Respect Your Ultradian Rhythms
Just as your body keeps pace with circadian rhythms (patterns related to 24-hour, night-and-day cycles), it also responds to ultradian rhythms — patterns that occur many times throughout the day. One of the most important of those rhythms regulates natural fluctuations of activity and rest, exertion and recovery.
According to psychobiology researcher Ernest Rossi, PhD, a leading expert on ultradian rhythms and how they affect human biology, people are programmed to want to take a 20-minute break after every 90 minutes of intense focus or activity. And it’s not just that we want a break, says Rossi, we actually need one if we hope to operate at peak effectiveness and efficiency.
This is true right down to the cellular level. During an active phase, a cell extracts energy from adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, changing it to adenosine diphosphate, or ADP. During rest, the cell uses oxygen and blood glucose to change the ADP back to ATP — the stuff our bodies use for energy.
During periods of focused mental or physical activity, explains Rossi, the body gradually runs through its available stores of a variety of the energetic and chemical compounds that allow us to think clearly. It then starts accumulating stress-related chemicals and byproducts that increasingly interfere with our physical coordination and thought processes. Typically, this buildup occurs over the course of 90 to 120 minutes, and may manifest as brain fog, distractibility, irritability or fatigue.
Take a 20-minute break when you begin to feel your energy or mood fading, suggests Rossi, and your body will automatically use the downtime to clear away metabolic wastes and replenish energetic stores, allowing you to quickly reclaim peak energy and effectiveness levels. You can return to your work refreshed and enjoy another 90- to 120-minute period of mental quickness and clarity.
Keep on taking breaks every hour and a half or so, and you’ll continue to enjoy these peak cycles of creativity, energy and insight. If, on the contrary, you avoid breaks and continue slogging along in your depleted state, you’re likely to become increasingly ineffective, frustrated and stressed out.
Ignore your ultradian rhythms long enough, and you’ll be well on your way to what Rossi calls Ultradian Stress Syndrome, which can lower your immunity and seriously diminish your ability to accomplish anything at all.
In his book The 20 Minute Break (Tarcher, 1991), Rossi describes the resting process as a “stress conversion” opportunity, noting that, far from being just a feel-good indulgence, it’s the most important thing you can do to make optimal use of the energy and attention you’re putting in throughout the day.
When we resist nature’s calls to take breaks, Rossi warns, we miss out on one of the best return-on-investment opportunities our bodies and minds have to offer. We also set ourselves up for greater disease and depression risks.
Professional effectiveness expert Jim Loehr, PhD, coauthor of The Power of Full Engagement (Free Press, 2004), agrees. “The shifts of energy we experience are tied to the ultradian rhythms that regulate physiological markers of alertness at 90- to 120-minute intervals,” he writes. “Unfortunately, many of us override these naturally occurring rhythms to the point that they no longer even penetrate conscious awareness. The demands of our everyday lives are so intense and so consuming that they distract our attention from the subtler internal signals telling us that we need recovery.”
Loehr, like Rossi, strongly advocates for naps, healthy snacks, exercise breaks, mind shifts, social time and rejuvenating amusements throughout the day, all of which can help us make the best of our bodies’ and brains’ natural patterns and fluctuations.
“The number of hours in a day is fixed,” he points out, “but the quantity and quality of energy available to us is not. This fundamental insight has the power to revolutionize the way you live.”