We've all experienced that magical moment. After hours spent staring at the computer screen, deadline looming, the creative juices finally kick in. No wonder the natural tendency is to type, type, type. Work into the wee hours. Don't even take a five-minute break.
That's good for the company's bottom line, and maybe even for a career. But it's potentially disastrous over the long haul for anyone trying to avoid repetitive stress injuries and other desk jockey ailments.
Ergonomic experts can be a disagreeing bunch, but on one point they concur: Taking regular breaks from the computer, no matter how deeply a worker is engrossed, no matter how pressing the deadline, is the smartest habit of all when it comes to staying off the injured list.
What the experts don't agree on is how best to spend that break. Is complete rest best? Or is it better to do special exercises to stretch and strengthen the hands and other vulnerable areas? The jury's still out.
The indecision, however, has not slowed down the growth of special desk jockey exercise programs with catchy names like CyberStretch and ErgErcise that provide easy directions for desktop workouts. Once installed on the computer, some programs also alert users to break time after a certain number of keystrokes or mouse movements.
There are also low-tech options, such as an illustrated brochure published by the American Physical Therapy Association that suggests a variety of exercises to ward off computer ills. Call (800) 955-7848 for a free copy. One is as simple as clenching the fist tightly, then releasing and fanning out the fingers.
The more active the break, the better, says Teri Bielefeld, a physical therapist at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center who helped APTA develop the exercises. "Stretching the tendons makes them work better," says Bielefeld. The stretching, she believes, will reduce the chances of getting carpal tunnel and other injuries.
But Naomi Swanson, chief of the motivation and stress research section at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, isn't yet convinced that these desktop maneuvers make a difference.
In two studies conducted in the laboratory and in the workplace, she divided about 100 subjects into two groups. One group did no exercise during breaks while the other did prescribed exercises. Swanson found no difference between the two groups' discomfort or productivity.
A break, taken every hour, is the most important self-help measure, Swanson says. "The very best kind of break is if you get up and get away from your work station for at least a couple minutes," she says.
If that's impossible, switching from keyboarding to another task, even making telephone calls, is better than nothing, she says, in order to break up long stretches of the awkward and static postures experienced by computer users.
But just as some people need a trainer or a buddy to keep faithful to cardiovascular fitness, some office workers might see the new computer exercise programs as a welcome nudge. Until more data is in, however, ergonomic experts say they can't recommend a specific program but only give general guidelines on what to look for.
"The exercises should be developed by someone familiar with video display terminal work (such as an occupational or physical therapist, exercise physiologists, other experts) and the postures required of it," Swanson says.
Be especially careful with back exercises; ask your doctor or a physical therapist to approve them, she suggests.
In a study several years ago, Swanson found more than a third of back exercises prescribed by 12 exercise programs appeared unsafe to do.
Look for programs that include a range of exercises for the eyes, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, back, legs and feet, adds Alan Hedge, Ph.D., professor and ergonomic expert at Cornell University. Personally, he favors built-in monitoring programs over exercise videos.
But even the best program is no panacea. "Some programs present exercise as a way to prevent injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome," he says, "but there's really no good evidence for this."