The Perils of Sedentary Work

I’ve worked from home as a freelance writer and editor for a smidge over 2.5 years now, and I think the sedentary lifestyle is just starting to catch up with me in terms of my health. Now, it’s not like my previous library assistant job was particularly high-impact, but it at least meant a walk to the local train station, a walk on the other end from the London terminus to my building, daily activity in the form of shelving, errands on foot during my lunch break, and then the commute in reverse.

These days, with the exception of a weekly walk to the grocery store (0.6 mile away), a few strolls up the road to the playing field for some fresh air, and maybe biweekly vacuuming, I’m almost entirely inactive. I’ve never had any lively hobbies apart from walking/gentle hiking, which we only tend to do in earnest on holiday. I don’t have a bike, and I’ve never learned to drive in the UK; my husband takes the car to work most days anyway. Without the rhythms many people have of going out to work, chasing after kids, running errands, and so on, I’m pretty much confined to our flat and spend most of my time sitting down. Of course I could go on YouTube at any time to find aerobics and yoga videos, but do I? No way, José.

Desk setup #1
Desk setup #1

Just in the past couple weeks I’ve started noticing twinges in my fingers and thumbs and weakness in my forearm – worst with my right arm/hand, which I write with. It’s not really surprising given that I spend eight hours a day typing, mouse clicking, and hand-writing notes on review books, and that’s not even counting the writing I do on my own time. I belong to a Facebook forum for women writers, and hand trouble is certainly not unique to me. In one thread a few dozen ladies replied to chip in about hand pain and what to do about it. Their suggestions ran the gamut from ice packs and supplements to massages and acupuncture.

More generally, I’ve felt achy and lethargic. I never feel refreshed from sleep, and I end my low-energy days feeling mentally but also physically exhausted. Pangs in my lower back are almost certainly due to my posture at my two desk setups, but it was several years ago that I realized I no longer felt resilient to physical knocks. If I wrenched my neck too far to one side or tweaked my shoulder while reaching under the bed, I’d be feeling it for the whole rest of the day, if not longer. Last week it was my hips that ached. This week it’s the side of my left foot. Surely I shouldn’t feel quite so crumbly at the age of 32! Our mostly vegetarian diet is very good, so that’s not the issue – apart from a few vitamins I might be low on. What to do?

IMG_0083
Desk setup #2

winter worldA few books (it always comes back to books here) finally convinced me to do something about my health. You might be surprised to learn which ones. One is Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, a work of wildlife biology I featured in last week’s Books in Brief. In one chapter Heinrich marvels at how bears can hibernate for months without adverse physical effects, given that humans in extended bedrest studies suffer lost muscle mass and bone density, poor absorption of nutrients, and pre-diabetes levels of insulin resistance. “Our bodies are not adapted to inactivity,” he writes. “In our evolutionary history, in contrast to bears, exercise was a constant, and we’re not made to tolerate being idle for long.” A 25-year study of 17,000 Harvard graduates found “the stresses of inactivity mimic the aging response. Every hour of vigorous exercise as an adult was repaid with two hours of additional life span.” It’s no surprise that I’m feeling older than my age!

durable humanI’ve also recently stumbled across Jenifer Joy Madden’s books, The Durable Human Manifesto (2013) and How to Be a Durable Human (coming out later this month). Here are a few of the things she taught me or reinforced:

  • Computer work burns a quarter the calories of manual labor.
  • “Excessive sitting is a lethal activity,” according to James Levine of the Mayo Clinic.
  • A sedentary lifestyle increases the risks of DVT, cancer, and metabolic disease.
  • The USA has seen a resurgence in rickets from lack of Vitamin D from diet/sunshine.
  • Reading on a screen, one blinks 66% less often than when reading in print, leading to dry eyes.

So with these books to convict me, what have I chosen to do about my health?

  1. Since Saturday I’ve been taking a daily multivitamin with iron.
  2. I’m making more of an effort to drink a glass of milk a day.
  3. I bought a supportive wrist/finger glove to wear while typing and writing by hand.
  4. If that fails, I’ve bought a moldable ice pack.
  5. I’m looking into yoga classes in the area.
  6. Biggest change of all: we ordered a cross trainer and it arrived a couple hours ago. It’s on the low end of both price and functionality, but will meet my needs. As soon as my hubby can put it together – facing the window in the spare room – and we rig up an e-reader ledge, I plan on using it for half an hour every weekday. That’s time spent standing and exercising, but hopefully not lost ‘work’ time if I can read a review book on my Kindle at the same time.
IMG_0078
Seems to be helping a bit so far…

As someone who works with words, I live so much in my head that just to acknowledge that I have a body that occasionally needs care is big for me. I know the above are not huge steps, but they’re a start. With vigilance, I should be able to ward off osteoporosis, arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome, three conditions I’m probably more likely than average to develop later on in life.


For those of you who do desk- or computer-based work, how do you try to counter the perils of sedentary life?

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21 thoughts on “The Perils of Sedentary Work

  1. Oh honey, I bleed for you. I don’t want you to suffer. Extremely grateful you’ve been convicted, and have taken these steps. If I learn anything to help you, I’ll pass it on. Don’t give up! I love you! Marm

    Sent from my iPhone

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  2. I think this is a difficult one. The standard advice is always ‘find a physical activity you enjoy’, and then they go on to suggest netball, hockey, running and a dozen things I wouldn’t do if you paid me. I’m lucky in that I really enjoy walking, and so even in the days before I rather got a fitness bug, I’d happily walked a longish route to work rather than take the bus or car. The trip from kitchen to computer sadly is not that far. Just one thought. You may (like me) not want a dog, but do you have any friends who work outside the home who would appreciate your taking their pooch out for a bit of exercise during the day? If walking becomes a job and a commitment rather than something you could put off till tomorrow, might that help? I know other people’s suggestions are rarely welcome so don’t bother to find something polite to say if the suggestion appalls you!

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    1. It’s a great idea, Margaret, and thank you for commenting. I love dogs and would gladly have one if our rental properties had ever allowed it. We’re finally in a place that allows a cat, so we adopted one sort of as a second-best option (though we now love him dearly, of course). I have actually thought about starting a small local dog-walking business, but my trouble is that I’d be very limited in the range I could cover without a car/bicycle. Up to a couple hours of dog-walking a day would be fine, but having to walk between properties on different sides of town would be time-consuming and take away from editing and writing, which I would still want to consider my main work. I’ll give it some more thought!

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  3. Other thing: looks like you’re currently using a laptop, which means you’re tilting your neck down most of the day. Prop it up with a couple of chunky reference books–I work in an office but I do this (I use a shoebox covered in pretty wrapping paper, which is also an option!) and it made a massive difference to my crunchy vertebrae within a week.

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    1. I switch between the laptop and a desktop PC. The latter is probably at a more suitable height: I’m looking almost straight ahead. But with the laptop and for reading, I am probably looking down much of the time. Good idea! I’ll get out the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, etc. to prop up the laptop. I’m enjoying the thought of your gift-wrapped shoebox 🙂

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      1. I’ve propped the laptop itself up on two big books so it’s closer to head height. Then I’ve plugged in an external keyboard and mouse to use at desk level. (Stretching the definition of ‘laptop’ here, but that’s alright; it doesn’t tend to leave the desk setup anyway.)

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  4. Hi Rebecca. I was a lot like you when I was 31 and began a work-from-home career (indexing): I had never exercised regularly, was adamantly uninterested in athletics of any kind, and assumed I’d stay fit enough on my own (I was young!). But by two years of indexing I was itching to move more and get away from the desk every couple of hours. I began taking long, long walks alone, which turned into slow jogs, which turned into actual running many miles a day. I still run a lot (I’m 46), but even more of my daily activity is simply walking and listening to audiobooks – now almost a third of my reading is audio. This allows me to move and read at the same time.

    Another suggestion is simply to get up at least once every hour and move – even while you’re reading or writing. Set a timer if necessary. I had read all the reports of the dangers of sitting (“Sitting is the new smoking”!) and was worried that my desk time was still sabotaging my health despite the running/walking. So I was thrilled to read recent studies suggesting that a burst of activity just two minutes an hour has a significant effect on health. Here’s one link:
    http://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/20150430/2-minute-walk-every-hour-may-help-offset-effects-of-sitting

    Good luck. Great post.
    Holly

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    1. Hi Holly. Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. It’s great to hear that you were in a similar situation to mine but managed to break out of it. I have never listened to an audiobook, so that wouldn’t have occurred to me as a solution. I think I can download audiobooks for free from the public library, or sign up for an Audible account. It’s certainly something I should look into. Also reassuring to see that getting up occasionally can counteract all the sitting. Although I feel like I’m getting up all the time to go to the bathroom or fix cups of tea, if I’m involved in an editing project I’m probably likely to sit for well over an hour at a time. I’ll have to be more conscious about getting up every once in a while.

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  5. Here is a very low cost tactic. get a free app for your phone called Stand Up. it pings at regular intervals that you set (e.g. 45 mins) to tell you to stand up. when you do, do few stretches.

    If you can’t do that then buy a kitchen timer and set it to every 30 minutes.

    Another suggestion is to buy an ergonomic mouse – this is one where your wrist is in a position so that the front of your hand faces outwards – a more natural position

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    1. Great ideas, thank you! I don’t have a smartphone, but it would be easy enough to set a regular timer another way. I’d never heard of an ergonomic mouse (just looked up photos). There’s one going for £11.99 on amazon, so I may well consider that.

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  6. Then there’s the whole standing-desk trend—you might hack your regular desk into a standing desk (though of course I haven’t tried this, being an avid reader and sitter). As an alternative to the dog-walking suggestion, which was great, maybe a few hours of nannying. From experience, I can tell you that caring for a toddler is not conducive to sitting still.

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    1. Babysitting had occurred to me. From the few times I’ve babysat for my nephews back in the States I know it’s full-on exercise!

      I love the idea of a treadmill desk, though I imagine they’re prohibitively expensive. A standing desk sounds like the kind of thing one should be able to rig up pretty easily, or get from Ikea. I may be driven to it; we’ll see.

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  7. I love this post and the way you tie it into the books you’ve been reading. I had never thought before about the fact that some animals can be dormant for months without any ill effects, but we can’t. Too bad for us, I guess!
    Everyone has already given you all the great suggestions. The easiest one I thought of while reading your list is to make yourself blink more rather than waiting for your eyes to do it on their own. I don’t know how hard that would be, and I also wondered if it might lead to an annoying ‘blinking too much habit’ when not at the computer.
    Having kids certainly helps (from experience), but that’s a tiny bit of a commitment. 🙂

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    1. I’ve often said to my husband that I wish I could just hibernate through the months of December to February — they can be very dark, cold and bleak here in Britain! I wonder how I could remind myself to blink more often. I’m a contact lens wearer; I wonder if that would also affect my blinking and eye dryness?

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  8. Oh, how funny, you’re another ex-library assistant freelance editor! I am lucky in that I have gym and running habits. I use a PC not a laptop and do arm, shoulder and hand stretches regularly, as well as squats and calf raises. The cross-trainer will help no end. You can get standing desks- I did prop up all my work at one point, but I’m a transcriber and I just can’t type fast enough standing up.

    Good luck working on this – you’re definitely on the right track.

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    1. I appreciate you having a good poke round my blog 🙂 Sounds like you were better set up for the working-from-home lark than I was. I’m getting there slowly: today was my second day in a row using the new cross-trainer. Thirty minutes at the lowest resistance is the most I can achieve right now. I will try to build up gradually. I still need to be better about breaking up periods spent at the computer and stretching in between.

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