Micro-Breaks, Micro-Workouts and Healthy Computing

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Office Drone Workout Plan

For those of us who spend far too much time planted in front of a computer, that very fact is a danger to our health. I’m in front of a computer full-time for work, then there are my hobbies (like this site), emailing friends and now there’s even Facebook and Youtube. Before you know it, you’re racking up 12 or even 16 hours a day in front of a computer.

Those long days can be devastating to your health — eyestrain, wrist strain, and back strain, not to mention encouraging a sedentary lifestyle in general, which isn’t great either. For many years I’ve tried to mitigate those effects through various measures. I’ve tried special chairs (none really helped). I’ve tried a standing desk, which in fact I highly recommend. I don’t have mine really optimized yet (it’s currently just the kitchen counter, which is about the right height for me), but I find a I have a lot more energy after a day at the standing desk than after sitting all day.


None of those, however, solve the fundamental problem of being practically motionless, whether standing or sitting, staring at a screen all day. So several years ago I started experimenting with “microbreaks” throughout the day and even wrote my own program to prompt me every twenty minutes to do some quick exercises. That turned out to be too often, but I couldn’t set the time. Finally, I stumbled upon Workrave, a close to perfect and highly customizable application to help you do mini-workouts during the work day. In parts 2 and 3 of this article, I suggest mini-workouts for the uninhibited, how to bump it us with a secret gym in your office and workplace exercises for the more discreet. Workrave is a small Windows program that sits in your system tray and prompts you to take breaks on set intervals. It’s a 100% free, open source (GNU GPL) application. Between my wife and I, we’ve been running it on three computers for a year without one single problem.

Using Workrave: The Basics

Workrave lets you set two types of breaks: micro-breaks and full breaks. When a break comes around, Workrave gives you an audible signal and a visual one and tells you to take a quick break and, optionally, can suggest various exercises (we’ll come back to that). The times are fully configurable, but I set my micro-breaks to come about every ten minutes and to last about 15 seconds. A microbreak is just long enough to sit in my chair and rest my eyes for a few seconds or to get up briefly and wave my arms about. Then it’s back to work.

A break is another matter. After reading some experts on efficiency for “knowledge workers” I finally settled on 10-minute breaks every hour. So fifty minutes on and ten off. It’s actually hard at first because the breaks seem quite long and sometimes I only go six minutes (less than that doesn’t seem to have much value). Also, on days when I’m just not engrossed in my task, fifty minutes of focused concentration is actually pretty long too. On days when I’m really concentrating it goes by too fast and the breaks seem annoying. But that’s the power of your brain,and your body needs those breaks one way or the other and pacing yourself like this will make you more effective. You will get more, not less done, and you’ll be healthier.

Workrave also lets you set daily limits, but I don’t. Finally, Workrave lets you set pretty much anything you can think of: length of breaks and micro-breaks, how much time between them, how you’ll be prompted, which sounds to use, what it blocks and doesn’t during a break and so on.

Workrave as a Computer Fitness Tool

Workrave comes equipped with short cartoon demonstrations of a small handful of gentle exercises, but what if you want to amp it up a bit? During full breaks, I usually do one of two things: just take a rest and get something to drink, or do some exercises that are more vigorous than the ones Workrave proposes.

Which exercises you do at work may depend on your workplace and how inhibited you are as a person. My wife, who has a cubicle in an open office space, feels funny doing pushups. I have a very private work environment (not to mention a fairly high threshold for embarrassment), so I do whatever I feel like. Depending on your situation, you may or may not be able to get some pretty good exercise in during your Workrave breaks.

Series Navigation<< Office Workouts: Staying Healthy in Front of the ComputerOffice Workouts for the Uninhibited >>

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