Tips to Maintain Your Body While Writing
We evolved on the plains of Africa. Our DNA was formed on the savannah by persistence hunters who were able to run down gazelle.
There is nothing in that DNA that rewards long periods of sitting in front of a glowing screen while moving only our fingers… usually hunched over as far as we can get while consuming caffeinated beverages.
Society, however, has decided to reward exactly these activities. If you are a writer then you probably spend more of your time in front of a computer than most people and a lot of that time is perhaps solitary time (it’s not just me right?).
Now, I’m not exactly a new writer, but I haven’t been doing it full time for all that long. However I spent twenty-some years as a programmer first, so the activities are very similar. It’s all sitting at a computer typing things that come out of your brain all day long.
I have various health problems that have come up as a result of this lifestyle/career combo. I know that almost anyone who has a similar job has similar issues. Mine include a neck that hunches forward, shoulders that slope forward, ongoing shoulder and back pain, hand pain, vision that is going faster than it should.
What I am going to address in this post is more about the neck and shoulder pain, but also the lack of flexibility that seems to be an inevitable consequence of working on a computer.
The first thing is that as we spend more and more time on a computer, we start to stiffen up. Our limbs evolved for use, full use. When we stop moving our body decides that we are resting, so it lessens the amount of blood flow to the limbs, conserves energy. That makes our muscles stiffen up quite quickly.
How long does it take before that happens?
About twenty minutes.
The first solution to the loss of flexibility is to move around every twenty minutes. I use twenty-five minutes because that lets me use a Pomodoro timer (I use mytomatoes.com). It seems to work well, especially for maintaining flow while helping me not to get caught up in that cycle of physical degradation as severely as I used to. The Pomodoro technique involves taking a five-minute break every twenty-five minutes, so each sequence is thirty minutes, although you can also take some longer breaks and you absolutely should.
Those breaks are good, they help you to maintain focus, energy, and they help your body.
What you do on those breaks matters though. You should stand up; you should move, you should stretch, maybe bounce. I often dance (did I mention that I spend a lot of time alone?). Do something that gets your blood flowing. Stretch in the process.
There are two basic categories of stretching, active and static. I find that dynamic stretching works a lot better in the five-minute breaks. Rotate your arms around like a windmill, do hugs (stretch your arms out wide and then swing them in so that you are hugging yourself, keep doing that a lot). The important part isn’t the exact motion. It’s stimulating blood flow.
The one thing you can’t do, absolutely out of the question, is sit and watch a youtube video. You have to stand up and leave the computer for five minutes.
Small confession, sometimes I use the five minutes to grab a snack or a washroom break… but I always do those things with gusto, making sure I get the most blood flow benefit out of them.
If you can get your heart rate elevated a little bit that’s even better.
I have a Fitbit, and I have it remind me if I haven’t walked two hundred and fifty steps every hour I’m working. I find that if I’m getting up and walking during my five-minute breaks that never happens. I hit my hourly goal every single hour that I get up and move when I have a five-minute break.
Posture matters a lot. If you are like me and have gone far down the road of your shoulders collapsing into your stomach, you might have a hard time with this one at first. You need to sit with your back straight, chest out; shoulders pulled pretty far back. I’m doing it as I type and it hurts a bit. The more you maintain this posture, the easier it will get, but don’t overdo it in the early stages, because it will cause you a fair bit of pain (again, if you have let yourself get as bad as I did).
Then there’s your arm position. Your elbows should be at around ninety degrees, and your upper arms should be close by your side, lying against your torso. Your mouse should be close to your keyboard, so you don’t have to move very much to get hold of it.
That means your table has to be pretty low or your chair has to be pretty high. You need to manage to have your keyboard somewhere around belly button level.
If you have the option of having a desk that converts between standing and sitting that is ideal, switch it from time to time during the day. Standing for a long time isn’t better than sitting for a long time, but switching often is excellent!
An important thing to remember is that you need to keep changing positions throughout the day. This isn’t just because people who move throughout the day live longer, they also live healthier lives with less pain in their back/limbs (on average of course).
I also do some static stretches to help my limbs overall. I don’t usually do those over my five-minute breaks, but either at the beginning of my day or the end. I touch my toes; I pull my wrist around, so my hand is close to backwards, I pull one hand down my back with the other hand. These are all beneficial stretches to do daily, but they don’t substitute getting the blood flowing. Nothing else will ever be as useful.
Another thing that I have found helpful is ballistic stretches in the morning. I base my stretches on the Stretching Scientifically by Thomas Kurz (he specializes in martial arts stretches and terrible eighties shorts). There is a fair bit to it, but it involves swinging your leg up while keeping it straight and trying to touch your hand. The thing is, it should be done entirely with muscle and leading your leg, not letting it swing or use momentum.
Move Even More
Getting outside and moving is also very important. I don’t mean the five-minute breaks now. I mean taking real walks. Get out in nature if possible, go for a walk in the woods if you have a chance. It is often an excellent idea to do that in the middle of your day, take an hour and go outside. Walk, see the world. Not only will it keep your limbs flexible, but it will also refresh your mind.
All of these tips are to help you have a much longer career as a writer. We tend to ignore our bodies, but if we do that we also find that we are less healthy, less able to continue our chosen careers.
Take care of your body — you only get one.