Workrave: helping computer users prevent Repetitive Strain Injury

If you spend a lot of time typing away on your computer - and who doesn't these days - it's important to keep in mind the need to protect your body from the strain and possible damage caused by prolonged sitting, poor posture and repetitive movements.

As the UK's National Health System points out, "spending a lot of time using a computer, keyboard and mouse is a common cause of RSI [repetitive strain injury]". According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, RSI covers "a broad range of conditions affecting muscles, tendons, tendon sheaths, nerves, or joints that result particularly from excessive and forceful use", such as "tendonitis, neuritis, fascitis, myositis, carpal tunnel syndrome, thoracic outlet syndrome, cubital tunnel syndrome, degenerative arthritis, tendinosis, fibromyalgia, herniated disk, focal hand dystonia, and neuropathic pain".

Whew, quite a list!

One way you can help reduce the risk of RSI is by taking regular breaks while using the computer. Of course, this is easier said than done. We all know the feeling of being so engaged in work or entertainment (usually the latter, let's face it) that we forget to even tear our eyes away from the screen, let alone our entire body.

That's where Workrave comes in.

What is it and how does it work?

Workrave is a handy piece of software that is completely free to download and use and promises to assist "in the recovery and prevention of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)", by frequently alerting you "to take time away from your computer". It does so by setting off reminders every so often, telling you that it's time to take a breather and even showing some simple animation tutorials with stretching and relaxation exercises you can do right by your desk.


Once Workrave is up and running you'll see a 
timer (which you can hide) and an icon on your
toolbar. Right-click the icon to access the
settings menu

There are three things Workrave will alert you to: micro breaks (short and frequent), rest breaks (longer and more spaced) and daily limit (prompt to stop using the computer once you've reached your allotted number of hours for the day). The timing and duration of these breaks comes pre-configured but you can modify the settings to fit your needs.

Personally, I found the default settings for the micro breaks way too intense: a thirty second break every three minutes won't do if you're actually trying to get some work done. You do get the option to postpone the reminder, but that didn't really work for me either. So I ended up disabling the micro breaks (which is another option you get with this program) and tweaking the rest break and daily limit settings.


Full customization is possible through the 
Preferences window

You can also decide for yourself whether you get to just ignore the reminders or if Workrave actually has permission to override what you're doing and force you to stop working (hey, desperate times call for desperate measures).

A cool feature of the program is that it collects statistics on your daily, weekly and monthly computer usage. These include information on mouse and keyboard use (number of keystrokes, number of mouse clicks, mouse movement) and on the number of breaks taken and skipped. It's easy to see how this feature can really help you be more mindful of the time you spend at the computer and the need to do adjustments in that regard.

You can keep tabs on your computer usage through the Statistics window. I've recently deleted all my statistics, so nothing really to see here

If you're going to spend a lot of time reading on your computer (or watching a video), you can activate "Reading mode", so that the lack of use of the mouse and keyboard won't be counted as rest time. In this mode, however, all the time the computer is on will be counted as work time. That includes any time you are effectively away from the computer. So you do have to remember to deactivate this mode once you're done with the bulk of the reading, video watching or any other form of passive use of the computer.

Does it really help? And do I like it?

I will say that, like anything else, Workrave will only work to the extent that you let it. You need to commit to accepting its help and actually taking the breaks you're supposed to when you're supposed to, as well as doing some kind of exercise (either the ones the app suggests or others you create yourself). If, like me, you decide to get annoyed by the reminders and slip into that habit of closing Workrave, then there's obviously no helping you. But then that's on the user and not on the software.

Overall, I find it an impressive little gem, and a thoughtfully created one too, in that it really does allow you a lot of flexibility to adjust it to your specific needs and schedule. I do believe it can make a difference in terms of your well-being if you stick with the program. In addition, and though I'm no expert, it does seem to be quite light on its use of space and computer resources. In any case, the fact that it's entirely free makes the decision to try it out for yourself incredible easy!

Workrave is currently available for Windows and GNU/Linux. For the most tech savvy among you, the source code is also available. You can download the software here and find all the supporting documentation here.

Hope you enjoy it!

#reviews #health #softwareproducts #workrave    

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