I started working in 1997 and I can undoubtedly say that my health has deteriorated since then. Of course I am not 18 anymore but I am certain that sitting behind desk and staring at computers for 14+ hours a day has been a huge contributing factor.
For the first few years my body didn’t seem to mind my day job but over the years the impact of my unhealthy habits started to build up. For example I now have chronic lower back pain that has been traced back to my bad sitting posture. So just because you feel healthy today doesn’t mean you are not hurting yourself.
As I started to feel pain and discomfort I started analyzing what was causing them and tried many things to counter the cause and remove or at least mitigate the pain, and as the result I have developed a few habits that help me maintain my health. This is what has worked for me. Your mileage may vary.
I have broken the list into three types of habits: habits for when you’re in the office, out of the office and commuting to work!
In the office
In average I spend 9 to 10 hours a day in the office which is around 60% of my awake time. That is a huge part of my life and I’d better make it as healthy as possible.
Move your body
Don’t sit behind your desk for the whole day. Move your body. Go for a short walk every hour or so and get some fresh air. If you can, have your (home cooked healthy) lunch out of the building or at least away from your desk.
I personally find it hard to do any exercises in the office; but it’s great if you can. If nothing else try to do some eye exercises. You can find a few easy and effective ones here.
Drink plenty of water
I drink A LOT of water - that’s around three liters a day. I have a 750ml water bottle on my desk that I refill almost every two hours (with filtered water when I can). This keeps me very well hydrated which helps with body temperature regulation, body lubrication and weight maintenance. The added benefit is that it enforces me to walk very frequently. Given, not the most pleasant walk but I HAVE to walk which is good to stretch my legs.
A lot of people I know drink at least a cup of coffee a day and most of them cannot start the day without their coffee. I guess I am blessed to be caffeine intolerant and to not quite like the taste of coffee. Not quite on the same league but I also know a few guys who drink a few cans of energy drink or Coke a day!
[Update] As mentioned in the comments coffee does have a lot of benefits too. To see a list of pros and cons of drinking coffee regularly check out this post. I personally don’t like to depend on anything for being able to think clearly and I am not sure if the pros of drinking coffee outweigh the cons.
When I need a sugary drink (with my lunch or throughout the day) I go for juice and try to stay away from acidic ones like orange juice when possible. I also love coconut water. When I need a hot beverage I go for mint or jasmine green tea whenever possible. Obviously you have to like the taste.
That’s not to say I don’t drink coffee or Coke or energy drink; but I try to drink as few as possible.
Office workers love their snacks and a lot of employers provide free snack. In one office I used to work, there was a HUGE lolly dispenser with four choices changing every month or so. Name any sugary crap and we had an abundance of it there for free.
I prefer the fruit supply and I try to have a few serves a day. Banana is particularly good to top up the energy in the absence of artificial sugar intake. I also love dry roasted nuts - particularly almonds - and highly recommend them. Very healthy and tasty.
Maintain your posture
I sit on exercise ball the whole day. I have one in the office and one at home. I know there are some arguments against sitting on a fitness ball; but it’s worked for me like a charm. Sitting on a fitness ball doesn’t guarantee good posture though and a lot of people still slouch on them! Inflate the ball enough so when you sit you don’t sink in it or the lifted knees will force you to slump. The ball diameter is very important for a good posture. I am 178cm tall and 75cm balls work well for me.
Getting used to fitness balls might take some time; so begin with a few hours a day and alternate between the office chair and the ball. You should be able to sit on the ball for the whole day after a week or so without getting a sore back.
Of course you don’t have to sit on a fitness ball to maintain a good sitting posture. There are plenty of ergonomic office chairs out there. Regardless of your chair follow these advices for a good sitting posture.
Another thing that bit me with my sitting posture was sitting on my wallet. A few years ago I went to a doctor to get my back checked as I was having some pain. He got an x-ray from my back and saw some misalignments on my spine and the first thing he asked was: “Do you sit on your wallet?”. I carry around a small wallet in my back pocket. I used to just just sit on my wallet the whole day until that doctor told me that in the long run that causes spine misalignment. So from that day on I remove my wallet from my pocket before I sit.
Sitting for the whole day is not a good idea even on ergonomic chairs and fitness balls. Prolong sitting could lead to arthritis, heart disease, poor blood circulation, obesity, diabetes and muscle weakness to name a few. Height adjustable and split level desks are great as they allow you to work on them in both sitting and standing positions. Monitor and keyboard stand is a good alternative.
Like sitting, don’t work standing for the whole day. Standing for long periods could cause varicose veins, joint compression and slouching. Try to switch between sitting and standing positions every few hours.
Keyboard & mouse
I had wrist pain for a while and I learnt that they were mostly caused by bad keyboards. I bought a Microsoft Ergonomic 4000 keyboard and I couldn’t be happier.
But then holding mouse with my right hand for several years, I started developing a bit of pain in my right wrist. I tried ergonomic mice and ergonomic mouse pads with little improvement. So I switched hand and started using mouse with my left hand. Man, so many clicks that meant to be right clicks and vice versa; but I adapted after a few days and it worked great.
There is another benefit of using mouse with your left hand. Num pad and command buttons (on most keyboards) are located on the right which means your mouse is further away from the center of your body and you have to reach rather far for it. When on left, the num pad is out of your way and you can much easier reach for the mouse. This releases a bit of tension from shoulder muscles which helps with painful neck and shoulder muscle knots. Every few weeks I switch from left to right so my wrists and shoulders share the load!
If you are not willing to move your mouse around then, as Joshua suggested, you can go for an ergonomic keyboard with detachable num pad and move your num pad to the right to empty the mouse space on your right:
Adjust your monitor height to your eye level to release the tension from your neck and shoulder muscles. If your monitor is not height adjustable put a few thick books underneath to lift it up to your eye level. You can find a few really good tips for setting up your monitor properly here.
In a multi-monitor setup and when monitors are rotatable I rotate all monitors 90 degrees to be vertical. If you have two or three monitors, they’re already providing a huge horizontal real estate and rotating them 90 degrees provides the much needed vertical space; but that’s not why I rotate them: turning your head some 30 degrees to the side to see your left or right monitors for a few hours a day is really bad for your neck.
Hanselman has a nice multi monitor setup that may work well for you. That is a bit too wide for my neck though.
Out of the office
When returning home from work, I work more, either on work projects or on professional development by studying and coding. There have been long periods in my life when I would sleep around 5 hours a night so I have more time to work. I still think that a professional should put more into their work than 9 to 5 but everything has to be done in moderation.
I wish I could say these are all my habits but this is a note to self to improve my health and lifestyle out of the office.
A bit less technology
Hi, My name is Mehdi and I am a technology addict.
I think we are all becoming slaves of computers and smart phones: these highly amusing and entertaining life suckers. We sit enough in the office. Let’s not top it up with more sitting at home: less computers, less TV, less chair and couch when out of office.
Leave some of your personal time for yourself and your family and switch off everything work related.
Sleeping well and long enough
Sleeping needs if not met have huge impact on our physical and mental health. Lack of sleep can make you grumpy and foggy. It also impacts your sex life, memory, health, looks, and even ability to lose weight. Different people have different sleeping habits and needs; but between 6 and 8 hours of night sleep is necessary for adults.
I (tend to) do 30 to 45 minutes of exercise a day. I love martial arts, particularly Muay Thai, and when possible try to attend martial art classes. When that’s not a possibility I either go to gym or just exercise at home. My home exercises are rather limited to push ups, crunches and pull ups. When I feel very energetic I do burpee instead of push ups. I have bad knees; otherwise I would have loved to run.
I know a lot of guys who ride their bikes to work. A guy I used to work with would ride his bike 40km to get to work. Another guy I worked with turned down a job offer because the commute wasn’t bike friendly! I am kinda unlucky when it comes to commuting and usually spend over three hours a day commuting to work and back home. So this is kind of impractical for me; but I will definitely do it when I have a shorter commute.
If you, like me, take a bus or train to work, then don’t take a seat! People race for that last empty seat in buses and trains, particularly for long trips. I spend two hours a day in the train which is a nice time to study, blog or code; but when I don’t feel like working I tend to stand up for the whole trip. If you decide to stand up on a long trip, don’t hold your head down reading a book or playing with your phone. That whole posture of holding something up with your hand and looking down on it is really bad for your neck. Instead listen to radio or a music or, if you want to be productive, a podcast or an audio book.
Another thing I enjoy as part of my commute is walking up the stairs. The ThoughtWorks NY office is located on the 15th floor. I walked up the stairs enough to be told by the building management not to use the emergency stairs anymore. Recently I have been catching a train to downtown. The station is 315 steps below the ground. I use escalators to go down but walk up the stairs. Walking down the stairs could hurt your knees.
In this post I talked about a few habits I have developed over the years to maintain my health. These habits have worked for me. They may or may not work for you. Try to experiment with different things to see what makes you healthier and happier which you can also make a habit of.
Another thing to note is that these are habits and habits take time to form. So persevere.