Desk Doctor is in

For some people, working at the computer all day can be a painful experience — literally. While doctors still don’t agree on what causes this type of pain or how best to treat it, most do recommend taking frequent breaks — stepping away from your computer for a couple of minutes or performing stretches — as part of developing healthy computing habits. But putting that advice into practice can be difficult; it’s far too easy to get caught up in what you’re doing, and before you know it, hours have passed. Einspine’s Desk Doctor 1.3.1 offers to help by keeping you mindful of your work habits and creating an exercise plan customized to your needs.

Your first step in setting up Desk Doctor is to complete an assessment of your physical health — a process that takes between 25 and 35 minutes. After agreeing to a disclaimer, you’re asked to use an on-screen model to identify the parts of your upper back, arms, and hands where you feel pain (the program doesn’t show the mid to lower back or legs). For each area you highlight, you answer four questions about symptoms, such as how long you’ve felt pain there and whether that pain is recurring. You then perform 15 stretches to gauge your level of discomfort and the location of any pain. All in all, the process is relatively straightforward, though categorizing and describing pain can sometimes be difficult — for example, the difference between an ache and a dull pain is not clear. The process also involves a lot of mouse clicks, which can be discouraging if using your mouse is one of the things that causes you discomfort.

When you’ve completed your assessment, the program presents a summary of your results, which you can save for your records if you want (otherwise, the program deletes it to preserve confidentiality). It also creates your profile, a list of recommended exercises based on your answers. My initial profile, for example, included 63 exercises, labelled as either preventative or rehabilitative, with each rated according to how often they should be done. Subsequent assessments produced only 30 exercises.

As you work, Desk Doctor keeps a small window, called the Health Monitor, on your screen. Here you’ll find your Health Score, a numerical gauge of how much you’re working as opposed to resting or exercising. To come up with this score, the program monitors your keyboard and mousing activities. Periods of intensive work will lower your health score. Taking rests and performing the recommended exercises will raise it (each exercise bumps up your score by 30 points). The program recommends keeping your score at 100.

When your score drops, you can open the Exercise Viewer and play a video of your next exercise, which is performed by a woman and set against soothing, watery background scenes. The production quality is good, and the instructions are easy to follow. However, if you get lost and need to restart the exercise, you must do so before the video reaches its end. Once it moves to the next exercise, you can’t move backwards. Also, you must play the exercise video all the way through to move forward. Although you can turn off exercises in the Profile Viewer, you can’t skip exercises on a case-by-case basis. There’s also no easy way to add new exercises to your routine if you crave more variety.

Desk Doctor’s effectiveness depends on the idea that you’ll constantly monitor your Health Score and then proactively perform exercises when needed. But if you tend to get caught up in what you’re doing or work with a lot of windows open at once, you may find the program’s tactics a bit too subtle.

The program’s preference pane lets you decide how Desk Doctor interacts with the other windows on your screen. You can choose to keep the Health Monitor on top of all open windows (which means that it may get in your way), or behind open windows (which means that you won’t be able to see your score). I would have preferred an option to place my score in the OS X menu bar, so that it would be visible, but unobtrusive.

If you choose to keep the Health Monitor behind open windows, you can opt to have it rise to the top — or out of the Dock, if you’ve minimized it — when your Health Score reaches certain markers. You can also set the Health Monitor to gradually change colour from white to deep red as your Health Score decreases, providing an additional cue — though this won’t help you if you can’t see the window. But even with these visual cues, I found the Health Monitor’s small window easy to overlook. I would often glance over and be surprised to find my Health Score hovering in the 40s.

Desk Doctor can also provide audio cues when your health score gets low, which is a good option for people who work at home or in an environment where they don’t have to worry about annoying others. But at many workplaces, having audio alerts turned on is a serious breach of etiquette.

Buying advice
Desk Doctor 1.3.1 shouldn’t be a substitute for medical treatment, especially if you’re experiencing pain. However, if your doctor recommends that you take regular breaks and perform stretches at work, Desk Doctor offers an interesting mix of exercises, nice production values, and useful feedback about your risk level. Its assessment system tries to ensure that you’re targeting the areas of your upper back and arms that are most in need. However, if you’re the type of person who gets caught up in your work, you may find Desk Doctor’s warnings a bit too subtle to be effective — especially if keeping your Mac’s sound turned on isn’t an option. And at US$129, it’s significantly more expensive than its competitors, like MacBreakZ.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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