Know thyself. This ancient Greek saying underpins a whole school of philosophy, but for those of us trying to get healthy, its meaning boils down to this: if you know your own foibles, it’s much easier to develop ways to outsmart your bad habits and support your good intentions.
For instance: some of us (myself included) have a habit of plopping ourselves in front of an absorbing spreadsheet, report, or paper we’re working on and sitting there until our butts go numb. This, as we know from years of research, is not healthy. As public health experts tell us, sitting is the new smoking, and spending unbroken hours sitting in front of a computer has negative effects on our body, our eyes, and our productivity—while taking breaks has been shown to increase productivity.
But oh, baby, it can be hard to tear yourself away when you’re in the zone.
That’s why enlisting some support can be crucial. This can be as simple as having your cube-neighbor throw a pencil at your head every hour or so to snap you out of your reverie—but what if they’re on vacation or caught up in their own work?
Technology to the rescue! There are apps and programs that can help you keep your promise to yourself to get up and move around during the day. The simplest of these are timers. Stand Up! The Work Break Timer for Apple iPhones and iPads is a nifty (and free) alarm system that you can load onto your phone and program to remind you to stand up however often you want. The alarms range from the subtle to the quite insistent.
Android users can download the similar Break Reminder, which allows you to schedule reminders to stand up and move around at work.
But maybe a phone app won’t cut it—you need an application on the device you’re actually working on. Workrave is a free application aimed at warding off repetitive strain injury. Set how often you want to take breaks, and the application will remind you to take both longer breaks and micro-breaks during which you can look away from the screen. The countdown feature shows you when your next break will happen. It works on both Windows and GNU/Linux platforms, and like the now-defunct FitBolt, it provides guidance on gentle exercises and stretching.
The free Windows-based Big Stretch Reminder is endearing because each reminder to take a big stretch comes with an inspiring quote. You can program the time between break reminders and set how long you want the breaks to last, but Big Stretch does not give you guidance on what stretches to perform. However, you can download a chart of office stretches to refer to.
Firefox users can get reminders from the add-on StretchClock. This program offers configurable reminders, and, even better, simple stretching videos to guide you through a routine that’s focused on your neck, back, shoulders, wrists, and hips—all vulnerable areas for the desk-bound worker.
If you get plenty of stretching in yoga class and are more concerned about your eye health, EyeLeo is for you. This free Windows-based application grays out your screen during breaks and offers exercises to relax your eyes. You can even choose “strict mode,” which won’t allow you to skip your breaks. Best of all? Your eye exercise coach is a very cute animated leopard.
Miriam Wolf is the editor of The FruitGuys Magazine.