The Writer's Body: Keep It Moving to Avoid Back Pain, Weight Gain, and Brain Drain

Last Updated on March 23, 2022

Health tips for writersYou probably have heard that sitting is the new smoking. The list of hazards is long—from obesity to a heightened risk of cancer and diabetes. According to James Levine, MD, PhD—author of Get Up! Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do about It—we lose two hours of our life for every hour we sit. Doesn't sound good for those of us who make a living hunched in front of our computers all day.

So, what are we supposed to do, write standing up? Well, yes, according to some, that's exactly what we should do. Thus the invention of the standing desk. But others say sitting itself is not the problem; it's the sedentariness that's killing us. When we sit down at our desk, we slump into a vaguely fetal position and stay there for hours on end. Standing will only help if you don't stay frozen on your feet in roughly the same position throughout the day.

Dr. Levine tops the idea of standing at your computer with his invention of a desk you can walk at. So far I haven't met anyone who's using Levine's treadmill desk, but it sounds challenging to me. (I fell once on a treadmill simply from turning to look across the room; I don't know if I could type and walk at the same time.)

I'm a fan of keeping my exercise separate from my work time. However, some say even exercise won't counter a 6–8 hour stretch of sitting. Zack Arnold, who works in another field where sitting is central, says you've just got to learn to move around throughout the day. His fifteen years as a film and TV editor have made him an expert on the detriments of a sedentary lifestyle. He and others suggest you move your body during your workday—change positions, stretch, take a walk—you know, act like an organism that was built to move. My chiropractor goes so far as to advise me to get up and walk around every twenty minutes.

“What?” And keep my train of thought with an alarm interrupting me three times an hour?

Dr. Levine seems to agree with Arnold and my chiropractor about fitting movement into our day, throughout the day—that is, breaking up our sitting or standing with some walking or other simple movement every hour or so. (One interruption an hour I can handle.) He talks more about “escaping the chair” in his video titled Sitting Disease.

Obesity and systemic illness aside, sitting, or slumping, is hazardous for other reasons. Our musculoskeletal system was not designed to be positioned in a permanent sit. We also weren't intended to have our arms held forever in front of us, neck craned forward. Think about the shape that makes. A sort of C curve, the body in full flexion, like a fetus in the womb. That's how we start out, and the beautiful expansion into extension is visible in a toddler with tummy sticking out, shoulders back, meeting the day with a wide open chest (and wide open heart). Pre-technology, it took a full lifetime for the body to regress into a state of flexion—that curved forward C as the posture folds in on itself. Now with computers, tablets, and smart phones, we're getting a jump on this process by our teen years. (You ever seen a 15-year-old waiting on a bus bench, dialed into his phone? My neck hurts just to look at that.)

What to do? Start off by making sure you create the most ergonomic setup possible for those hours that you are at your desk. And remember those breaks you're going to take from your computer? Spend some of that time in a toddler's posture. Indulge your body in a comfortable extension, chest open, shoulders down and slightly back, arms relaxed. Even better, take a yoga class in the middle of your workday or do some of the exercises on the Foundation Training website. Dr. Eric Goodman designed this training to counter the effects of technology on our bodies. (You do, of course, have to be wise about what your body needs; you know your body best.)

Another benefit of taking exercise breaks from your computer is that movement increases breath and circulation. Breath and circulation in turn increase mental clarity and focus. The brain is, after all, connected to the body (with all its oxygen-carrying blood flow). Have you ever hit a roadblock in your writing and then come up with the solution when you're taking a walk? That's the body helping your brain solve the problem it's puzzling over.

If you want some tech assistance to help undo the damage technology has caused, you can always try wearing an exercise tracker, such as fitbit, and set the hourly reminders to get up and move. Bottom line is this: As you delve deeply into the world you're creating on your computer screen, don't forget you have a body. Taking care of it will give you that many more years at your craft.

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