolonged periods of time to a significantly higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, and depression, as well as muscle and joint problems. 

Toni Yancey, a professor of health services at UCLA's Fielding School of Public Health, describes the process: "Sitting shuts down electrical activity in the legs. It makes the body less sensitive to insulin, causes calorie-burning to plummet, and slows the breakdown of dangerous blood fats, lowering 'good' HDL cholesterol."

What's noteworthy is that:

Even going to the gym, running, or your favorite fitness class, doesn’t cancel out the negative impact of time spent being sedentary, according to a recent scientific research from the American Heart Association.

Radical as it might sound, you can't undo sitting.

While working out and fitness are important if your goal is to maintain or get in the best shape of your life, it cannot reverse the harmful effects of sitting for the rest of the day and moving very little within your office or home.

So, what's the solution?

To take regular breaks to get up and move.

Our Brains Depleted

Despite all the physical damage, what happens to your brain when you don't take breaks: Your productivity goes downhill...before you notice.

Brain scientists are very aware of the fact that prolonged work is depleting. The "fading" that we experience creates declines in mood and performance.

“We don’t know exactly what in the brain gets depleted, but when you do a cognitively demanding task, it operates as though there’s a ‘mental fuel’ that gets burned up.”
– William Helton, PhD, a professor of human factors and applied cognition at George Mason University

Recent studies show that those who give in to some kind of break once an hour perform better than those who just keep at it without a break.

Mid-Task Break Improves Global Integration of Functional Connectivity in Lower Alpha Band
Neuro-scientists tested one session includes four successive blocks with visual oddball tasks (session 1) whereas a mid-task break was introduced in the middle of four task blocks in the other session (session 2). On the left of session 1, the black dots indicate those nodes that have a significant block effect, exhibiting that the functional connectivity network had more segregated and less integrated representation under mental fatigue, and a mid-task break can significantly mitigate the effect. (Source: Front Hum Neurosci. 2016 )

Let's take a deeper look into why not taking rest break significantly impacts our productivity.

1. Reduced cognitive function

Providing enough blood to the brain is essential for the brain to be able to carry out its everyday tasks and to keep us alive. Over a short time period, decreases in the amount of blood flowing to the brain can reduce cognition fuction - which involves the mental processes that allow us to think, understand, and learn information.

A recent research have found brain blood flow decreases in participants who sat down for 4 continuous hours without any breaks. On the contrary, the participants who took a walking break every 30 min prevented the decrease in brain blood flow.

2. Increased stress levels

Prolonged stress from not taking breaks can result in decreased productivity and cognitive function due to an increase in cortisol, the body's primary stress hormone. Consecutive hours of working without sufficient rest means we’re constantly in action mode, therefore our brains don’t have the chance to rest and recharge.

The basic idea is that the brain is shunting its resources because it’s in survival mode, not memory mode.”

- Dr. Kerry Ressler, chief scientific officer at McLean Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School

Research in this area has revealed that even animals who undergo continuous stress exhibit decreased activity in the brain regions responsible for higher-order functions. This can lead to a decline in cognitive abilities, including memory, attention span, and creativity.

3. Increased mental fatigue

When you are working or studying hard, your brain has to resist distractions in order to focus on the task at hand. Your prefrontal cortex is mostly responsible for this kind of “think-work” as it plays a major role in your ability to concentrate, think logically, and resist uimpulses. 

This level of concentration gets harder by the minute as your brain expends energy. When breaks are neglected, there's a gradual decrease in energy levels that can result in feelings of mental exhaustion.

The Power of Taking Breaks

Many people experience "productivity breakthroughs'' after going against their instincts to meet a deadline by taking a pause. We emerge refreshed and more resilient after getting up for both brain and movement breaks.

So, how do breaks help us? 

Here's a quick look at the magic taking breaks does to our brain:

  • Improved focus.
  • Boosted creativity and problem-solving abilities
  • Better information retention
  • Improved productivity
  • Prevents decision fatigue
  • Reevaluate goals and seeing the bigger picture
  • Better stress management

Besides the juicy benefits that breaks have on our brains, now what if you can double the benefits? 

It’s simple - add movement to your breaks.

For those who get the least amount of physical activity, replacing a half hour of sitting time with physical activity was associated with up to a nearly 50% reduction in mortality, according to a new study from the American Cancer Society.

Breaks are a great opportunity to incorporate movement into our workdays to combat the setbacks of a sedentary lifestyle. 

Take a look at the most important benefits of movement breaks:

  • Improve energy levels
  • Boost mood and relieve stress
  • Strengthen weakened muscles and bones
  • Reduces the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease
  • Reduces the risk of injury
  • Boost memory and focus

It's pretty clear that taking breaks is a powerful tool that can make us better at what we do, feel physically better, and happier. 

High-performing people understand the power of taking breaks and know how to take advantage of effective breaks to become more productive while keeping their health in check.

So, how do you harness the power of taking breaks, so that you come back fully recharged both physically and mentally?

Continue reading to find out the strategy that actually works.

The Secret to Taking Effective Breaks at Work 

Although taking breaks at work might seem even harder when we are working from home and being "accessible" every waking minute, understanding how the brain works and taking the initiative to establish boundaries for effective breaks has quickly become the secret weapon to avoid burnout, improved productivity and personal well-being.

“Breaks are crucial,” says Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. “If you’re working day after day and not letting up, you will burn out.”

Understanding the Productivity Cycle 

Our focus, energy, and motivation moves in "waves". 

Those cycles are known as biological rhythms.

the ultradian performance rhythm
Source: Infra-Low Frequencies and Ultradian Rhythms - By David Kaiser PhD - April 10, 2013 1

Productivity cycle refers to working for evenly spaced periods of time, and taking breaks at that exact rhythm.

Understanding your productivity cycle can help you take more effective breaks at work. 

"Working for 75 to 90 minutes takes advantage of the brain’s two modes: learning or focusing and consolidation,” says MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Bob Pozen

According to Pozen's findings, taking a 15-minute break following a productivity chunk allows our brains to better consolidate and retain information. Pozen's findings echo the findings of research done by Tony Schwartz, the author of The Power of Full Engagement, showing that humans naturally move from full focus to fatigue every 90 minutes

How often should I take a break? And for how long?

There are many studies that have looked at optimal break schedules. Here are some of the most popular, science-supported methods which you could integrate into a workday:

1. Once Every Hour

Taking a 5 to 15 minutes break at the top of every hour like clockwork can get you ahead of the 75-minute fatigue curve. Plus, a top-of-the-hour break is easy to remember and execute.

2. Every 75 to 90 minutes

Following the brain's "full-focus-to-fatigue" cycle, you can ride productivity waves all the way to the end before refreshing with a break for 5 to 15 minutes.

3. Pomodoro Technique

the pomodoro technique

One of the most common ways to implement a schedule with breaks. Start with a to-do list and timer. After setting your timer for 25 minutes, focus on one task at a time until the timer buzzes. You will mark what you've completed before taking a non-negotiable 5-minute break. Enjoy a 30-minute break for every four pomodoros.

4. The 52:17 Method

Work in increments of 52 minutes before 17-minute breaks.

As you can see, all of these techniques essentially follow the same pattern of riding productivity peaks, followed by small breaks - typically 5 to 15 minutes. 

In doing this, we can build up new productivity cycles every 60 to 90 minutes without succumbing to the fatigue that naturally comes without breaks. 

However, how often you should take a break depends on the nature of your work and how your brain functions. Everyone is different. The key is to experiment and find your own rhythm.

Take breaks The Right Way

The Don'ts

Research shows that taking the wrong type of breaks could actually drain us further. Specifically, scrolling on social media during work breaks often overwhelms our prefrontal cortex, leading it to a decision-making fatigue subconsciously (Which link do I tap? Which photo catches my eye?). The habit of scrolling during your breaks can become addictive. Consequently, these breaks can make you feel less in control and cause you to experience negative emotions.

Try check in with yourself next time you caught yourself doom-scrolling: how do I feel at this moment? Do I feel like I have agency over this experience, or is it something that is just happening to me?)

Here are some of the common but less effective break habits: 

  • Endless scrolling and posting on social platforms
  • Attending to a flood of emails
  • Idly browsing the web

If these are the only breaks you are taking, keep reading to find out how to take breaks the right way.

The Do's

To reap the maximum benefits of a break, you need to give your brain a chance to relax and your body a chance to recharge. 

A key aspect to take better breaks is to engage in activities that reinvigorate not just your body, but also your mind. Mindfulness exercises, such as meditation or breathing exercises, have shown to help lower blood pressure and relieve stress.

Simple physical activities like stretching, desk yoga, or even walking can contribute greatly to maintaining good health by reducing the risk of heart diseases and improving musculoskeletal health.

Read more on healthy habits during a workday.

9 break ideas that boost your health and productivity

  • Simple stretches and mobilization exercises to relax and keep your body functioning, ease stiffness from sitting too long, and prevent injuries. 
  • A short walk outside. Despite the physical benefits, being physically detached from work, and getting some fresh air in your lungs improves your mood and lowers stress.
brain activity after exercise
  • Nap. If you are working from home, or work at a progressive company that affords you the luxury of taking a nap in the office. Take advantage of that. In several studies, a nap of as short as 10 minutes can improve your cognitive function and decrease sleepiness and fatigue. Having that afternoon slump? Nap it off. Be aware that naps that exceed 20 minutes might leave you feeling groggy and disoriented. It is best to limit your naps to 10 to 20 minutes.
  • Exercise your eyes to prevent eye strain, you can try the 20-20-20 rule.
20-20-20 rule to prevent eye strain
  • Talk to someone. Chat with a colleague or a friend (who is also on a break), take a coffee break, take your dog on a walk, call your mom, or play with your kids if you are a parent working from home.
  • Laugh. Yes, go ahead and watch some funny videos of cats. According to a recent study, laugh breaks can improve your performance.

While it can be fun to work some creative activities into breaks, the goal remains the same if you want to maximize cognitive and physical boosts: 

1. Take your mind off work to give your brain a chance to truly relax;

2. Get up from your chair and move around to combat the negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle.

The step-by-step guide to make breaks a regular part of your workday

If you've read this far, you probably have a pretty good idea of why you need to take breaks, what to do on your breaks and have a strong intention to do so. 

Now you're thinking, "but how do I implement it to my workday and make it a habit?"

It is surprisingly hard for most people to make the change to integrate breaks into the day, even when it's something that they intend to achieve.

The problem is that most people fail to follow the instructions that they give themselves.

Let's be honest, it's way easier to sit on your chair and mindlessly scroll through your phone, OR, you could be so deep in your work that you don't have extra mental energy to come up with stuff to do or even think about taking a break.

This is when you need a system to, sort of, automate that part of your day. It's like having your coach showing up at your door every day at the same time to keep you accountable.

So, how do you design a system that helps you achieve this goal?

The perfect behavior-modification technique for this case is what psychologists call implementation intentions. It is a self-regulatory strategy that has been found to be particularly effective when it comes to situations where there may be immediate costs but significant long-term benefits, such as taking breaks at work. 

An implementation intention supports our goal intention by setting out in advance when/where and how I will achieve this goal.

implementation intention

Here's how :

Step 1: Specify your goal. For example, "I will take a break every hour at work".

Step 2: Schedule them in your calendar (the When). Alternatively, if you prefer to work in "sprints", set a timer on your phone or computer. You can set a timer for 30-minutes, go with the 52:17 method, or whichever time is optimal for you.

Step 3: Plan out your break activities ahead to avoid needing to "decide" what to do when it's break time, such as "Go for a 5-minute walk at 3 pm" (the How)

Step 4: Follow the cues you have outlined in your plan

As a result, your goal will be performed automatically and efficiently, without conscious effort. 

What we love the most about this technique is that it frees our cognitive resources for other brain-heavy tasks like study & work, since we don't need to think about when to take a break and what to do for that break. It's already planned!

Once you take the first step of planning it out, the automated system that you designed helps to remove the hesitation and deliberation when you want to take a break. It's like putting your breaks on auto-pilot.

And...if you don't want to go through the hassle of manually scheduling breaks into your workday, or waste your mental energy on coming up with what to do for your breaks, there are tools that are designed to make your life easier.

Follow along.

“Are there any tools that can help me take breaks?”

We are glad that you asked. Yes, there are.

At StretchMinder, we are obsessed with great tools that make life easier. After all, that's what we believe what technology should be - making people's lives easier.

Here are 7 hand-picked tools that help you take breaks:

  • StretchMinder - A unique blend of break reminder and 7-minute workout. From putting your breaks on auto-pilot with pre-scheduled breaks to providing guided activity routines including Movement, Breathing & Walking exercises, the app takes care of it all with just a few clicks. It is perfect for those who want the easiest way to build a habit of taking breaks and moving more throughout the day. 
  • Focus To-Do - A app that brings Pomodoro Technique and To-Do List into one place, you can capture and organize tasks into your to-do lists, start focus timer and focus on work & study, set reminders for important tasks and errands, check the time spent at work.
  • Focus Booster - A simple and lightweight timer that automatically records each session. The app features a Pomodoro timer, a mini timer, customizable session lengths, report exports, and manual time entry. 
  • Flow Time - A Chrome Extension to boost your productivity. It works as a Pomodoro-like timer & website blocker that boosts your productivity by making your mind go into the state of flow faster.
  • Google - If you want to keep things simple, just type "set a timer for X minutes" into Google and set your timer.
  • Your calendar - Schedule your break slots and set reminders on your calendar to repeat every day.
  • Your phone - Set a timer with the native timer tool and repeat every day diligently.


By integrating these scientifically-backed strategies and utilizing the recommended tools, you can create a healthy relationship between work and rest that benefits our physical health and productivity. Remember, your breaks are your secret weapon to thriving in your busy daily work routine.

Be kind to your body

  • Short breaks of mindfulness and movement exercises delivered to you at the right time
  • Keep your focus while staying mobile throughout the day
  • Access a library of professionally designed video & audio guided, low-impact movement exercises for all fitness levels
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