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.
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?
A 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!
I’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?
- Since Saturday I’ve been taking a daily multivitamin with iron.
- I’m making more of an effort to drink a glass of milk a day.
- I bought a supportive wrist/finger glove to wear while typing and writing by hand.
- If that fails, I’ve bought a moldable ice pack.
- I’m looking into yoga classes in the area.
- 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.
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.