Stories from Mental Challenges

I’m a Neurologist, and This Is How I Take a Mental Break on Tough Work Days

Emily Laurence

Emily LaurenceJune 10, 2020

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Photo: Getty Images/JGI/Tom Grill

If you’re someone who already doesn’t feel like there’s enough hours in a day, blocking out time on your Google cal to take a break can feel like one more task to add to an already too long to-do list. That goes double if you’re a parent trying to balance working from home, or an essential worker at a hospital who’s lucky to get breaks at all.

While on the surface, parking in front of the computer and not getting up until everything is done can seem like an effective way to power through your to-do list. But that “work now, play later” mentality can backfire. Research shows that taking a short break can help you do a better job at the task at hand—especially if it’s something challenging and mentally taxing. Another study found that taking two short breaks a day can lead to making more informed decisions. Meanwhile, when you regularly work all day without taking a break, it can actually lead to brain fog.

Okay, so breaks are good. But it still doesn’t answer the question of how best to take a mental break from work. To find out, I asked neurologist and Brain Wash author David Perlmutter, MD what he does to avoid mental fatigue. Hey, if it’s good enough for a brain expert, it’s good enough for everyone else, right?

1. Aerobic exercise

This is something Dr. Perlmutter does daily, though exactly when varies from day to day. “Between writing books and research papers, I spend a significant part of my day on the computer,” he says, which is why he prioritizes physical movement. Plus, there’s a direct connection between physical activity and cognitive function, partially because it stimulates better blood flow to the brain. It’s also linked to actually thinking quicker, too. “There’s really nothing better to stimulate BDNF [brain-derived neurotrophic factor], helping with neuroplasticity as well as neurogenesis, all contributing to a better brain,” Dr. Perlmutter says. In non-science speak, this refers to keeping neurons in the brain alive and functioning properly.

2. Playing music

Consider this a more out-there brain break idea. “I keep a guitar right next to my desk in the office,” Dr. Perlmutter says. “Several times during the day I will take a break, pick up the guitar, and either work on a song I’m trying to learn or simply free form some blues or jazz improvisation.” Playing a musical instrument has been linked to protecting brain health, particularly in older adults because it causes the brain to work in a different way than when performing typical workday activities.

3. Getting flexible

Similar to aerobics, flexibility exercises (aka strategic stretching) are something else Dr. Perlmutter does at some point during the day, every day. Research has shown that middle-aged people who do aerobic and flexibility exercises regularly are more likely to have better cognitive function than those who don’t. Dr. Perlmutter says this is once again because moving the body through flexibility exercises helps stimulate BDNF, therefore protecting neurons in the brain.

Take it from a brain expert: Mental breaks from work don’t have to be extravagant or long. It can be as simple as stepping away from your computer and going through a five minute stretch sesh. That short break can actually lead to working better and faster. And it doesn’t take that much brain power to recognize that that’s a double win.

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