Healthy Computing: AT for Taking Breaks

Healthy computing may depend upon taking regular breaks. This article looks at the impact of computing on the body, tools for taking breaks, and what to do when you take a break.

It could be that the computer is addictive or our jobs require us to spend hours, which are made longer if we keep up on the hottest YouTube videos or check Facebook postings. But hours in front of the screen can have an impact.

According to the New York Times article "Is Sitting a Lethal Activity?"

This is your body on chairs: Electrical activity in the muscles drops — “The muscles go as silent as those of a dead horse,” Hamilton says — leading to a cascade of harmful metabolic effects. Your calorie-burning rate immediately plunges to about one per minute, a third of what it would be if you got up and walked. Insulin effectiveness drops within a single day, and the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes rises. So does the risk of being obese. The enzymes responsible for breaking down lipids and triglycerides— for “vacuuming up fat out of the bloodstream,” as Hamilton puts it — plunge, which in turn causes the levels of good (HDL) cholesterol to fall. 
The impact can be quantified on many of our systems. 
  • "Sustained repetitive computer work fatigues the tiny muscles of the hand and forearm. Overuse can lead to micro-tears in the soft tissues, which can become swollen and painful. Swelling, in turn, can lead topressure on the nerves, and conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome."
  • "A fixed working position squeezes the blood vessels in the muscles reducing the blood supply to the working muscles just when they need it the most. An insufficient blood supply accelerates fatigue and makes the muscles prone to injury. " OSHA


  • "An insufficient blood flow, specifically blood that is returning to the heart from the lower legs, causes blood to pool. Pressure on the underside of the thighs from a seat that is too high can further aggravate this. The result can be swollen or numb legs and eventually varicose veins. Also, a reduced blood supply to the muscles accelerates fatigue. This is why an employee who sits all day long doing little physical work often feels tired at the end of a work shift. "  OSHA
  • Impact on vision is one of the most frequent problems with extended computer use. 
  • "Computer Vision Syndrome describes a group of eye and vision-related problems that result from prolonged computer use.... The most common symptoms associated with Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS) are eyestrain, headaches, blurred or double vision, fatigue, dry eyes, neck and shoulder pain"   American Optometric Association
  • "We normally blink 12-15 times a minute, but using a computer screen can cut this to seven or eight a minute. This leaves the tear film – the lubricating substance that protects the surface of the eye – not working properly." Daily Mail Online
  • "About four hour use of computer per day produces musculoskeletal disorders of neck or upper limb in women and six hours or more ofc omputer use causes these symptoms in men." Computer Users at Risk in the Journal of Business Management and Economics 
  • "Sitting in front of a computer screen for five hours a day candramatically increase the risk of depression and insomnia, new research suggests."  More than 5 hours on the computer each day was also correlated with sleep problems, based on a large study from Japan reported in the Daily Mail Online.

Taking Breaks

There are benefits to taking breaks that go beyond avoiding the negative impacts listed above. Foremost is improved focus and producivity.

  • "A new study in the journal Cognition overturns a decades-old theory about the nature of attention and demonstrates that even brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve one's ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods." ScienceDaily
  • "A growing body of evidence shows that taking regular breaks from mental tasks improves productivity and creativity — and that skipping breaks can lead to stress and exhaustion. " New York Times

Tools for Taking Breaks

A number of software apps and tools can remind you and/or force you to take a break from time-wasting activity or from all computing. 

SelfControl is a free and open-source application for Mac OS X (10.5or above) that lets you block your own access to distracting websites, your mail servers, or anything else on the Internet. Just set a period of time to block for, add sites to your blacklist, and click "Start." Until that timer expires, you will be unable to access those sites--even if you restart your computer or delete the application.
Freedom locks you away from all networking (email, browsing, etc.) for 15 minutes to 8 hours so you can be productive. Rebooting is the only over-ride. Works with both Mac and PC. $10, free trial.
Concentrate lets you launch and block applications for each task. So for an activity such as "Writing," you can set it so the app automatically closes email and internet browsing; blocks Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube; launches Microsoft Word; and sets  instant messaging status to"away". Then, if what you want to do is "Study History," it can open websites that you need but block those you don't need. It will even growl at you or deliver specialized messages to help you stay on task. Mac only, $30, free trial.
Anti-Social is a productivity application that turns off the social parts of the internet. When Anti-Social is running, you're locked away from distracting social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter and other sites you specify. Mac only, $15, free trial.
StayFocused is a productivity extension for Google Chrome that helps you stay focused on work by restricting the amount of time you can spend on time-wasting websites. Once your allotted time has been used up, the sites you have blocked will be inaccessible for the rest of the day. Mac or PC, free.
LeechBlock is an extension for the Firefox web browser designed to block those time-wasting sites that can suck the life out of your working day. All you need to do is specify which sites to block and when to block them. Mac or PC, free.
FocusBooster is based on the principles of the Pomodoro Technique, a timemanagement system that challenges you to focus on a single task for25 minutes and then give yourself a 5-minute break. Mac or PC, free.
Time Out has two kinds of breaks: a "Normal" break, typically for 10minutes after 50 minutes of work, so you can move about and relax, plus a "Micro" break: a very brief pause of typically 10 seconds every 10 minutes, so you can remember not to tense up too much for long periods." Mac only, free. A similar free program for Windows is Workrave and EyeLeo.
Stretch Break gently reminds you to take periodic breaks while using your computer. You are invited to perform a series of low-impact stretches illustrated on the screen. Then Stretch Break returns you to your current Windows application. Mac and PC, $45, free trial on Windows.
Not a break reminder, but something that could convice someone to use a break timer, there are a number of time tracking programs that let you know how much time you spend on each application.

What to Do on a Break 

A number of sites give suggestions and exercises to relieve eye strain and muscle tension, and to increase relaxation.
  • Stanford University suggests standing up for phone calls, moving the printer far away, and gives a list of stretches and exercises.
  • The National Institutes of Health has a longer list of exercises.
  • MeMoves is a DVD with short exercises paired with calming music, designed for youth or adults.
  • Brain Gym exercises designed by  Dr. Carla Hannaford in her book Smart Moves.
    • Brain Buttons will improve blood flow to the brain to "switch on" the entire brain before a lesson begins. The increased blood flow helps improve concentration skills required for reading, writing, etc.
      - Put one hand so that there is as wide a space as possible between the thumb and index finger.
      - Place your index and thumb into the slight indentations below the collar bone on each side of the sternum. Press lightly in a pulsing manner.
      - At the same time put the other hand over the navel area of the stomach. Gently press on these points for about 2 minutes. 
    • Cross Crawl helps coordinate right and left brain by exercising the information flow between the two hemispheres. It is useful for spelling, writing, listening, reading and comprehension.
      - Stand or sit. Put the right hand across the body to the left knee as you raise it, and then do the same thing for the left hand on the right knee just as if you were marching.
      - Just do this either sitting or standing for about 2 minutes.
    • Hook Ups work well for nerves before a test or special event such as making a speech. Any situation which will cause nervousness calls for a few "hook ups" to calm the mind and improve concentration.
      - Stand or sit. Cross the right leg over the left at the ankles.
      - Take your right wrist and cross it over the left wrist and link up the fingers so that the right wrist is on top.
      - Bend the elbows out and gently turn the fingers in towards the body until they rest on the sternum (breast bone) in the center of the chest. Stay in this position.
      - Keep the ankles crossed and the wrists crossed and then breathe evenly in this position for a few minutes. You will be noticeably calmer after that time.
    • Lazy 8s improve visual attention and eye mobility. Holding your arm out straight, and following your finger with your eyes, move your arm in large figure 8s, crossing midline.

Thanks to Jennifer MacDonald-Peltier for putting this information together and presenting it. Her archived webinar can be found here. She gives more detail on the tools and demonstrates some of the exercises.

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