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The IOBA Standard is the journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association and covers the book world, with a special focus on the online used, out-of-print, and collectible bookselling markets.


Rest Breaks, Exercises Prevent Computer Ailments

Online booksellers make great candidates for eyestrain, backaches, carpal tunnel syndrome and all manner of computer-related repetitive stress injuries (RSI). We spend hours hunched over keyboards, eyes glued to monitors, turning those stacks of unentered books into cashable assets in our online inventories.

Between us, my wife and I offer a catalog of physical ills caused by years of working on computers: various RSI problems, neck pain, sore backs and vision problems. Liz underwent surgery twice for carpal tunnel syndrome and still has frequent wrist and hand pain. (Admittedly, not all of these aches and pains came from our book-related efforts; some came from earlier days when we actually made real money using computers. But latter years spent doing book entries, processing orders, working on book websites and the like haven’t helped.)

I have suffered from aggravated neck and back injuries. My vision has deteriorated, partially from 20 years of staring at a monitor, although admittedly age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and cataracts have been more damaging.

The sad truth is that if we knew 15 or 20 years ago what we know now, these problems need not have occurred. Or if they had, they would have been less severe. Even sadder is that prevention of many computer-related ailments is neither difficult nor especially time-consuming.

Frequent rest breaks are vital, says my chiropractor, Kurt W. Rice, who is also my son-in-law, God bless him. (He has helped me more times in recent years with neck and back problems than I care to remember!)

The breaks needn’t be lengthy. Dr. Kurt recommends that we get up from our chairs every half-hour or so, stretch our backs and walk for a minute or two, maybe jog in place. Other experts offer different opinions about frequency and duration of breaks but all agree that they are vital.

Sitting and working at a computer creates more tension and stress on muscles, nerves, tendons and joints than most of us realize. Our bodies fight gravity every minute that we’re seated. Breaks alleviate this tension and stress.

To prevent the dread carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), during your break let your hands go limp at the wrist and wiggle them vigorously in what some call “the clerk & typist exercise.” I’ve found that switching hands to use the mouse or trackball is a good way to prevent the onset of CTS. I’m right-handed so it seemed strange to move the mouse to the left side of my keyboard and use my left hand to manipulate it. It quickly became habitual, however, and now I’m ambidextrous on the computer – but nowhere else. I switch back and forth regularly.

Other critical points concerning CTS are wrist support and correct desk height for your keyboard. I suspect that more wrist damage has been and is done by ignoring these two areas. Wrist pads are a must! If your keyboard is at the very edge of your desk or keyboard drawer surface, leaving your wrists dangling in the air, you’re asking – no, begging! – for carpal tunnel problems.

The same is true if your monitor and keyboard are mounted on a standard-height desk (about 30 inches). Best height for a keyboard work surface is 25 to 26 inches, give or take a bit.

Some people use voice recognition programs to cut down on their need to use a keyboard and mouse. I find that difficult; after more than 50 years of banging away at typewriter and computer keys, dictation comes hard to me. Now that voice recognition software is improving and more reliable and faster computers make it more practical, however, I’ve resolved to use it more often for many tasks. A major benefit is that you can use a microphone or headset while standing or even lying down. I plan to try dictating drafts, then to rewrite and edit as necessary from the keyboard.

I suspect using voice recognition for entering books into a database might be a problem. If anyone out there has tried it, please let me know about your experiences at

Vision experts warn that we should take “eye breaks” even more frequently. Every 10 or 12 minutes, look away from the monitor at objects 10 to 12 feet away. When I’m working with a word processor or any other program that allows me to increase type size easily and temporarily, I do it. Working with 14- instead of 10-point type prevents squinting and straining to see my work. It also allows me to sit up straight, not bent over the keyboard, and you can always reduce point size before printing or sending e-mail.

I mentioned my neck and back injuries earlier. The neck problems began about 19 years ago. I was riding my bicycle when a large tree limb broke off and fell on me. (Fortunately I was wearing a good helmet or the freak accident might have killed me.) That caused some damage, which increased with age and was aggravated by working on computers and long-distance cycling. The pain got so bad I could not turn my head to either side more than 12 or 15 degrees. Dr. Kurt came to the rescue, with manipulation, ultra-sound and heat packs. He recommended several simple exercises, which I try to do regularly.

My back injuries were computer-related. The first came when I installed a second drive in one of our machines. I crawled under a desk to get at the computer case. After removing all the cables, I tried to lift the box and slide it out to where I could work on it. Trouble was, I was lying with my body twisted awkwardly and didn’t bother to shift to a position that would give me more leverage.

Bad move! I felt something pop and was in instant agony. It took several weeks of Dr. Kurt’s ministrations to recover from that one. I injured the back again in October 1999 after one of the desktop publishing/word processing classes I taught then. I took a computer and 17-inch monitor out of a car trunk with a high lip that made it impossible to lift them properly. I had to bend and lift with my back—and pop, there it went again! This time, recovery took even longer.

I mention these details to make a point. The first instance was pure accident. No way could I foresee that a brittle, rotted pepper tree branch would break off and fall just as I pedaled under it. The second injury occurred because I didn’t take time to position myself properly. The third case was avoidable too; I should never have tried to lift heavy objects out of that particular car truck. Trouble is, I forget my hard-used back is more vulnerable now than it was even 20 ago, and I think many of us who have reached senior citizen status do the same.

I just caught myself in a no-no a few minutes ago. I wanted a book from a built-in shelf high and to the right of my home office workstation. I started to reach up, twisting my back at an awkward angle. Various muscles prepared to scream in protest, so I did what I should have done in the first place. I moved my chair out of the way, got a step stool I keep folded behind the door, set it firmly in place and climbed up to find the desired book. It took a few extra minutes, but it kept me from aggravating my previously- injured back.

The book, by the way was Zap! How your computer can hurt you—and what you can do about it. Written by Don Sellers (edited by Stephen E. Roth), it was published by Peachpit Press in 1994. It’s now out of print but you can find copies online. And Peachpit has a condensed version, 25 Steps to Safe Computing, also by Sellers, that may still be available for $5.95.

Either would be a good addition to your library. Check them out.

Meanwhile give yourself, and your body, a break…at least once every half-hour!

Copyright 2003 by Ken Fermoyle, .




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