When was the last time you took a lunch break at work?

Not one of those eat-at-your-desk-while-surfing-the-Web lunches, but a real step away from work in which you took a good break that left you feeling ready to jump back into the afternoon?

For most of us, the answer is probably, “A while.” Several recent surveys suggest few office workers get out of the office to eat the way they once did. In fact, a 2012 poll found that 40 per cent of North American workers regularly eat lunch at their desks. Another one in four won’t regularly take lunch breaks at all.

That’s a shame, because while many of us skip lunch or eat at our desks in the belief that we’ll get more work done, there’s scientific evidence that it’s better both for our work and our health to take the time away for a real lunch break.

Here’s why:

1. You’ll increase your productivity

Many of us choose to eat at our desks to that we can get more work done, but in many cases, not stopping for a break could be counter-productive. The longer we try to focus on any one topic, the more difficult it can become to stay focused  on the task at hand. Research has shown repeatedly that taking regular breaks during work or while learning something new can improve our ability to remember information and retain it.

But while a few small breaks throughout the day to get a coffee or make a personal call are great, studies also show that  micro-breaks are not always enough to let our brains fully recharge. Longer breaks like a 30 or 60-minute lunch break, are better at allowing the mind to take a real rest and focus on things other, so that they are refreshed enough to allow us to perform at our best.

2. Sitting kills

We're hearing it more and more often these days: sitting is the new smoking. Several studies in recent years have shown that all the time spent in chairs is increasing people’s risk of dying early.

Even people who are within normal weight guidelines -- which most Canadians are not -- and who exercise for 30 minutes a day -- which most of us don’t do either -- are still at risk of an early death if the majority of our time is still spent sitting.

The good news is that studies show that moving around, even a little bit, several times a day, can help mitigate the risk of health problems, such as insulin resistance and high cholesterol.

Using part of your lunch break to get up from your desk and go for a walk is a great way to cut the risks of all-day sitting, by stretching out your legs, getting the blood flowing and adding a little movement to your day.

3. You’re more likely to eat better

Surveys show workers who eat at their desks are more likely to eat fattening foods, and end up grabbing vending machine snacks later in the day. Those choices are far from the low calorie, high fibre, high-vitamin meals that dieticians say we need to avoid the blood sugar spikes that can leave us tired in the afternoon.

Bringing a healthy lunch from home is a good start to eating better at work. But the problem with eating at our desks is that we tend to eat our meals mindlessly, while focusing on the work in front of us. And research has shown that mindless eating obscures our ability to both enjoy our food, and to know when to stop eating. Eat when you’re distracted and chances are you’re going to eat too much.

Taking that healthy lunch and eating away from the desk -- even if it’s just in the lunch room -- is a better option that will make enjoying that meal just a little easier.

4. Outside time can be restorative

Find you get brain fatigue around the early afternoon? The solution could be, quite literally, a walk in the park. Strolling through some green space at lunch time could be a great way to give your brain the boost it needs to feel refreshed for the afternoon.

One study found that workers who went for walks in natural tree-lined settings performed better on attention and memory tests than those who stepped out for a walk on a busy street. http://www.umich.edu/~jlabpsyc/pdf/2008_2.pdf Another study showed that those who walk through green spaces had lower levels of frustration and arousal than those walking through urban environments.

The reason that researchers believe a walk down the street isn't as relaxing as a stroll through a green space is that the distractions of crowds and traffic over-stimulate us and keep us on high alert -- to avoid getting hit by a car, for example. A walk in a park, on the other hand, allows the mind to relax and gear down for a while, giving us a rest we need before heading back to work.

5. Your desk is filthy

If you need yet one more reason not to eat at your desk today, consider this: your workspace is probably crawling with germs. In fact, according to a 2007 study, the average desk has more bacteria on it than the average toilet seat.

That’s because most of aren’t wiping down our desks as well or as often as we’re cleaning our restrooms. Nor are we washing our hands before pulling out snacks from our drawers, or wiping those hand off again before we go back to our keyboards.

Interestingly enough, it’s women who tend to harbour more germs on their desks than men, studies show, perhaps because women are more likely to use hand creams and cosmetics at their desks too, which happen to be a great vehicle for germs to ride on. http://www.ctvnews.ca/women-s-desks-harbour-more-bacteria-study-shows-1.229330

So get away from that desk and choose a lunch spot that’s a little less germy than your desk -- and a whole lot less icky than your very clean toilet seat.