TechTip: Prevent Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) with Rest Breaks

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In this article, the third in a series about avoiding RSI, I'll show how to use microbreaks and rest breaks for comfortable, healthy work.

Breaks Refresh Body and Mind

As we concentrate at the computer, we all too often sit rigidly except for our typing fingers. Our eyes stare at the screen, our head and neck locked in place. Back muscles contract. Blood flow is reduced, cutting off oxygen to body and brain.

Breaks allow the body to repair itself. Blood can flow to constricted areas such as the back of the legs. Muscles relax.

Not only can the body revive during a break, but the mind can consider improvements. "Can I adjust something to make my work easier? Am I pounding the keyboard instead of typing with an easy flow?"

Experts recommend two types of breaks: microbreaks and rest breaks.

Microbreaks

Frequent and short, microbreaks allow cells to replenish oxygen that continuous muscular effort reduces. Microbreaks last 15–30 seconds and should be taken once every 3–10 minutes. The more repetitive the work, the more frequent the microbreaks should be.

During microbreaks, consider these helpful activities:

  • Stand up and stretch to replenish oxygen.
  • Blink your eyes a few times to moisten them.
  • Look at faraway objects, out a window if possible, to allow your eyes to relax from their usual close-up focus.

What's more, each microbreak is an opportunity to find and eliminate excess strain and tension. According to Ralph Strauch, Ph.D., author of "Low-Stress Computing," office workers sometimes forget that their type of work, unlike physical labor such as heavy lifting, does not benefit from muscular effort and strain. Dr. Strauch suggests becoming aware of unneeded stress by trying these awareness exercises:

  • Feel how your chair supports you. How hard do you really have to work to sit up?
  • Is your breathing deep or shallow? Can you allow it to be more relaxed?
  • When you concentrate, does your jaw become clenched? Can you work without tightening your jaw?

How can we remember to take microbreaks? Software can help, as I'll show in my next TechTip. In addition, the workday provides many natural reminders to take a microbreak, including these:

  • After completing a section of code.
  • While waiting for a slow computer to respond. (Instead of becoming frustrated, relax during the pause.)
  • When the telephone rings, interrupting your concentration. Tip from Ralph Strauch: Wait one more ring than usual before answering. In that time, take a breath, center yourself, and broaden your awareness beyond your annoyance at being interrupted. When you answer the phone, you'll bring that relaxation into your call. (If needed, put a note on your phone to remind yourself.)

Rest Breaks

Rest breaks are longer than microbreaks, taking between three and 10 minutes, and are done every hour or two. They are long enough for a short exercise or non-computer work.

These breaks are opportunities for a walk or a special exercise designed for desk workers. Try these resources for desk exercises:

  • The Desk Trainer Web site offers animated instructions for easy exercises to be done sitting at a desk. The site offers a free sample exercise.
  • Read the book Comfort at Your Computer: Body Awareness Training for Pain-Free Computer Use by Paul Linden, Ph.D., especially chapter 14, "Three-minute movement breaks for the office."
  • Try this 15–minute awareness lesson from Ralph Strauch.

Rest breaks are also an ideal time for neglected non-computer tasks:

  • Call a colleague to give (or ask for) a status report.
  • Walk to a coworker's desk.
  • File papers or otherwise organize your work area efficiently and comfortably.
  • Examine your priorities: Have you been neglecting anything important?

You can schedule these breaks using an ordinary clock or watch, though I prefer special break-reminder software as a foolproof method. My next TechTip will examine such software options.

Breaks Provide Essential Protection

Take microbreaks and rest breaks, restoring vitality for your next challenge.

Next time: Software that enforces and times microbreaks and rest breaks.

Resources

Thanks to Ralph Strauch (www.somatic.com) for his contributions to this article.

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