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Summary:

You’d think nothing could be less risky than sitting at a desk and working at a computer all day. Web workers do face health challenges though. Whether it’s eye strain, deep vein thrombosis (DVT), or the steady emergence of love handles to tote your disappearing six […]

You’d think nothing could be less risky than sitting at a desk and working at a computer all day. Web workers do face health challenges though. Whether it’s eye strain, deep vein thrombosis (DVT), or the steady emergence of love handles to tote your disappearing six pack these maladies can collectively be called ‘deskitis.’ With a few simple solutions, however, deskitis doesn’t have to be an affliction of the mobile digerati.

Eye strain isn’t extremely serious and won’t cause long term damage. However it can be a big, disruptive, pain. It’s caused when the eye becomes fatigued by staring at something for too long. The results are blurry vision, headaches, and an increased sensitivity to light. Ophthalmologists recommend that for every 20 minutes that you stare at a screen make a point to focus on something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Breaking the monotony of focus will help keep your eyes fresh. If you keep forgetting to take an ‘eye break’ check out these applications that will remind you on a schedule of your choosing.

Last week Mike helped soothe fears about the scarily named deep vein thrombosis (DVT). However, cases of this dangerous health problem do occur. Movement every half hour helps greatly. Chris previously posted some great stretching exercises that you can try. If you feel self conscious about contorting at your local coffee shop then try this: slowly roll onto the balls of your feet, hold for several counts, and (in a controlled manner) return your foot to the floor. Do this for ten minutes or until tired and you’ll get a bit of circulation going in your calf.

Finally, but not surprisingly, there are numerous websites that offer to help with the weight gain that can accompany a desk job. While computer professionals may be unintentionally living the Hacker’s Diet – losing weight through stress and poor nutrition – that’s not a foundation for long term health. Much of weight loss has to do with motivation and there are a number of sites that have adopted “web 2.0” style communities to provide motivation with a dose of companionship. WeightLossWars.com allows you to compete with a group of your choosing. Traineo.com is similar, allowing up to four friends or family members to receive progress emails. Nike has even build an entire online community around its co-branded iPod pedometer.

Web worker or not, deskitis does not have to be a given of modern culture. Ailments like eye strain, DVT, and weight gain can be avoided or managed. These are a few quick suggestions but there are many more. What do you do during your day to cope?

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  1. Hi the stretches are in PDF format here
    http://www.lib.msu.edu/ergomsu/stretch.htm

  2. sal cangeloso Tuesday, March 27, 2007

    There are few free programs that alert you when you should stretch, or look away from the computer screen, take a break etc. I don’t use them but if I was not so easily distracted I would definitely integrate one into my computer work. As your links points out, Workrave is great.

    Eye strain is an important issue. The real killer is brightness, so make sure you turn your monitor all the way down if you are working with a lot of text (white backgrounds are the worst). This is something that is actually can be made worse by moving to a larger display, though this seems like it would be an obvious solution. As long as you keep the brightless low and stay a proper distance away from the display (while sitting up straight!) you should be OK…

  3. I keep two 10-pound dumbbells underneath my desk at home where I work most of the time. Throughout the day I roll them back and forth with my feet which helps get the blood flowing through my legs. It has become so habitual that I don’t even have to remind myself to do it. The dumbbells also work nicely as props on which I can rest my feet. This helps to relieve the pressure where my thighs meet the edge of my chair.

    And then when I’m getting antsy or when I’m waiting on something like a big FTP transfer, I take the dumbbells out and do some reps with my arms. This definitely helps clear my head so I can keep grinding at the machine.

    I could of course do better with the weight gain part (heh), but I find that, when I can get myself to do it, there’s nothing better than a jog outdoors with my dog after a long day at the machine.

  4. I saw a guy on tv who has a laptop affixed to a treadmill and walks all day. He walks slowly, only about one mile per hour, but he’s constantly moving and upright while working. I want one of those!

    I go to the gym in the mornings, but I’ve been a slacker lately. There’s just so much work to do that I end up doing it late at night. I usually am at my stride at 11pm.

  5. Brian D. johnson Tuesday, March 27, 2007

    I can recommend setting a repeating time for 20 minute intervals. When the timer beeps (or vibrates or whatever), stand up, stretch / bend / breathe and check yourself to see if you’re on-task.

  6. what about the proper posture, relating to where your elbows are and what angle your neck is in? Mine eyes should be straight forward but they are down a bit because of my setup… and this isn’t good :p One of these days I’ll change that!

  7. Jean MacDonald Tuesday, March 27, 2007

    I’m a Mac user, and I’ve been using a program called MacBreakz for about a month. I’m pretty happy with it. What I like is that it watches what you are doing, and gives you alerts to take a “micro-break” (five seconds, close eyes, take a deep breath) when you’ve been doing a lot of keyboarding and/or mousing.

    I like doing the stretch breaks and you can do a lot of the stretches at your desk. (My favorite:elbows at your side, hands clasped in front, fingers interlaced, rotate your hands around your wrists ten times, both directions.)

    If you have a laptop, a Griffin Elevator (successor to the iCurve) is an elegant solution for raising the screen up to eye leve.

  8. Deskitis – technically, inflammation of the desk, when we really need to focus on the person at the desk, no?

    All problems you describe are co-morbidities of long desk-hours. Now with such a powerful word hanging over us, perhaps we would take breaks every now and then (suggestion: http://workrave.org/welcome/ via Nikhil, who writes for ContentSutra/ PaidContent), go for 10-min walks around the block a couple times a day (is that freedom not part of how we work? A friend in Saudi reports they get a 2-4 pm nap break officially..), eat fewer sugared products and drink lots of water at the desk..

    As for me, all my efforts go into not becoming a subject matter of my own blog and my own PhD (quoting my academic supervisor’s warning in jest..)

  9. Matthew Reinbold Wednesday, March 28, 2007

    Michelle,

    I actually came across the ‘treadmill office’ while doing research for this piece. You can read more about it here:

    http://www.mayoclinic.org/news2005-rst/2836.html

    While interesting in concept I couldn’t fathom being on a treadmill for 8+ hours. I have a hard enough time swapping out my well-worn desk chair for an exercise ball for the hour or so I read RSS. :)

  10. Matthew, I do not think Jim Levine proposes that people stay on the treadmill for 8 hours. What his concept of NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) proposes is that some small (delta) degree of excess caloric expenditure can be introduced in sedentary lives through minor design alterations. For instance, a class that does some work standing up, rather than sitting down. At work this may mean a meeting where people stand up rather than sit down (this also drastically cuts down the length of useless meetings…).

    A general agreement within the obesity research community is that a daily deficit (either through reducing intake or increasing expenditure) of 100-150 calories a day would help maintain or reduce weight for most individuals. Since intake is harder for most people to regulate, making minor changes to increase caloric spend is the next best thing.

    Jim Levine’s research found that lean people spend up to an extra 2 hours standing or moving around than obese people do. Even fidgeting spends calories..

    I make it a point to read RSS feeds and write my blog standing up. I am also a bit absent-minded/ too focused, and sometimes find that I have been standing for an hour while reading something..

    However on that Swiss ball thing: I don’t think swapping your chair for it will increase caloric spend. If you balance well, it may be good for your core stability, but that is pretty much it. Best to stand up :-)

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