If you suffer from the mid-afternoon doldrums, you’re not alone. Even health professionals fall prey. Find out how to work with your body’s natural energy cycle.
A few weeks ago I was working with a client who typically sees me around 2pm in the afternoon.
She had been seeing me for a few weeks and on this particular day made an interesting observation.
“John,” she said. “Do you get enough sleep at night? You’re always looking tired and yawning heaps during our sessions.”
I kind of brushed it off and said I was just experiencing the afternoon doldrums. However, as a person who is passionate about human performance and wellness, it got me thinking. Am I operating at peak performance or have I slipped into some bad habits?
If you are anything like me, you might have noticed that this year is rushing by at break neck speed and it’s already May. With all the demands we place on our bodies, it’s no wonder we start to break down.
One of the first warning signs is a lack of energy and a consistent battle with the afternoon doldrums. I was having a chat about it with our new physiotherapist Therese (surname), who specialises in Yoga Wellness. She suggested I research and apply the body’s natural energy cycle called the Ultradian Performance Rhythm.
So what is the Ultradian Performance Rhythm and how can you apply it to your busy life?
Basically after 90-120 minutes of sustained energy output and mental focus, the body and brain need a 15-20 minute break. Your systems use that downtime for recovery, repair, replenishment, and rebalancing. After which time, they return to a high level of productivity and efficiency for another 90 to 120 minutes. This cycle repeats itself throughout the day. Below is a simple graph on how it works.
With so many of our clients suffering from stress related conditions, I have found that by using the bodies internal ultradian rhythm, a person can maximise healing, improve performance, increase productivity and experience an overall improvement to their wellness.
If we start skipping these breaks, like I have been for the last five months, then bad things start happening. For one, I have noticed my addiction to coffee has increased. As the by-products of stress build up in our system, productivity plummets. Body wide inflammation rises, immunity drops, mental capacity, metabolism, and mood all suffer. We can’t think as straight, so our error rate increases. In elite athletes one study pointed to an increase in injury rate when they failed to take a mid-day break.
Many of us, like myself reach to the body’s need to break signal by taking a coffee, eating sugar or having a cigarette. While these solutions provide temporary relief (sugar and coffee work by forcing the system into a momentary energy spike; cigarettes by blunting feelings or emotional stress and reactivity; they establish unhealthy dependencies, and none of them supply the physiological recovery and repair the body and brain are really looking for.
The only way to return the body and brain to optimal function is to take a ultradian rhythm break. According to research, taking a break in line with the 90 minute cycle will boost performance and allow the body to properly recover. Further research has shown that the best break is a 15 minute mini-nap lying down in a quite dark room. However this isn’t completely practical in a busy office or on a job site. The main thing is to free your system from stress, to let your body relax or change positions and let your mind wander or be calm. A short walk, a bit of yoga or even tai chi all show similar benefits to the mini-nap.
Any quality time spent taking a ultradian rhythm break is better than none. Below are a few ways that work well. Mix and match for a total of 15-20 minutes and start to feel your performance shifting.
• Hit the restroom (even if you don’t think you have to go)
• Grab a healthy snack (protein balls are great, avoid refined carbs and sugars)
• Get outside and walk calmly
• Get a drink of water or cup of herbal tea
• Practice some yoga breathing
• Sit on a park bench and let your mind wander for a while
• Listen to a piece of calming music
• Call a loved one just to say hi, or tell them you love them
• Visualise how you want the rest of your day to go
• Run a simple errand
• Book a massage or yoga class
• Make a quick list of the things you are grateful for
Whatever you choose to do in your mini break, make sure it is something completely different to what you have been doing or focusing on for the last 90 minutes.
As you get to know more about your own ultradian rhythms, you will continue to see performance gains and will get the best from your body and mind.
I’m taking a personal challenge to practice this for the next six weeks and will report back on how I’m going. Here’s to no more afternoon doldrums.