Take a break .. take a break .. take a break …

If you’re a white-collar, soft hands clean clothes information-worker, you sit on your ass day in and day out and probably, at night too.  Using the computer is your work and play.  By now, you probably have decent desk ergonomics and understand the importance of them.  Carpul-tunnel and RSI are real, no matter who you are. 

Hell, I bet you’ve had some strange aching pains in your shoulder, arm, elbow, wrist, and or hands at some point.  An early warning of what could come and enough to motivate you to make some positive, preventative changes. Let’s assess the basic ergonomics of a healthy desk:

  • Screen is at arms length from your face and at eye level.
  • Keyboard is parallel or slightly lower than where your arms rest on the desk. Your wrists should not be higher than your elbows.
  • Mouse easily accessible, moves effortlessly, requiring little to no movement of your arm.
  • You’re sitting up straight.  Shoulders back and not hunched over.  If it hurts, you probably need a better chair – get one with good lumbar support. Or, baring the new chair option, one of these inflatable cushions.
  • Feet flat on the ground or better yet, on a foot rest that promotes upright sitting (not slouching!).
  • Check this out for illustrations of an ideal workspace configuration.

Now, on to the meat of the meal: taking breaks.  

Going to the bathroom doesn’t really count unless you have a bladder the size of a peanut.  You need to get off your ass and out of the chair every 15-30 minutes.  Each and every interval, no exceptions.

Deeply involved in some code, game or writing? Stand up and shake it out. You can keep looking at the screen but give your extremities a good waggle.  Don’t make a habit of this as this micro-break is insufficient in the long haul.

To force the issue, I recommend utilizing a simple timer application that provides a countdown and notification. All of the following software is freeware and or open source:

  • In Windows 7 (or Vista), I use a sidebar gadget I developed called, wait for it… Countdown TimerGet it here, it’s really great.
  • In Linux, I use the gnome-timer applet.
  • For Mac, mind you I don’t use the OS, the Apimac Timer looks good.
  • If a simple timer doesn’t cut it, give Workrave a try. It is a full featured RSI-prevention app that monitors keyboard and mouse activity. Its alerts can be very intrusive (both a good and bad thing) and some of the animations are cheesy. Overall it is a great application that also suggests many rest-break exercises.

Speaking of which, here are some simple techniques to do on your breaks:

  • Stand up and reach for the sky; look up and rise up to your tippy-toes.  Take a deep breath while you do it.  Feels great, right?
  • Pull an arm across your body with your other arm above the elbow.  Switch.  Do these two or three times.
  • Arms straight behind your back, interlock your fingers and pull up.
  • Touch your toes, well, as low as you can go anyway.
  • Do a couple leg lifts.
  • Sit back down and use the arm rests of your chair to lift and lower yourself.  Don’t use your legs.
  • Stretch your wrists against a wall or the side of your desk.
  • Open your hands as wide as they’ll go, flexing your fingers ‘til they start to go backwards – hold for 5-10 seconds. Then, make a tight fist and hold.  Do these a few times.
  • Stretch the neck by turning your head all the way to one side, hold for five breaths, then do the other side.

This two pronged attack – software and exercises – to the problem of Repetitive Stress is crucial to maintaining your body’s full mobility as you age. And that’s certainly how I want to go.

As you adopt some or all of this, please post any suggestions or questions about either prong to help fill out what I’ve shared here.

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  1. I need to see a chart with a modern 24″/27″ monitor in mind, that 13″ CRT makes positioning the monitor a simpler affair. It looks like the eyes are aligned with the top of the screen, but if you do that, you still end up craning your neck with a decent-sized display.

  2. Good point Ivan, that sketch was probably created in the 80s. We were also noticing that unusual slanted seat chair. I’ve replaced that link w/one a bit more relevant.

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