Lunch Well and reap the rewards

Do you tend to eat your lunch at your desk or skip your lunch break? Taking your lunch break can seriously boost your productivity and creativity, and support your health and wellbeing.

Too busy to lunch…or are we?

In New Zealand, employers must allow a reasonable amount of time for rest and meal breaks or provide reasonable compensation.1 Yet many of us are not taking those breaks. In a recent NZ survey, it was found that 35% of Kiwis don’t take any lunch break at all.2

The most common reason we take shorter lunches, according to a UK survey3, is that we think we’re too busy. Interestingly the science doesn’t back this up.

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, you’re more likely to get more done by stopping to have a break, eating a well-balanced meal, exercising, relaxing or even napping.

Why taking a lunch break matters

Man and woman tying their shoe laces, preparing for a run

Moving more means thinking better

Lunch can be the ideal time to exercise. It stops you from sitting all day, which is connected to a host of health risks4, and can help to improve your short-term memory, focus and motivation for the afternoon.5 All kinds of exercise counts. Everything from a brisk walk in the park to a High Intensity Workout (HIT) has been shown to improve cognitive function.6

Make good decisions: give your thinking-brain a break

When we’re doing ‘thinking-work’, your lateral pre-frontal cortex (LPFC) is doing much of the heavy lifting. This part of your noggin has a big influence on planning, decision-making and motivation (aka willpower).7

What researchers have discovered is that after we work hard for a prolonged period, activity in this part of the brain starts to decrease, and bad decisions start to increase.8 Decision-fatigue is a well-established phenomenon that leads to procrastination and simplistic decision making, i.e. corner-cutting.9

Our LPFC is also where we manage our short-term memories and switching between tasks. So next time you get that fuzzy-thinking feeling, remember that's your LPFC saying, "It's time for a break.”

Be a daydreamer: improve your problem-solving

Archimedes may have had his “Eureka moment” while relaxing in the bath, but it could have just as easily been over a few olives and figs at lunch. The point is, he was resting.

What researchers have discovered is that when we’re resting, our brain engages what’s called the “Default Mode Network", or what we know as mind-wandering or daydreaming. During this resting state, the brain can be quite busy making memories and "connecting-the-dots” with diverse pieces of information. It can be more efficient at doing this than focused thinking, which is why you so often have your “Aha” breakthroughs while away from your desk.

Food for thought: our brains need to eat too

It’s not just our bodies that need food to perform. It’s our minds too. Our brains are energy-expensive machines to run and consume about 20% of our body’s energy.10 Glucose is our brain's fuel, and our glucose levels start to fall after not eating.

As our blood sugar dips, so too does our mental performance and mood.11 It’s a physiological response to your glucose levels dropping.

Skipping meals tends to backfire as you then get hit with a double whammy: a body that’s craving a fast hit of glucose and a brain that now has little willpower to resist. The next thing you know you're hunting down a vending machine.

Time for a power-nap: improve your performance

If you're really fading, or short on sleep, taking a nap could be a significant performance enhancer. NASA demonstrated this in a study of long-haul pilots. They discovered that a nap mid-flight improved performance by 34% and physiological alertness by 100%.12

In a lunch break, a nap of about 10-20 minutes is ideal. A short afternoon catnap of 20 minutes can enhance alertness and concentration, elevate mood, and sharpen motor skills.13

So there you have it, all the evidence you need to take a break and lunch well for better wellbeing.

  1. Employment NZ: ^
  2. Impacts of modern life on wellbeing research, Clarity Insight (commissioned by Southern Cross Health Society), November 2018 ^
  3. Two out of Three Employees Seek More Relaxation - The Viking Blog, September 2017 ^
  4. Five reasons not to sit all day, Health Navigator NZ, February 2019 ^
  5. 6 Ways Exercise Makes You Smarter, Cohen, J. May 2012 ^
  6. Influence of Acute High-Intensity Aerobic Interval Exercise Bout on Selective Attention and Short-Term Memory Tasks, C Alves, V Tessaro et al., 2014 ^
  7. Lateral Prefrontal Cortex - an overview | ScienceDirect Topics, B.A., K., A.D., W. 2009 ^
  8. Neural mechanisms underlying the impact of daylong cognitive work on economic decisions, Blain B., Hollard, G., Pessiglione, M. June 2016 ^
  9. Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?, The New York Times, Tierney, J. August 2011 ^
  10. How Much Energy Does the Brain Use? Richardson, M. W., February 2019 ^
  11. The science behind being “hangry” - CNN. Salis, A., July 2015 ^
  12. The NASA Studies on Napping, January 2014 ^
  13. Napping: the expert’s guide, Ackerman, J., The Guardian, January 2009 ^