Ultradian Rhythm & the Importance of Taking Breaks

June 21, 2021

Are you finding yourself go through constant highs of energy and productivity followed by the lows of feeling sluggish and distracted? Don’t beat yourself up about it! That’s normal and it is referred to as the ultradian rhythm! The more you understand this naturally occurring process, the better you can implement strategies within yourself and your organization to maximize performance, safety and general well-being!

UNDERSTANDING THE ULTRADIAN RHYTHM

Many of us have heard of the circadian rhythm but have you ever heard of the ultradian rhythm? It is a recurrent period or cycle repeated throughout a 24-hour day. They are measurable, observable, quantifiable physiological patterns that your body must maintain in order to operate properly. Their primary purpose is to manage the cycles of energy production, output, and recovery that occur in all humans.

Each cycle consists of 90 minutes of performance with 20minutes of recovery needed.

Here is how they work:

  1. As you start your day and get yourself into a flow of sustained activity and mental focus, your body and brain start burning through a significant amount of oxygen, glucose, and other energetic fuels.
  2. Meanwhile, the by-products of this mental and physical activity (i.e., metabolic waste) are building up in your system.

     3. Within approximately 90 minutes, you reach the apex of productivity, entering the “ultradian performance peak”.

  1. After this, you begin to experience the accumulation of all of these by-products and you perceive it as stress.
  1. Your productivity and performance start to decline as your body enters what’s known as the “ultradian trough”- your energetic low point. This is where you start feeling fatigued, irritable, distracted, and/or hungry. Your productivity plummets. Your attention span shrinks. This is where you might go grab a coffee, cigarette (if you smoke), or a high-sugar carb-filled snack.
  1. But this is normal! This is a signal that many people ignore. It is your body’s signal that you need some down time - a quick rest and recovery period to regenerate cellular fuel, rebalance blood sugar ,flush out and detoxify, repair damaged tissues and absorb new information. Your brain needs this break to sift through all the information you’ve just taken in, to tag it, organize it, and create important synaptic connections. This allows your mind to merge and exchange information, creating those wonderful “ah-ha” moments, creative insights, and necessary solutions. This moment of pause allows you to sort, label and file the appropriate information so you can store it properly to recall it later when it matters most.
  2. Taking the break allows your mind and body to ramp back up to full gear and optimal performance.
  3. This is an opportunity for employers to take advantage of to further promote the health, well-being and productivity of our employees!

OPTIMIZING THE “ULTRADIAN TROUGH”

As an employer, it can provide immense benefits to encourage your employees to take advantage of the 20-minute ultradian trough to reset, refresh and refocus through a purposeful break. You might be thinking “that’s great but carving out that much time within everyone’s workday is not possible or realistic”. But, if you are serious about helping your employees improve their health, energy, productivity, safety and mental well-being, then you will encourage your employees to take these breaks!

What happens if employees skip these break period and “power through”? Research shows that if we do that, our energy and focus will eventually crawl out of the ultradian trough and return to a somewhat higher level of functioning - but not nearly as high as before. After a missed break, our next ultradian performance peak will be much lower than our previous one. And if employees continue to work through those 20-minute break periods, their performance will continue to decrease, they will be working well below their potential and their body and mind will feel sluggish.

So, what can we do about it?

  • Encourage individuals to take those breaks every 90 minutes. Stretching, engaging in deep breathing, disconnecting from technology, going for a short walk, or grabbing some water are all great ways to recharge during the ultradian trough. By “walking the talk” and doing this yourself, you will show employees why it is important and that it is encouraged to do so. Without your support and encouragement, it is tough to change the culture of non-stop work.
  • If you are holding a meeting or presentation, after approximately 90 minutes, incorporate a short break. Add in some movement in the form of light stretching to allow everyone to recharge and feel more refreshed for the remainder of the meeting.
  • Incorporate scheduled FIT sessions within your workforce’s day. We run virtual stretching, mobility and workout sessions at 90-minute intervals for an organization and the resounding feedback is that:

                  o  It’s an amazing break in their day

                   o  They need that reminder to get up and move and recharge

                   o  They feel more energized after it

                   o  They are more focused and productive for the time following these sessions

                   o  They help with their stress levels  

Want to learn more about energy optimization and improving your organization’s performance, morale and well-being? Tune in to Med-I-Well’s FREE webinar on June 29th at 10:30 am where Kristina van Lankvelt, our Director of Wellness and Certified Professional Life Coach, will provide more tips and strategies focused on the topic.

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