SaveYourself.ca •Sensible advice for aches, pains & injuries
 

Microbreaking

Prevent low back pain and neck cricks with lots of little breaks

1,700 words, published 2006, updated 2011
by Paul Ingraham , Vancouver, Canadabio
I am a science writer, the Assistant Editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org, and a former Registered Massage Therapist with a decade of experience treating tough pain cases. I’ve written hundreds of articles and several books, and I’m known for sassy, skeptical, referenced analysis and a huge bibliography. I am a runner and ultimate player, and live in beautiful downtown Vancouver, Canada. • full bioabout SaveYourself.ca
bio
I am a licensed physical therapist and PhD level research scientist with expertise in human movement. I did my Masters thesis on knee pain, and have treated countless painful knees. As a dancer, I have lots of experience using (and hurting) my own knees! I live in Halifax, Canada, and blog at BBoyScience.com. • full bio

Are you suffering from low back pain? You may want to start with this article instead: Save Yourself from Low Back Pain! It will lead you back here in time.

This article describes and prescribes “microbreaking” — a survival strategy for chair-bound office workers. The value of microbreaking is mainly based on the idea that tissue stagnancy is A Very Bad Thing, and that the right amount of stimulation is essential for optimum tissue health. The scientific evidence for this is covered in several other articles (see Further Reading list below), while this article pretty much just sticks to the “how to” of microbreaking.

Microbreaks are regular, small, meaningful breaks from being stuck in one position at work. It is a survival skill for every chair-bound office worker, student, computer user, or anyone at all whose work (or play) generally requires long hours of being sedentary.

Microbreaking is a concept in dynamic ergonomics that has begun to eclipse more familiar, conventional ergonomic priorities. The idea is simple: no chair or efficiently arranged computer workstation, no matter how comfortable, can protect you from the danger of hours of sitting every day. The only truly ergonomic workstation “arrangement” is to break free of it regularly. You must have a “come here/go away” relationship with your workstation.

But I get up at work all the time

Sure you do! Most people do. At the very least, you probably get up to get water, and to go to the bathroom. I even know people who deliberately drink extra water to force themselves to take breaks. (Often, this is also motivated by an unjustified fear of dehydration. See Water Fever and the Fear of Chronic Dehydration.)

I know people who deliberately drink extra water to force themselves to take breaks.

You get up to go the photocopier or fax machine, to run something by your boss, to get the big hole punch, and so on. Some of you might even get up to stretch — not realizing that stretching is pretty over-rated as a form of therapeutic exercise (see Quite a Stretch).

Congratulations. You are halfway there! It’s good that you’re getting up — any getting up is good, and I would never want to discourage it. But …

What about standing to work? Is that enough stimulation?

Another trend with a dark side: standing to work is not the ideal solution.

Standing to work has been gaining popularity as an answer to the perils of sitting. However, standing seems to be just another form of stagnancy, with its own dangers. The Cornell Human Factors and Ergonomics Research Group (which looks like an interesting resource) identifies a number of problems with standing to work:

Standing to work has long known to be problematic, it is more tiring, it dramatically increases the risks of carotid atherosclerosis (ninefold) because of the additional load on the circulatory system, and it also increases the risks of varicose veins, so standing all day is unhealthy. The performance of many fine motor skills also is less good when people stand rather than sit.

They conclude with the advice to mainly sit to work but get up and move regularly.

The key is to build movement variety into the normal workday.”

In other words, take microbreaks.

More, more, more!

The frequency of your breaks is probably not quite enough. Most office workers, in my experience — especially engineers, programmers and other assorted geeks (and I’m one of you) — simply do not get up as often as they need to. Even drinking water full tilt and going to the bathroom every hour, on the hour, is just not enough.

For every twenty minutes of stagnation, you should have at least one minute of stimulation: the “20:1” rule.

More importantly, just taking “a break” from the chair simply isn’t enough …

I hate to “break” this to you (yuk yuk)

Earlier in this document I wrote that microbreaks are “meaningful” breaks. What did I mean? Walking to the water cooler and back simply does not constitute meaningful stimulation for back muscles that are screaming with stiffness. I know it’s a shock to learn this, but you were going to find out eventually.

It is necessary to actually do something therapeutic with microbreaks. “Something therapeutic” means “something stimulating,” or “something the most perfectly opposite of whatever your are normally doing at work that is practical to do for one minute.”

And that would be: mobilizations.

Mobilizations: massaging with movement

Mobilizations are repeated, rhythmic movements. It’s kind of like stretching, but with ants in your pants. More technically (a lot more technically), mobilizations repeatedly and substantially contract and elongate all or most of the musculature around a joint or in a region.

Less technically again, it’s basically therapeutic wriggling. The subject of mobilizations is thoroughly covered in Mobilize!.

Everybody mobilizes instinctively, sort of. Everyone squirms, wrenches, twists, trying to wiggle free from stiffness, active trigger points, muscle knots. Brief stretches, repeated once or twice, accompanied by sighs and groans, grimaces and joint pops, are extremely common reflexive behaviours seen in the caged human animal. Mobilizing is like stretching, but with ants in your pants. These movements usually “take the edge off,” and then subside.

Do more than take the edge off. That’s all mobilizing is: nothing more than following that instinct, more rationally, more systematically, above all more repetitively. Does rolling your head around once or twice feel good? Necessary? Then do it eighteen times!

Squirming versus mobilizations
Squirming Mobilizations
instinctive rational
desperate optimistic
takes the edge off therapeutic
1–3 repetitions 10–50 repetitions

About stretching again

Taking a break to stretch is almost comically irrelevant to the problem. The problem is stagnation, stillness. Ergo, stretching is a bit off the mark.

(Some people have a rather dynamic stretching style, much like mobilizing. Ironically, they tend to feel kind of guilty for not “holding” their stretches longer. Also, although a lot better that static stretching, dynamic stretching still tends not to be systematic and repetitive enough to constitute a real antidote for all that stagnation in the chair.)

Again I’ll emphasize that anything is better than nothing, but conventional “hold it for sixty seconds” stretching is probably not an ideal solution for a sedentariness problem. It always gives me a bit of a chuckle, actually.

Uh oh … another “should”

By far the most difficult thing about microbreaking, and its greatest weakness as a therapeutic strategy, is that it firmly fits into that irritating category of “something else I’m supposed to remember to do.”

I swear I do this to people as little as possible. I (completely) understand what a blur of big and little obligations and “shoulds” that most people are dealing with in their lives — I have my own extensive collection.

But in this case it’s necessary.

As explained in other articles more thoroughly (see The Trouble with Chairs), sitting a lot is flat out dangerous. It is probably significantly responsible for the epidemic (not an exaggeration) of low back pain in industrialized nations. A career in a chair, like long distance running, is an exercise in seeing how much your body can put up with: not everybody can do it, and nobody can do it forever. Not without consequences.

Sitting in a chair all day is like long distance running: not everybody can do it, and nobody can do it forever.

Microbreaking is something you simply cannot afford not to learn, not if you expect to survive years of sitting. Every chair warrior needs several survival strategies, but this is the most important, the most inescapable of them.

And yet … it’s kind of tricky.

Teaching old dogs new tricks

Almost everyone has trouble remembering to get up every twenty minutes. I’ve had engineers tell me flat out, “Forget it. I’m not doing it. I can’t do it. If it breaks me, fine, I’ll stop when I break.” That is their prerogative, of course, and yours — I look forward to many years of regular business from such customers!

But most people, I hope, will choose not to run themselves into the ground, and accept that sitting in a chair comes with a price: a certain inevitable chronicity of stiffness and pain, and, to keep it in check, a microbreaking habit as regular as brushing your teeth. The question is not if but simply how. Here are some of the best strategies I’ve seen my clients use for building and sustaining a microbreaking habit:

There are countless more solutions, one for every individual. Good luck … and happy microbreaking!

About Paul Ingraham

I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and assistant editor of Science-Based Medicine. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook and Google, but mostly Twitter.

Further Reading