“Sitting is the new smoking”— Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic.
The writer’s job is to plunk our butts in chairs and produce words day in, day out. As a result, posture suffers, eyes blur, brains fog, carpals cramp, and rear ends keep getting wider. In extreme cases, Butt-in-Chair Syndrome leads to the dreaded Dead Butt Syndrome (you can’t make this stuff up!).
Here’s a countdown of five easy tips to counteract the occupational hazards of our profession:
Sitting hunched over a computer leads to shallow breathing. The lungs need to fully expand to allow oxygen to fill the alveoli (little air sacs) and move into the bloodstream. The shallower the breathing, the less oxygen flows through the blood to the brain. The less oxygen, the harder for the brain to solve problems in stories.
According to yoga practitioners, deep exhalation is even more vital than inhalation, because exhalation flushes carbon dioxide out of the body.
If you don’t exhale fully, it’s like sticking a banana in the tailpipe of a car. Fresh air can’t get in, gases build up, and pretty soon the engine stalls and quits.
New ideas, brilliant plot twists, and compelling characters require a fresh intake of oxygen and a full expulsion of carbon dioxide.
Effective breathing is easy:
Sit straight with your butt tucked against the chair back. Lift your chest, arch your spine and pull your shoulder blades together, then allow shoulders to drop. Contract abdominal muscles to press your belly button toward your spine. Place a hand on your belly and inhale for a slow ten-count. Feel your abdomen expand as you draw air in. Hold for a slow ten-count. Then exhale slowly until you completely empty the lungs. Repeat several times an hour. You may feel tingling in the scalp.
Your mom always told you to sit up straight. Turns out she was right. According to I.A. Kapandji, MD: “For every inch of Forward Head Posture, it can increase the weight of the head on the spine by an additional 10 pounds.” In other words, if a normal 12 pound head leans three inches closer to the computer screen, it now feels more like 42 pounds. Yikes!
Over time, that additional pressure can lead to neck and spine problems that may become permanent.
It’s always better to prevent problems than try to reverse them.
To counteract the tendency to slump forward, sit with your rear end tucked firmly against the chair back. Lift your chest, arch your spine and pull your shoulder blades together.
Hmmm, isn’t this the same position for deep breathing? You can take care of two exercises at once—talk about efficient. Your mom would be proud.
- Hand and wrist stretches
Caution: Stretching should NEVER be painful; if you feel discomfort, STOP!
Many writers suffer from numbness, tingling, and pain in wrists and hands from carpal tunnel syndrome which occurs when the median nerve to the hand is compressed in the wrist. Treatment options range from NSAIDs (hard on the stomach, liver, and kidneys) to splints/braces (uncomfortable and awkward to type while wearing) to steroid injections (ouch!) to surgery (been there, done that, not fun).
Simple stretches can help alleviate symptoms. Extend your arm in front of you, palm up. Bending your wrist, use your other hand to gently pull the fingers of your extended hand toward you until you feel a mild to moderate stretch in your wrist. Hold for 15-30 seconds. Repeat with the opposite hand.
For more stretches, visit this link.
Do you have 20/20/20 vision? No, that’s not a typo, but rather an exercise suggested by eye doctors to counteract eyestrain and blurry vision from too much screen time.
Every 20 minutes, look away from your screen to an object at least 20 feet away and focus on it for at least 20 seconds.
For more eye exercises, check out: http://www.allaboutvision.com/cvs/irritated.htm
And finally, my favorite exercise…
- Go for a walk
When you take your dog for a walk, she knows what she’s supposed to do. The writer’s brain can be trained and reinforced with praise the same way you train your pooch. As you move muscles and increase blood flow, your brain expels waste.
I confess during walks I’ve left many hot, steaming piles along the pathway. The best part is, unlike the dog, I don’t need a baggie to pick them up!
Once waste thoughts are cleared out, there’s room for new ideas and solutions to bubble up from the subconscious (Check out Jim Bell’s classic post about “the boys in the basement”).
Start training your brain with a small problem: let’s say you’re seeking a particular word that’s eluding you, despite searching the thesaurus. Go for a short walk and let the brain relax. After a few minutes of exercise and fresh air, the elusive word often pops up from the subconscious.
Give yourself a pat on the head and praise, “Good brain!”
A Milk Bone is optional, your choice.
Pretty soon, the subconscious learns that when you take a walk, it’s expected to perform, just like Fifi. While it sniffs the bushes and chases a squirrel, it’s also learning to deliver fresh ideas and solutions. The more you positively reinforce the subconscious for its results, the better and more frequently it comes up with solutions.
Walking works for me 100% of the time because my brain is conditioned. If I’m stumped about what a character should do next, or if the plot gets lost down a rabbit hole, I take a spin around the neighborhood. Before long, the uncertain character now knows her next move; or the rabbit hole has led to an unexpected escape route. I can’t wait to rush back to the keyboard eager to implement the solutions my subconscious offered up.
Wishing you good health and good writing in the New Year!
TKZers, do you have a favorite exercise that helps your writing?
Debbie Burke is often found aimlessly wandering the streets, claiming she’s at work. Her thriller Instrument of the Devil is on sale at Amazon for 99 cents during January.
Thanks for the reminders. Getting up and away from the computer every 500 words or so helps a lot. If I’m in a “what comes next?” phase, walking around the house is as effective as staring at the screen (if only all roads didn’t lead to the kitchen!). And our dog is always good about reminding me about your #1 tip.
Terry, I swear dogs can tell time. They’re better than an alarm clock. Our last one knew to the minute when I should take him for a walk and woe to me if I tried to postpone it. He was great for my discipline.
Good stuff, Debbie. In New England, snow, ice, and frigid temps make it nearly impossible to “take a spin around the neighborhood.” Hence, why I love the warm weather. Come spring, I can’t wait to start walking again. Nothing clears the mind like a walk through the woods. It also stirs creativity. We do have a home gym, where “the beast” (elliptical bike) sits, mocking and judging me. Most days, he and I do not get along, but he is a necessary evil.
Same conditions in Montana, Sue. Thank goodness for yaktrax and the indoor track at the gym. Our Schwinn Airedyne lives in the garage, with garden hoses hanging from the handlebars.
Good tips all, Debbie. Some things I’ve done that helped. I was starting to feel strain in my right wrist, and figured out it had to do with handling the mouse. So I switched to a trackball mouse and the problem went away.
Since my laptop is also my main computer, I noticed pain in my neck and shoulders. A writer friend suggested i get a stand to elevate the laptop closer to eye level. I did, and those problems went away.
Finally, I’m more aware of blue light in the evening hours (so I don’t freak out my melatonin). Since I use reading glasses, I got some that are yellow-tinted to block it out. I know systems now have blue-light filters, but this seems like an added safeguard.
I love my orange-tinted reading glasses, but they’re falling apart. Can you recommend a good place to find a replacement online? It seems most places only sell the blue-light filtered ones nowadays.
I got mine at an impulse buy “As seen on TV” display at Fry’s. Right next to a microwave baked potato blanket. Ha!
I’ve heard of yellow-tint glasses but never tried them. You’ve inspired me to look for some. Thanks for more good tips, Jim. Little changes can yield big results.
I switch my mouse back and forth between left and right hand (remembering to reset the mouse control most of the time). I’m a leftie but always used the mouse on the right for the first fifteen or so years of the mouse era. Might be a bit harder for natural righties to switch to using the mouse on the left hand. I also use the track pad a lot. And do a lot of hand and wrist flexing and stretching.
Eric, I envy your ambidexterity. When my right hand was in a cast, I was utterly helpless. Sounds like your switch-hitting will ward off problems.
This is important. If for nothing else than to keep your ass from turning into aspic.
I’ve put on a few extra pounds lately and I know it’s because I sit too long every day. Plus the brain works better if you take it outside for some fresh air.
As they say, stop and take your dog for a walk, even if you don’t have one.
Aspic *snort*. That’s where the jiggle comes from. Thanks for the smile, Kris.
I’m still laughing over aspic jiggle. If that doesn’t motivate me to walk, I don’t know what will,
Thanks for the timely post, Debbie.
Jordan, haven’t your dogs got you trained yet? 🙂
This is a brilliant post, Debbie! Especially like the 20/20/20 exercise and the wrist stretch. Though it took me like a whole minute to figure out what my hands were supposed to be doing, lol.
I like to get out and walk, too. It helps that I have a couple of dogs who like nothing better than to trot down to the pond to see what’s up.
I was using a bungee office chair for a while and it caused me all kinds of problems. Using a firm chair with something called a Miracle Bamboo cushion (as seen on tv!) has helped a lot.
Thanks, Laura. A friend of mine sits on a balance ball at her desk and swears by that. I tried it but it didn’t convert me, although bouncing up and down while thinking was kind of fun.
Anyone ever try a convertible sitting/standing desk? Intriguing idea but too pricey for me.
I found a cheap alternative to the actual standing desk. My husband found some adjustable laptop lap desks on Amazon. They are made of wood with adjustable, non-slip legs. The tops adjust to different angles with stops for the laptop and a cushioned rest for your mouse wrist.
They are very comfortable to use in an chair, or on a desk, angling the laptop higher or closer to prevent that back hump. However the other bonus: because the legs have so many height adjustments, I discovered I can set the portable desk on my kitchen bar and stand to type. It also adjusts high enough with the right angle I can set my portable stair stepper (basically foot pedals on a frame) in front of the bar and can stair step while I type. We paid $39.00 a piece. Cheap solution to the TB syndrome. 😀
Thanks for the lead, Cecilia. I’ll look into it.
Sitting-standing desk alternative
Three weeks ago I visited Ikea with a friend and looked at their desks, and since I’ve spent hours online comparing other retail units. All spendy.
Three days ago I cornered an employee at my local True Value Hardware store and he helped me price out materials to construct a sitting-standing desk. We came up with a $200-range idea, which requires carpentry skills/tools I don’t have and quite a bit of time investment — even for someone who owns (and can skillfully operate) a table saw and other tools. The hardware store guy recommended I try thrift shops and imagination, or shell out for a retail setup.
Less than an hour later that day, a few blocks up the street from the True Value, I paid $10 for a 56” x 30” wood desk. A retired carpenter, also shopping in the thrift store, looked it over and told me it was ‘60’s era, and pointed out the quality features that made it a medium-priced retail object in its day. It stands in my office-room right now, sturdy and wobble free.
A few months ago I bought an iMac mini, a bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and a 24” monitor, to set up a home office. After I placed all this on my new old desk, I realized I would prefer this large monitor a bit further away than even the big desk I bought permits, and that I’d prefer some sort of off-desk platform for the monitor.
The desk I bought has a pencil drawer on the right side, and a stack of three drawers on the left attach and slide on half inch brackets completely out and free from the desktop. I have a pinched nerve shoulder issue on my non-mouse side and use a reclining office chair (hence the bluetooth keyboard/mouse) which, for whatever reason nearly, eliminates the nerve ache that builds up as I sit in an upright chair.
The 3 drawer units suspended below the desktop are in the way of my chair in the reclined position, even with this nearly five foot desk, so I slid them out and wondered where I could put them. The desk drawers are designed to support each other internally, and operate without need of an external frame, so the unit placed on any surface is still functional. Maybe they could be included in some kind of monitor support furniture tower?
The next day I drove to a couple of different thrift stores in a nearby larger town. I found twin twenty-inch high, two feet square sturdy wooden end tables ($4 apiece) and a 5’x3’ wooden bookcase ($8), another office accoutrement I’ve been shopping for.
Stacked on a single end table, the drawer/table reach slightly above the desktop surface. The monitor on its stand, placed on this stack across my desk from where I sit, is at a height that requires no neck slouch but is not an upward neck strain, either. It seems to be about perfect, in fact. For standing, I add the additional end table to the stack. Right now I use a book to get the two inches more I need for optimum standing desk height, and place books under the keyboard and mouse to raise them appropriately.
I may spiff this arrangement up a little, for another $10 or so, to put something other than books under the monitor/keyboard/mouse — but this is a little home office, so maybe not. I’ve got $31 (with tax) and three hours invested so far (along with maybe another $2.50 gas), and for that I came up with three times the desk surface space of any retail standing-sitting setup I’ve found online, and a more desirable monitor location to boot. I’m feeling pretty satisfied right now.
Richard, I admire your initiative, imagination, and thriftiness. You’ve found a great way to recycle items that are perfectly functional even though computers were barely imagined back when the desk was built. Nice work.
As I discovered over the summer, butt-in-chair can also lead to the dreaded clot-in-leg. Which can then lead to clot-in-lung.
In my case anyway.
So taking a break for a quick stroll is a must, as are my oh-so-pretty compression socks. Luckily I found a company that specializes in quirky–if not absurd–colors and patterns for their compression socks. I’d rather look more like a deranged Rainbow Bright than an old woman, thank you very much.
The thing I’m having the hardest time with is having to stop when I’m on a roll. Maybe mentally reframing it as a chance to clear the mind will help, but I’m not digging it so far. Mojo-us Interruptus is not something I easily recover from.
Socks and walks. That’s what I’m hoping will avoid butt-in-chair from advancing to ass-in-hospital. Or worse, ashes-on-mantle.
Who knew writing could be so dangerous?
Wow, Michelle, your story drives home the importance of exercise far better than statistics and advice ever could! Glad you solved the problem before you wound up ashes-on-mantle. Thanks for chiming in!