I write a lot and I often suffer from a range of body related problems as a result. After writing my thesis I got carpal tunnel trouble, and right now I have book writing back. However I have help at hand. My partner, Randy Barber, is an experienced complementary therapist – he used to work on Australian Rules footballers when we lived in Adelaide so he’s seen and literally had his hands on the results of extreme sporting activity at the top level. Now in the UK he sees a lot of people who have chronic computer related injuries, one consequence of sitting for hours at the keyboard. He has some advice about prevention and I’m going to post this in four instalments. I know that this first tip might seem like the bleeding obvious, but it is the one I find the hardest to do!!
If you spend a large amount of your work time on a computer, then chances are you are doing yourself some harm. Maybe you haven’t got any obvious physical symptoms like a sore back, tense neck and shoulders, or numbness and tingling in your hands but, at the very least, the time you spend at the computer most days is likely to be adding considerably to your stress levels. And studies show that this extra work-related stress can be surprisingly harmful in the long term.
If there was just one piece of advice I could offer to reduce the harmful effects of excessive computer work, it would be “take frequent breaks.” That’s all, just get up from your desk every hour or so and do something else for a while. Simple.
The reason taking breaks is important is that it’s really very hard on your body to sit in one position for any length of time. Just sitting involves a lot of muscular effort. Add to that holding your arms out in front of you to type or use a mouse and possibly also craning your head forward to peer to at a computer screen and you’ve got a dangerous cocktail of postures which strains muscles and joints in your back, neck and shoulders.
Unfortunately, the soft tissues you use to operate a computer do not usually send out clear and immediate signals that they’re under stress. Instead, they adapt and they cause other structures of the body to adapt as well so that you can just carry on doing what you are doing until damage is done. Only days, weeks or maybe even months later will you experience pain and loss of function.
Frequent breaks are the best way to break this cycle. If you tend to get absorbed in what you’re doing – and let’s face it, that’s very easy to do with writing – then it might help to set up some kind of alarm to remind you it’s time to stop for a while. There are various computer programs available for this or you could just get one of those cheap digital timers cooks use to keep track of their preparations. I think these are a better option than software because if you place the alarm somewhere where you have to get up to turn it off then you will actually stop using your computer. (Pat notes: this is another application of the pomodoro approach to academic writing – use it not simply to write, but also to take a break in-between ‘sets’.)
If your breaks are frequent they don’t need to be very long. Five or ten minutes every hour or so is fine. Time to make yourself a hot drink maybe, or catch up with a colleague or make a necessary phone call. Even better, you could use the break to do a few stretches.
But that’s something we are going to look at next time.