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Judith J. Wurtman, PhD Headshot

California (And Every Other State) Should Pass a Law for Exercise Breaks

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A few days ago, the California Supreme Court passed a law mandating 30-minute lunch breaks for employees after they worked for five hours. Subsequently, the law was amended to allow employees not to take the lunch break if they so desired, but it was their choice, not that of their employers.

But do the employees really have a choice? Many worksites with limited staff may have an employee do two jobs when another employee is on a lunch break (think of understaffed hospitals or retail establishments). Besides, the culture of overwork is so entrenched in the corporate world that breaks of any kind are considered a dereliction of duty.

The focus of the California Supreme Court ruling was to make sure an employee had time to eat and take a break. It is too bad that the ruling did not stipulate that the break allow an opportunity for physical activity. Most working people do not go hungry because they have no time to eat. Even the most rushed individuals can usually gulp a meal bar in five minutes, although eating a large salad, turkey on a roll, and an apple may take much longer.

What they do lack, however, is time for exercise.

Enough studies have been done to show a positive effect of exercise on cognitive performance, mood and decreased health risks. Yet many people are deprived of this benefit simply because there is no time before or after work for exercise. Whether one is on a graveyard shift in a factory or scrolling through the very early morning openings of Asian and European stock markets, the lack of time to exercise is the same. My husband's ophthalmologist, who recently retired in his mid-70s, cited orthopedic problems as one reason for closing his practice. He worked from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. without a break for several decades. His poor muscle mass, difficulty with balance and trouble walking may, in part, be related to the lack of time for any physical activity.

Various Internet sites devoted to helping people find time to exercise offer suggestions that may be (excuse the pun) an exercise in futility. The commonly offered solution is to "get up an hour earlier" to work out. That may be doable if the individual is obtaining enough sleep already. But most people are already sleep-deprived, so asking someone already short on sleep to give up another hour may have negative effects on both physical and emotional health. These individuals are spending most of their waking hours at their job, so why not give them time for a walk, stretching, muscle building, and short bouts of intensive activity to increase the heart rate and oxygen flow? Every physical therapist speaks the same mantra about staring at a computer for hours on end: DON'T. Get up and stretch.

Will management recognize the need for employees (and themselves) to schedule their workday with exercise breaks? Will management recognize that a decrease in worker productivity during a 20-minute exercise break is compensated for by improved cognitive output, better health and a simultaneous decrease in health costs?

A change in workplace culture mandating time for exercise may require legislation similar to the anti-smoking ordinances already in place. When smoking was as common as drinking coffee in the workplace, it was unimaginable to think that this behavior would be forbidden and smokers forced to go to specific areas outside when they wanted a cigarette. Right now it is unimaginable to think that management will be forced to allow employees time to exercise if they so desire without penalty, loss of promotion eligibility or reduction in year-end bonuses. Maybe it will require a grassroots movement of employees who realize the physical toll being taken on their bodies due to lack of time to exercise. Perhaps they will see people like the retired ophthalmologist, and recognize that entering retirement bearing the marks of a life of physical inactivity does not have to be inevitable.

The change must come about soon if we as a nation are to remain healthy.