Five Apps to take a break, stay healthy
One thing many web workers have in common is that we're also chair workers. It's not too likely that you're out in the sun working up a sweat as you go about your daily job. More likely, you've gotten engrossed in some intricate online task, and by the time you look up and realize it's past dinner time fourteen hours have gone by without you moving any muscles other than the ones in your fingers. While this may be great for your clients, it takes its toll in flabbiness, sore backs, and repetitive strain injuries.
It's easy enough to say that you should take a break to stretch once in a while, but if you're the type to get drawn in by the computer, how do you remember to take those breaks? The answer may lie in a sort of desktop ju-jitsu, where you leverage the computer itself to remind you to be healthier. If you feel the need for this sort of help, try one of these applications (all of which have trial downloads available):
Exercise Minder (Windows, free) sits in your taskbar and pops up animated illustrations of exercises that you can do while sitting at your desk such as leg stretches and arm isometrics. You can set the reminder interval anywhere from 5 to 60 minutes. The major shortcoming of Exercise Minder as it stands now is a limited selection of exercises, though it appears to be drawing them live from the web so perhaps more will be added soon.
Workrave (Windows or Linux, free) puts up a floating window with three timers counting down to your next microbreak, next rest break, and the end of your computing time for the day. It can also pop up a window with a few suggested exercises and stretches. One unique feature it offers is the ability to network between different computers, so you can't escape from your scheduled breaks just by switching from one machine to the other. Workrave is open source and under active development.
Albion StopNow! (Windows, $24.95) is a very discreet application, ideal for the workplace. It puts a colored icon in your task tray that turns from green to yellow to red as your break time approaches and then passes. It also beeps quietly when you're overdue for a break, but doesn't interfere with your work (thus not interrupting critical e-mail or phone calls with popups or other intrusive notifications). Their focus is on RSI, rather than exercises, and they publish a RSI FAQ on their web site.
Break Reminder (Windows, $59/year) takes a more draconian approach towards making you take a break. It monitors your keyboard and mouse activity, and if you've been working too long without a break it will actually turn the screen black and trap your mouse for five minutes so that you have no choice but to get up and walk around. You can adjust this behavior, as well as fine-tune many other parameters such as how long it considers reasonable for you to work in a stretch. Break Reminder doesn't offer any particular advice on what to do with your breaks, though its help file does include a small selection of exercises and stretches.
WorkPace (Windows, Linux or Mac, starting at $49) comes in both Personal and Professional versions and offers a host of features for serious workplace use. This includes multimedia training on how to prevent RSI, charts and statistics on your working and break habits, and 50 different exercises. The Professional version adds network support as well as monitoring and reporting features so that you can be sure that your staff are taking enough breaks.
One last note: these programs may be good for your work as well as your body. While we all know the benefit of being "in the zone" when doing creative work, it's all too easy to forget the benefit of stepping back from a thorny problem for five or ten minutes. Sometimes taking a break is just what you need to get the creative juices flowing again in a fresh direction.