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Give it a rest


CHILL OUT Taking time out to relax increases productivity and endurance and boosts health. 

The importance of taking a break from hard work – physical or mental

Andrew O'Brien

I’ve just had two weeks’ holiday. We had a lovely time, since you’re asking. My parents came over from Australia and we all went to Portugal for nine days of doing very little, followed by a few days of being tourists around Westport. Don’t bother checking my Instagram feed for photos of delicious fresh seafood, by the time I remembered that the world desperately needed to see it, I was reading the desert menu. I did however, learn some things that may be of interest.
Part of my holiday reading was a book called ‘Peak Performance’, by Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg, in which the authors compare the training patterns of some of the world’s top athletes with the workloads and habits of high-profile executives and artists. It’s interesting to see how many habits are transferable from one field to another. And no, I’m not just talking about using the type of corporate non-speak that all sports coaches love to use (processes, anyone?). There are genuine patterns that emerge – and one of them, funnily enough, is taking a holiday.
Before I’m accused of picking out the pieces that recommend only resting, I should start with the hard bits. Magness and Stulberg, like every other coach in history, point out that anybody who achieved anything of note in sports, business, science or the arts, all got there by virtue of a large amount of hard work. That’s a given. What is interesting is the patterns that emerge, and that have been backed up by research, pointing to how long you should work hard for, and how long you need to rest afterwards.
In sporting terms, this is a process known as periodisation. It is most easily explained from a strength-training perspective: You chose the muscle that needs to get stronger and load it, then rest and recover, allowing adaptations to occur, then repeat, this time stressing the muscle a little bit more. In order to see sustainable gains, the recovery period needs to be taken just as seriously as the work period, unless of course you use steroids that allow you to recover more quickly.
The same can be said for mental effort. How many times have you tried to do something mentally challenging and gotten progressively more frustrated, eventually giving up in disgust, only for it all to click later on when you come back to the same task? (Incidentally, I have this issue every time I write a piece for The Mayo News!)
This clearly makes sense over large time frames. Work hard all day then have the night off, or do your five-day week and take a break at the weekend. Work hard for a few months then have a week’s holiday.
The problem is that many of us don’t really do that. How often do you check your work emails before bed, on the weekend, or while on holidays? How many recreational athletes have a true off-season like the elites? Many of the world’s top distance runners take at least a month off all running at the end of their season. The success of Irish rugby in the last few years is at least partly due to the player management programme that enforces rest.
What is interesting is how the same principles can be applied to smaller time frames across the day. Depending on the demands of a task, research has shown that taking breaks frequently during the day improve productivity.
More physically and mentally demanding tasks typically require more frequent breaks (the brain uses as much fuel as muscle, if not more), with studies showing that 45-minute work periods followed by rests of as little as a couple of minutes being efficient uses of time.
Interestingly, although the legal requirement in Ireland is for staff to be allowed a 15 minute break for every 4.5 hours worked, research suggests that productivity drops when workers go for more than 90 minutes without a break. In addition, Magness and Stulberg quote studies that suggest a walking break, preferably outside, is more useful again. Throw in the fact that from a health perspective, office workers who take more frequent breaks from sitting tend to have lower blood pressure, cholesterol and BMI readings, and all of a sudden you have a healthier, more productive workforce.
All of which begs the age old question, should we work harder or smarter? To which the answer seems to be: both. By working smarter, we can work harder, and by having a holiday or at least a short break, it’s possible to achieve just that.

Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park. He can be contacted on 083 1593200 or at