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Microbreaking

Lots of little breaks may compensate

updated (first published 2006)
by Paul Ingraham, Vancouver, Canadabio
I am a science writer and a former Registered Massage Therapist with a decade of experience treating tough pain cases. I was the Assistant Editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve written hundreds of articles and several books, and I’m known for readable but heavily referenced analysis, with a touch of sass. I am a runner and ultimate player. • more about memore about PainScience.com

“Microbreaking” is a survival strategy for chair-bound office workers. It’s based on the idea that sitting too much is Bad For You, and that a little movement sprinkled evenly throughout a day may be a partial antidote (as opposed to, say, an intense concentration of exercise in a morning workout, followed by several hours of growing roots into your chair).

Microbreaks are regular, small, biologically meaningful breaks from being stuck in one position at work. This dynamic ergonomics concept is an improvement on old-school ergonomic priorities based on ideal positioning. No chair or efficiently arranged computer workstation, no matter how comfortable, can protect you from the potential hazards of hours of sitting every day.

The only truly ergonomic workstation is one that you regularly push away from — and then actually do something genuinely stimulating, such as a quick stair climb, or some dynamic joint mobility drills.

The scientific case for microbreaking

Sedentariness and excessive sitting do not cause back pain, contrary to a popular assumption (which I made myself for many years). The science over the last 20 years has been quite clear about this,1 with only shreds of contrary evidence that would encourage us. If sitting isn’t the problem, taking breaks from sitting probably isn’t good prevention or treatment for back pain — and if not for back pain, then probably no other common musculoskeletal pain either.

However, the science is also clear that exercise and activity are the best overall medicine for back pain — indeed, exercise may even be the only way to treat back pain effectively.2 So while simply getting up out of your chair frequently might not matter much by itself, it might matter a lot more if you use the break to actually exercise.

Finally there’s the much trickier scientific question of the effect of lots of chair time on general health, which is an active controversy with some people declaring a crisis of sedentariness and others warning that “couch potato shaming” is irresponsible fear-mongering. I explore the controversy fully in another article, The Trouble with Chairs.

Fortunately, we don’t need a firm answer here, because it’s clear that lots of sitting is at least somewhat unhealthy, and the controversy is really just about how unhealthy it is. We can safely bet that regularly interrupting our chair time is worthwhile, even if we don’t know exactly how worthwhile.

I also suspect there are also some hard-to-measure psychological or even “spiritual” benefits to breaking up the day with little doses of activity — but that’s probably not something that’s ever going to be tested scientifically.

Is microbreaking enough?

We don’t know exactly how unhealthy sitting is, or why, so it’s impossible to know what the solution is. It’s possible that nothing can compensate for excessive sitting: it may be a losing battle. Or perhaps the only defense is three half hour workouts at the gym every dang day. The lots of little breaks is a rational shot in the dark: it’s a pragmatic compromise between what might work and what is reasonably achievable for the average person with a job that involves a lot of time in a chair.

If you are really serious about avoiding the possible health effects of working in chairs, then take the biggest break of all: quit your job and find another one that involves more exercise! And that’s not actually all that radical an idea. Lots of people can’t imagine sitting all day, and would never tolerate it.

But for those of us who are going to keep working in a chair…

You have to exercise on your microbreak: it’s not enough to just get up

Getting up and doing anything is probably better than nothing, but good microbreaks definitely involve more than a trip to the water cooler. A microbreak really means micro workout.

The first objection to a microbreaking prescription is “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 use the bathroom.3 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 be getting up to stretch — unaware that stretching is over-rated as a form of therapeutic exercise.4 It doesn’t cut it.

You have to do something stimulating with microbreaks. “Something therapeutic” means some kind of significant stimulation — the most perfectly opposite of whatever you are normally doing at work, within the bounds of what is practical to do for one or two minutes. Mobilizations are probably the most practical choice.

Mobilizations: massaging with movement on your microbreak

Mobilizations (AKA or dynamic mobility drills) are repeated, rhythmic movements. This is a lot 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.

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”). Yawning and stretching (pandiculation), 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 “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 8–50 repetitions

Contrasting mobilizations with stretching

Taking a break just 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 old-school “hold it for sixty seconds” static stretching is not an ideal solution for a sedentariness problem.

More, more, more! Many small breaks are better than a few large ones

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

For every thirty minutes of stagnation, you should have at least one minute of stimulation: the 30:1 rule. It’s not much a “rule” though, because there is no scientific basis for it; it’s just advice based on years of experimenting with the balance between sedentary productivity and physical activity.5

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 (standing desks) 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 hazards. The Cornell Human Factors and Ergonomics Research Group 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.

Uh oh, another “should”: the tedious burden of it all

“Don’t should on yourself,” a counselling mentor told me once. “And don’t should on other people.” The last thing anyone needs is another thing we “should” do. By far the worst thing about microbreaking, its greatest weakness as a therapeutic strategy, is that it’s in that exasperating category of “yet another thing I’m supposed to remember to do for my own good.” We have too many of these already, and I try to inflict such advice on people as little as possible.

But in this case it’s unavoidable. It’s a high priority should.

As explained in other articles more thoroughly, sitting a lot is corrosive to our health in many ways. In particular, it may also make us more vulnerable to chronic pain, and likely back pain in particular — there’s an epidemic of back pain in industrialized nations, and it’s sitting could be the reason why.

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 get through years of sitting unscathed. 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: strategies for remembering to take a microbreak

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 — as a massage therapist, I got many years of regular business from people that attitude!

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 and essential as flossing. 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

Headshot of Paul Ingraham, short hair, neat beard, suit jacket.

I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and I was the assistant editor at ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. 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 or Twitter.

Related Reading

What’s new in this article?

Major revision based on a much more clearly spelled out and evidence-based rationale for microbreaking that does not depend on sitting as a risk factor for back pain.

A variety of minor revisions, clarifications, and modernizations throughout the article.

Notes

  1. Chen SM, Liu MF, Cook J, Bass S, Lo SK. Sedentary lifestyle as a risk factor for low back pain: a systematic review. Int Arch Occup Environ Health. 2009 Jul;82(7):797–806. PubMed #19301029. BACK TO TEXT
  2. Back pain is notoriously difficult to treat, with virtually all popular treatment concepts producing mediocre results at best. See Machado et al. BACK TO TEXT
  3. Some people deliberately drink extra water as a way of forcing themselves to take breaks. (Often, this is mainly motivated by an unjustified fear of dehydration, unfortunately.) BACK TO TEXT
  4. Stretching doesn’t do what people assume: it doesn’t warm you up, prevent soreness or injury, enhance peformance, or physically change muscles. Flexibility’s value is dubious, and no other clear benefit has ever been discovered. Stretching might help some muscle pain, but that’s quite speculative. Stretching is inefficient and many key muscles are actually impossible to stretch. For more information, see Quite a Stretch: Stretching science shows that a stretching habit isn’t doing much of what people hope. BACK TO TEXT
  5. It’s not that 30:1 is biologically optimal — less could be sufficient, more might be necessary, no one knows — it’s just a rough compromise between doing as much as possible and how much interruption we can tolerate. BACK TO TEXT