Education - OnTask Inc - Breaks and Stretches

By: Ontask  09-12-2011

  • When you think of your back, think of it as if you were building a house.
  • Your hips and pelvis are the foundation, your spine is the frame, and your muscles and ligaments are the internal and external supports (drywall, plywood). Without all of these pieces, the house may not hold up under harsh conditions.
  • Similarly, if your hips don’t move freely, your foundation (hips) will tilt or tip when working at low levels. With your foundation unstable, your back is likely to be in a bad position to weather the tasks and conditions that you place on it during your workday.
  • Hip flexibility and core stability work together to keep your foundation and frame in stable and balanced. If your hips are mobile, it’s a lot easier to get lower (see the top row of pictures) with the back in good position. However, if either is missing, the other will compensate and can lead to poor back posture and eventually pain or strains (bottom left picture).
  • If you want to have a healthy back, your number one aim should be to make sure that you can keep a neutral posture of the spine in everything that you do.
  • Understanding what you can do today to keep your core stable and your hips mobile will help ensure you are living in a fortress rather than a shack.

Ergonomics is about fitting your job to you so that you don’t get injured. But some jobs require a lot of stress, strain or awkward postures. If you think of it, a lot of sports could be classified as ergonomic nightmares!

But in most organized sports, the first thing everyone does is warm-up, then a few drills and then they play the game. Have you ever asked yourself why you or your kids do these activities in this order?

Warm-ups are a great way to get the blood flowing and remind our body that it is time to get moving.

Doing exercises, drills or movement patterns specific to your sport or work (example squats) are a great way to remind your body how to move safely.

Is your body work ready or are you skating on thin ice?

Microbreaks? As in stop working? For even a few seconds? Don’t be a wimp! Back when I started on the job… .

Microbreaks are an interesting idea. The aim is to take short but frequent breaks before fatigue builds up to the point where you have to take a break due to fatigue or discomfort. Even breaks as short as 10 seconds can be beneficial and allow your muscles time to recover.

If you have ever worked out a gym, you understand the need to take short breaks in between your sets. Microbreaks are the ‘release valves’ that will protect your body.

One of the common things you see in workplaces is congratulations when someone pushes through a break, lunch, or extra hours to finish a difficult task.

If you truly value safety, respecting your own physical limits and allowing time for our body to recover while you are on the job is another one of the cornerstones of MSI prevention.

The first typewriter was mass produced in the 1870’s. The original QWERTY layout minimized frequently used pairs of keys from being positioned side-by-side. When adjacent keys were pressed in close succession, they tended to jam on each other. The QWERTY layout was, in fact, an attempt to increase typing speed.

Current keyboards don’t have the same mechanical obstacles of typewriters. However, the QWERTY layout has endured.

Interestingly, with the evolution from typewriters to computers, mice and numeric keypads have been integrated in a desire for increased speed. For some workers, their layout can contribute to fatigue and discomfort.

Our greatest challenge is that we spend too much time sitting, alternately keying and mousing. The type of key layout is much less important than using proper postures and taking frequent microbreaks to interrupt awkward, static postures day after day after day after day…

 Take a Break, Get the Blood Pumping

In addition to taking microbreaks throughout the day to interrupt sustained postures, make sure you use your breaks to step away from your desk whenever possible.

Your body is designed to move.

In the 1800’s, 90% of the population received enough physical exercise in the normal working day to stay physically fit. Today, the figure is less than 2% (ParticipACTION).

Make movement (exercise) part of your workday by getting out for walks at breaks and lunch.

Eat lunch away from your desk to change your surroundings.

Microbreak Reminders

Give your body a break by changing positions regularly. This means moving in the opposite direction regularly for brief periods of time.

If you are having trouble creating some good habits, you can set-up reminders in your calendar program or look for natural cues to remember to take a break (e.g. stand up each time the phone rings).
Still not working for you? There are some great free software products that can be installed on your desktop to provide reminders. Two worth mentioning are:

WorkSafe Sam:

  • WorkSafe Sam “Stretch Prompter” is a desktop tool that provides stretching tips to help reduce eye and muscle strain for office workers. (


  • WorkRave is a program that assists in the recovery and prevention of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI). The program frequently alerts you to take micro-pauses, rest breaks, measures your mouse use (in meters!) and can help you set and keep daily limits.(

Of course, check with your IT department before loading any software on your computer.

Microbreaks are an important component of workplace health. Muscles become stressed if asked to perform repetitive tasks or hold static positions for too long during the work day. Microbreaks allow a change of position, different muscle use, stimulate blood flow and can help reduce the risk of injury or discomfort. Microbreaks can last a few minutes or just a few seconds, but your body will thank you for them!

Try some of the following microbreaks to reduce build up of stress to your joints and muscles during the work day.

At The Computer

  • Regular ‘palms down’ typing and mousing posture is a non-neutral position. It requires wrist and forearm work to maintain, and can result in fatigue over long periods.
  • Neutral posture for the wrist and forearm is ‘palms sideways’ resting on the 5th finger side of your hand as shown at right.

Back Basics

  • Try the ‘why me’ stretch to counteract forward hunching over the computer.
  • Stretching backwards for a few seconds every 10 or 15 mins will give your back a break.
  • Close your eyes for an extra relaxation boost!

Alternating Tasks

  • To further reduce repetitive muscle work during the day, alternate your work tasks so that you do at least 5 minutes of work using different muscles each hour.
  • If you’re busy on the computer, stop every hour and do 5 minutes of filing or check voice mails so your ‘computer muscles’ get a break.

Natural Microbreaks

  • Natural microbreaks happen in the day without you planning them, but you can encourage them as well…
  • Try printing to a printer outside your office so you have to get up or take a short walk to get documents.
  • Drink water during the day, it’s healthy and you’ll need to get up from your desk to refill and take bathroom breaks.
  • Leave your office and take a short walk at lunch time.

Awkward posture slowly creeps up on us.

If you go on a mission searching for awkward postures like leaning on your elbows, you are probably going to be disappointed if you go first thing in the morning.

BUT, if you take a look around your workgroup around the mid-afternoon ‘crash’, you will probably find your co-workers melting into their desk.

Our bodies aren’t meant to stay in one position all day. So, once our stabilizing muscles get fatigued, we start to ‘melt’.

Call it what you want, but melting, slouching, head forward posture and leaning our elbow on the desk are all related to the fact that we are spending too much time in one place (our desks!).

Encourage your co-workers to take microbreaks and stretch breaks. Or at least, get away from the computer at lunch. (And if you don’t take lunch, you may want reconsider after you check your posture by mid-afternoon!)

Be on the look-out for these simple to solve habits and risk factors.

And remember the definition of insanity, “… doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Ben Franklin’

When are you going to change your habits?

As we all know, awkward and static postures, long work days (repetition) and the fact that our muscles are working at low but constant levels can lead to discomfort.

If you’re like most people working at the computer, you will probably have felt the burn in the shoulders or the ache in the forearm or wrist at some point in your working career.

Generally, all of the physical (and other) stress in our life can add up to a point where pain and discomfort creep in.

When we look at the build up of stress on the body from using input devices, it’s little wonder that discomfort or injury could be the result. There are a few simple stretches that can go a long way to giving your tired muscles time to recover and to help release the tension.

As always, stretching and exercises should NOT be painful. The pictures on the right are simple stretches meant to encourage bloodflow, tissue flexibility, decrease tension, and primarily – just to get you to stop chasing the mouse around for a few seconds!!!

Finally, remembering that we need to find a sustainable work/rest balance for our muscles is very important.

Don’t Take it Sitting Down

The bulk of our work tasks require us to sit. Static positions are not particularly healthy for our backs since sitting puts increased pressure on the tissues in our spine.

Take every opportunity to get up and move around as part of your work tasks.

Try these:

Stand up while you are talking on the phone.
File papers far enough away that you must get out of your chair.
Don’t call or email people in your office, go and visit them.
Locate your printer outside your office or work space.
Drink lots of water…
Occasionally get out of your chair when in long meetings.
Stand up while reading or reviewing printed documents

One of the difficulties when working from home can be the lack of interruptions. In the office, meetings, co-workers and coffee breaks can provide the stimulus to break up the workday. While most of us don’t complain and can get a lot more done at home, the lack of breaks can also add up to discomfort.

As you take a look at your physical workstation this season, consider giving your body a gift by making a commitment to some of the following work habits. These are some simple gifts that keep on giving:

  • Break up your workday by standing or walking around when you’re on the phone
  • Break up your workday by going for a short, brisk walk outside, even for 10 minutes.
  • Never work for more than an hour without getting up from your chair. Rather, try to get in the habit of standing or taking a stretch break at least every 30 minutes and giving your muscles a break (even 30 seconds worth), every 10 minutes
  • Load up some free microbreak software on your computer (e.g. to get you in the habit.
  • Consider resolving that you will end the year in less discomfort than you start it with.
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  • If 100 or 1000 repetitions is too many, is one working posture too few? YES!
  • Even standing for a long time in optimal posture like a ‘BeefEater’ can cause discomfort and pain.
  • The muscles that help us with posture are the hardest workers in the body. They turn on and off as we move from position to position. But, if we stay in one position for too long, they can get tired and sore.
  • Other parts of our back can also become weaker when we stay one position for long periods.
  • If you find that yourself working in one posture for long periods of time, get creative to find ways to change your posture, even for a short period. Standing versus sitting, using something to sit on versus kneeling, widening your stance or finding something to lean on temporarily can give you a leg up on this ergonomic enemy.

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