Writers—Be Careful How You Sit

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraigfile3311285547839

Today I have another public service announcement for all the writers out there—sitting can be hazardous to your health.

Yes, I know.  We thought we had the kinds of jobs where injuries might be limited to paper cuts or possibly dropping a laptop on our foot.

Unfortunately, I’m here to state otherwise.  I’ve been in physical therapy for back issues for the last month.  Occasionally I wear a hideously unstylish brace that resembles a corset in both appearance and comfort level.  Anyone seeing me in the brace has asked, “Elizabeth, what happened?”

I think they’re expecting some exciting tale of adventure gone wrong (which is silly of them, if they know me at all).  Snow skiing or waterskiing maybe?  Perhaps some awful car accident?  But I have to admit that I received my back problems from…sitting.

The doctor said it took years to get my back in the condition it’s in now…so PT is twice a week and moving a bit slowly for this impatient writer.

There were things that I shouldn’t have done that I did fairly constantly in the last ten years:

Sat on an overstuffed sofa with my feet on the coffee table and my laptop on my lap.  Don’t do this.
Sat in an armchair with my feet on an ottoman and my laptop on my lap.  Don’t do this, either.
Sat for long stretches, period.  Yet another no-no.

This interesting graphic from Bonnie Berkowitz and Patterson Clark for the Washington Post clearly shows the health hazards of sitting and ideas for combatting the problem, including various stretches (that resemble what I’m doing in PT) and exercise balls.

Sadly, I think the way I sat was very similar to the person in the graphic. Except, of course, that my feet were up and the laptop was in my lap, not on a desk. :)

The best practice seems to be to sit with your feet on the floor and your laptop on a desk or a table of some kind.  Sit with your back straight.  And take frequent breaks.

Porter Anderson also wrote about the dangers of sitting in his recent post, “Don’t Take Author Obesity Sitting Down” for Writer Unboxed.  We all know the myriad problems that obesity causes and sitting certainly tends to put pounds on. Fortunately, obesity isn’t my issue, but I would have done well to take Porter’s advice on standing desks in the post. I have used a standing desk off (well, it’s a standing counter, since I was writing in my kitchen) for the past couple of years but not enough for me to avoid the pickle I got myself in.  In the post, Porter offers ideas for a “trial period” for using a standing desk.

RSI, repetitive strain injury, is another issue writers face.  I’ve also had problems with RSI in the past and have learned to back off from typing and do some stretches when it starts flaring up.  I’ve also had some success with voice recognition software (Dragon Naturally Speaking) when I’ve been on deadline at the same time I’ve had issues.

Author Roz Morris has had problems with RSI and wrote about how she deals with it in her post “RSI and when your books come back to haunt you.”  She mentions posture, weight-lifting, and taking breaks as being helpful, among other things.

There is actually even software designed to force you to take writing/computer breaks (Workrave is one.  Reviewed by CNET’s Dan Russell here).

Lifehack’s Anca Dumitru offers advice in her article, “How to Overcome RSI While Building Your Dream Writing Career.” In it she links to helpful hand and wrist exercises.

I’ve mentioned recently that I’m doing a good job exercising…but I was definitely not doing a good job being careful how I worked, until now.  What’s your work station like for your computer time?

Image: MorgueFile: Jade

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51 thoughts on “Writers—Be Careful How You Sit

  1. That’s why I created a standing set up for my desk. (Standing all day, however, can be a strain if you are overweight, so you have to balance things even there.)

    Another thing that people don’t realize (and this is a particularly bad problem with laptops and sometimes handheld devices) is that your eyes need to focus at a variety of lengths, or they get a kind of RSI. If the keyboard or input device is at a fixed distance from the screen… so are your eyes.

    You can turn your desk so that there is something beyond it to look at, that will help. I find with my standing desk, adding a larger monitor for my computer also helps because I can step back and read at a different distance than I type at. (Moving around is good for your body and your eyes both.)

    1. Camille–Thanks for the input on eye strain! I know there have been days that I’ve thought by the end of them that I couldn’t look at another screen. I do have a Kindle that isn’t backlit, so I can still read at night with less strain. Thanks for the tips for avoiding the issue.

  2. Holy cow! I’m so sorry to hear you’re in a brace. Wow. Guess what position I’m in right now? Leaning back against a big pillow, legs stretched out, with my laptop on my lap. I had no idea that was bad. Thanks for the warning. I hope the PT goes well and gets you on the road to recovery.

    1. Julie–I have it on very good authority that that is bad. :) Of course, I badly want to follow my physical therapists home to see if they’re sitting that way, ha! It has been a HUGE adjustment to change the way I sit and where I sit in my house…particularly where I work. But after weeks of being mindful of it, it’s starting to get easier.

    1. Constance–I, for sure, couldn’t stand and write all day. My plan is (when my back is better enough to stand for long periods, at all) is to put my laptop on the counter, write/do my social media there for a while, then move to kitchen table/desk, etc. That will likely make it easier.

  3. I had a major operation on my spine in 2002 and came home with one of those lovely braces you describe! I bought Dragon Naturally Speaking so that I could dictate to myself and that meant I could carry on writing in bed. I have tried so many different ways of using my laptop but have never really gone back to sitting in my office chair for hours at a time.

    Good luck with your back and thanks for the great posts – I look forward to seeing them land in my in-box.

    1. Marilyn–Thanks so much for coming by! Sorry to hear about your operation in ’02. Did it fix things? We’re trying to avoid that scenario with me. Right now the PT seems to be working well, so we’re continuing it. I know–it’s so, so hard to change the way we sit and work!

  4. Wow, sorry you’re in physical therapy for your back.
    My job involves a lot of sitting as well, so I get up and move often. I also work out and have stayed in shape. That also helps the back.

    1. Alex–This is what I hear, too. My “working out” involved walking, but I think I started regularly exercising too late to really help me out. It will be good preventive maintenance once I’m out of PT.

  5. I never sit with my feet propped up, but I rarely sit normal in a chair. I couldn’t even describe the weird way I’m sitting right now.

    I hope the PT works and you can ditch the brace soon.

  6. Thanks for passing on this very important information–you have truly done a public service for writers everywhere! And hope the PT helps you get better soon :-)

  7. I threw my back out during a snowstorm about a year and a half ago (one strain after another, plus exuberant small children) and have only just started to be able to sit for long stretches of time without discomfort (long meaning more than 5 minutes or so). I did a bit of standing but I also do some of my computer time lying down on my stomach or back.

    For me, the solution has been a 10-minute routine of core strengthening exercises 3 times a week, going for at least a 2-mile walk most days, and sleeping more when I can. I also stretch out every night, but I was doing that all along and at some point it just wasn’t enough any more.

    Good luck with your PT, and make yourself a routine that works long-term.

    1. Amelia–Small children will do it, for sure!

      They’re working on my core, too….seems to work well, but it’s slow-going. I think I need to up my walking schedule to be like yours. Good tips and thanks!

  8. I’m thinking seriously about getting a sitting/standing desk, probably from Uplift. Writers (and other keyboard-bound folk) might want to check them out. They’re in the $700-$1000 range, but that’s not crazy for quality furniture, especially with health implications.

    Anyway, if links make it past your filter, here’s the one I’m looking at:
    http://www.thehumansolution.com/uplift-900-electric-sit-stand-desk-black.html

    Best wishes for a speedy recovery.

  9. Oh, you poor thing! I hope that you’re out of that brace soon.

    I’ve been so guilty of the feet-up-computer-in-my-lap dynamic (squishy sofa included). I’ve also read that sitting for long periods triggers enzymes (or something) that threaten your heart health to such a degree that even exercise can’t counteract it.

    But I wonder if I could compose while standing up…

    1. Thanks, KB!

      I think my restless writing works well with a standing desk–I just need to get to the point where I can actually stand for more than a few minutes at a time!

      Those squishy sofas are dangerous!

  10. Elizabeth, I was exactly where you are, 20 years ago. The back brace, PT, even talk of surgery – all due to sitting. Happy to say that I haven’t had back issues in more than 10 years, thanks to yoga and weight-lifting. I also purchased a chair like one that many Microsoft employees use – it’s an exercise ball mounted on wheels and has a back. (http://www.amazon.com/Gaiam-Balance-Ball-Chair-Black/dp/B0007VB4NE/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1406896402&sr=8-1&keywords=exercise+ball+chair) It really helps the back and stomach muscles. I always use a desk, just as I would if I was working in an office environment. I saw a news segment recently that said sitting for long hours week after week is just as dangerous to our health as smoking. Best of luck with your back, Elizabeth. I hope you feel better very soon!

    1. p.m.–Thanks for the link! My therapists did mention one of those exercise ball things…I like the idea that the one you’re talking about has a back. Because I know we’re supposed to rely on our core, but my core is messed up right now. :)

      Sitting is very dangerous, for sure!

  11. I have issues with my legs as it is, due to bad circulation. I sometimes have to curl my legs up to take pressure off them, but I try to avoid this in work or when writing. Doesn’t help that I have a herniated disc in my lumbar spine and a fairly unsupportive office chair at my day job.

    My office chair at home, the one I sit in while I write, is wonderful. Full back support. I never feel uncomfortable in it.

  12. Christ.

    The “Kennedy Brace.” That’s what the nurse called it when I had back trouble a couple decades ago. Turned out, JFK wore it. I don’t think it has changed since then.

    You have my sympathy.

    It gets better. It take a while. Everyone is different. Back medicine is also filled with quackery.

    I am now prone to spending the GDP of a Central American country on beds. It does make a difference. Luckily, my spouse understands. I say bad words that scare the pets when my back hurts. Thus, better beds.

    I’ve used a stand-up desk for years. Veridesk is the current model. Allows a mixed-use environment. Made well. I’ve bought 14 for the office. Well loved here.

    Oh – I love the white couch picture. We had one of those when the boys still lived at home. I said something like “really” when it was delivered. I didn’t say anything when the soiled monster was pulled out to be recovered (for approximately the same cost as a good used Honda car). I’m the “broke in” model. Some things a husband just lets float down the river.

    Good luck with the back. Give my love to Jackie.

    1. Jack–Kennedy Brace! Yes! But I’d rather emulate Jackie, if I had to emulate one of them and I don’t see her wearing something like this contraption. :)

      I got a Tempur-Pedic. I feel very geriatric. But it’s very comfy, I must admit.

      I liked the white sofa pic, too! Ours is brown. :) On purpose. We do have a boy and he’s 17 and fond of sitting on the sofa with various food and beverages.

      And thanks!

  13. Sorry you had to learn the hard way. My father was an architect and a good friend of mine owns a business interiors company so I’ve had many ergonomic lectures.

    Two things are critical to staying healthy: 1) change your position every hour, stand for a while, sit in another room, sit at another desk, etc. 2) the Herman Miller Aeron chair is worth the price, but if you can’t afford one, look for chairs with the bump-out in the lower back area.

    But the easiest thing to do is to take the Frank Lloyd Wright break (famous architect of the Guggenheim, Falling Water, etc). Every hour or so, he would get up from his drafting table and sweep a sidewalk, trim a bush, wash dishes, or something for five or ten minutes. It helped him think and stretch.

    Peace, Seeley

    1. Seeley–I *do* need different furniture, so thanks for the advice. My husband said it was silly to have a lot of furniture that I shouldn’t sit in and I’m gradually agreeing.

      The breaks are *key*, I’m thinking. If it was good for Lloyd Wright, surely it should be good for me.

  14. Elizabeth – I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve had to deal with back issues! So stressful and painful! I hope it all eases up. And as to writing injuries? Absolutely we have to be careful. I find that going to the gym a few times a week, getting up every half hour or 45 minutes and walking my canine overlords help a lot. Also I think it’s important to be careful when one chooses writing furniture. Comfort and safety always trump ‘trendy’ for me.

  15. I have a nice chair at both of my desks (one for writing, one for regular work.) Footstool down in my writing office so I can sit straight, knees slightly raised. Working on another for upstairs.

    I’ve spent most of my adult life working at computers for 8-12 hours a day, and if I hadn’t adopted good ergonomics decades ago I’d be in a world of hurt right now.

    My buddy and editor Tom Bentley, a superb writer himself, gives away an excellent ebook on writer ergonomics, just for signing up for his (also excellent) newsletter:

    http://www.tombentley.com/#text-6

    I highly recommend it.

    Get a good chair and a desk you love to sit at. Not only is it good for your back, it’s excellent for your writing. A happy environment makes writing better. (Learning to play the ukulele doesn’t hurt, either.)

    1. Joel–I will be signing up for that newsletter…thanks.

      I was VERY slow on the ergonomics bandwagon. Pain has made me a true believer. :)

      For some reason, I balk at sitting at my husband’s (very nice) desk and chair upstairs. He’s invited me to use them. I think I should get over whatever magical thinking I have that I’m more creative away from a desk. My back will thank me.

  16. Oh no! But thanks for the warning. You just described my favorite writing position :(. I should try my husband’s Fitdeck cards. It’s a pack of cards with a different exercise on each one. I could leave it on the counter all day and periodically choose one. Oh, but the sofa is so comfy!

  17. Oh, bummer–that brace has to be so uncomfortable! Sitting all the time is so bad for us, and I know I’m feeling the effects in my neck and spine. At the moment I have a $16 adjustable-height mesh office chair from a home improvement store with a spare dining chair cushion on the seat, and my desk is an antique kitchen table with drawers and turned legs that was my grandmother’s.

    I also have a well-cushioned wicker rocking chair in my office and a low footstool that I sometimes use in order to sit differently or when my legs bother me. Tai chi once or twice per day helps and I can do it right here at home. I also lay on my stomach and stretch up with my arms to flex my back, and that helps with spasms. Have tried a standing desk setup, but I tire too quickly and lose concentration.

    Want to thank p.m. terrell for the ball chair link–going to look into it. Hope you are on the mend, Elizabeth.

    1. Meg–I have none of these things! We have a combo of antiques (that are ergonomic, I guess, if you don’t mind being uncomfortable) and overstuffed furniture. I like your idea of a rocking chair and short footstool. I’m hopelessly clumsy and would never do Tai chi in a group, but I could do it via computer or DVD or something.

      I don’t have stamina at the standing desk yet, but we’re working on that core strength. And yes, that ball chair of Trish’s sounds perfect!

  18. I am so sorry to hear that you’re injured, and hope that your therapy sessions go well and help you to make your way to a speedy recovery.

    Sitting all day is terrible. I have so many neck/back problems that they can’t be counted anymore, mostly due to sitting/slouching, but also because of a couple of car accidents/stress/etc. We have got to find better ways to work. What we’re doing now is killing us slowly.

    All the best to you in your healing, Elizabeth!

  19. As a long term back sufferer, I sympathize :( Be patient. But keep moving.

    Our spine is a structure we often don’t think about until we HAVE to think about it. By then, it’s a bit late. But never TOO late.

    I have an idiopathic thoracic scoliosis which manifested itself in my 20s. I then acquired a lumbar injury at work and that was that. Whole spine is now a mess. But luckily nothing that needs surgery.

    I have an hour back massage every 10-14 days. And it’s deep tissue, elbow digging, technically 6-7/10 on the pain scale. Whenever I say I have a regular back massage to my friends, they’re like ‘Ohhh, what a luxury!’ No. It’s a necessity. My therapist tells me I’m in the top five worse backs she’s ever massaged. The knots in my upper back, shoulders, and neck have knots. And those suckers have knots as well.

    My orthotist has given me special insoles for my plantar fasciitis and my leg discrepancy. That’s one thing to consider with bad backs. Sometimes, the fault lies with your legs.

    I use a treadmill desk, although I have to remind myself regularly to relax my shoulders. This was the first version.

    http://www.adstarrling.com/january-22-2014/

    I updated to a fancier one after that.

    http://www.adstarrling.com/the-website-the-blog-the-radio-interview-and-the-new-treadmill-desk/

    You can see the correct posture ergonomics in the first post. As you can see, my sit-down desk has a foot rest (I’m too short for my feet to rest flat on the floor…stop laughing…) and a back rest.

    I currently do about 1.5-2.5 hours on the treadmill desk, walking at 1.4 mph. I tend to do social media stuff, mail, and other writing business stuff first before attacking the writing. About the only thing I can’t do on the treadmill is text. I’ve done Skype conference calls and can drink on it.

    When I do work on the sofa (never for actual writing, only for mail, social media stuff), I use a foot rest that keeps my hips at 90 degrees to my spine and a laptop tray that keep my elbows tucked to my sides at 90 degrees.

    Hope this gives people a few ideas :D

    1. AD–These are great ideas! Thanks so much. We’re doing core/hamstring stuff, so your tip about legs is a smart one. I *love* the idea of a treadmill desk, although I know I’m too clumsy to use one.

      The best part about your desk, your massages,insoles, and your exercise program is that you are so cognizant and proactive about it all.

      I think you’re right about waiting until it’s almost too late to finally think about and address back issues. It’s probably not until it’s really starting to bother us that we do something about it!

  20. Hi Elizabeth,

    Sorry to hear of your flare-up of back pain. I’ve spent many years in my career treating back pain. The comments are bang on. It’s worth investing in a good supportive chair and desk setup that is designed or adjusted for the individual. That being said, you can have the best chair and work station possible and if we spend too much time in it there will be problems.

    If we could have a sit-stand desk and a treadmill workstation that would be fantastic. I also like the ball chairs although for myself, I wouldn’t want it all the time.

    The key is movement and countering the tightening effects of sitting. Walking is great, but it doesn’t do much to maintain range of motion (ROM) and the health of joints and muscles in the upper back, neck and shoulders. Also even the lower body could use more than walking. Compare the full range that our hip moves when walking compared to standing and raising our knee to our chest, for example.

    I suggest a mix of some weight resistance (lifting weights, resistance bands, etc.), some cardio (walking, running, swimming, rowing, etc.) and some range of motion exercise (yoga, tai chi, stretching, etc.). — This is as a maintenance program, not during a flare-up.

    Regarding your present situation, I caution to use the brace on a limited basis only. It may promote muscle weakening if used too much. Current research and best practices warn about their use. It would be a good idea to work with a chiropractor as well as a physiotherapist especially one that has laser therapy and training in acupuncture. Ask for advice on ice and heat. As well many places will rent a TENS unit for home pain control.

    And couple points raised in the comments are concerning:
    The height of the standing work station is very important…a kitchen counter is likely too low. Someone mentioned working lying on their stomach. This is a bad idea and will most likely lead to neck pain and headaches down the road.

    One last point, if I may. Back flare-ups have a huge mental component. Our brain does terrible things to us — What if this doesn’t get better? What if I won’t be able to ________ anymore? If I’m like this now, how am I going to be at age ___________? Try your best to ignore these harmful brain farts. Get outside, get some sun, try and do what ever you can enjoy and makes you feel good. Push yourself as you are able. In all likelihood this will pass.

    Best wishes. I wish I was closer, and could help. Thanks for all you do.

    Silas

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