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How to Prevent Repetitive Stress Injury with Computer Breaks

by Oscar Sodani
December 19, 2005

Oscar Sodani is a founder of Help2Go and owner of Help2Go Networks, an IT consulting firm in the Washington D.C. area. Oscar holds the CISSP certification as well as industry certifications from Microsoft, Cisco and Novell.

Repetitive Stress Injury is a serious consideration for people that spend all day in front of their computers. When working at our PCs, we tend to hunch over, tense our shoulders, and sometimes even squint at the screen. It's all not very good for our bodies. I've recently come across a neat program that remonds me to take frequent "micro-breaks" - just a few seconds every 10 minutes or so to relax my body. It also reminds me to get up and walk around every hour, maybe even stretch (and it shows you simple strecthing exercises). Best of all, the program, Workrave, is free!

First, go ahead and download Workrave. Once it has downloaded, run the installer and accept the defaults. When it is done, and Workrave starts, you will see this tiny little screen:

The three numbers represent:
a) The time until your next "micro-break"
b) The time until your next "rest break"
c) The total time you have set to work in front of your PC

The first thing you'll want to do is to adjust these times. Right-click on the Workrave window and choose Preferences. If you are not currently suffering from RSI, you can set these times significantly higher than the defaults. It all depends on what you feel most comfortable with.

The first setting is "Micro-breaks". These are very short breaks that you take every few minutes to relax your body and reposition yourself. I like to take my micro-breaks every 10 minutes, for a duration of 15 seconds. I feel that 15 seconds is plenty for me to adjust how I'm sitting and to relax my shoulders.

 Workrave Screenshot

The next setting is Rest Breaks. These are breaks where you actually stand up or do some stretching. Maybe you go out and grab a glass of water or refill your coffee mug. I like to take a 5-minute break every hour to recharge.

Workrave screenshot

You can also do the stretching exercises that Workrave can show you. I find that doing these a few times a day makes me feel a LOT better.

Additionally, you can set the total amount of time you are "allowed" to sit in front of the computer per day. I'm a computer programmer, so I set this time fairly high, at around 8 hours per day. If you don't need to work at your computer all day, try to limit this number as best you can.

Feel free to close the little window with the countdown timers. Workrave will minimize itself into your system tray and automatically pop-up when it's time for a break. When Workrave does notify you that it's time for a break, just stop typing and stop moving the mouse until Workrave tells you that it's OK to continue working. You can always postpone the break or ignore it, if you're in the middle of something important.

Workrave will detect when you are not using your computer and will reset your breaks accordingly. For instance, if you stop typing and stop moving the mouse for a few minutes because you are on the phone or reading a document, your micro-break counter will reset. If you stop for long enough, your rest break counter will reset as well.

Taking breaks isn't the only thing you should be doing to avoid RSI. Keyboard and chair positioning are also important, as well as the ergonomics of your equipment. Take a look at our Computer Related Injuries Guide for more information.

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