Health Tips for Web Developers

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IMPORTANT NOTE: This is not typical of the type of post I write on here. But I think it’s an important subject that all web developers — and probably all desk job workers — should consider. There are a ton of links in this article, so it might be a bit overwhelming. But the links are necessary to support what would otherwise be brushed off as my own baseless opinion.

If you’ve ever flown in an airplane and watched the pre-flight safety instruction video, you’ve probably noticed something about the instructions for putting on the oxygen masks.

The video will emphasize the importance of putting on your own oxygen mask first before helping others (like small children). Although this might seem somewhat counterproductive at first glance, this advice underlies an important principle that lies at the heart of this article: You can’t help others if you don’t first help yourself.

Before helping others, you have to help yourselfBefore helping others, you have to help yourself

As members of a growing, thriving, and super-collaborative community, we have grown accustomed to selflessly sacrificing our time and efforts to create new and exciting projects that assist, educate, and inspire our fellow web designers and developers. And the amazing part of this is that many in the community do these things for what is apparently little to no immediate personal gain. But this all might come at a steep price.

Due to our online obsessions and related habits, we may be unknowingly affecting our personal health in ways that might not at first be obvious to us. Thus, the principle applies here too: You can’t help others (whether it’s your clients, your fellow bloggers, your readers, or your web app users), if you don’t first help yourself.

So although the suggestions in this article apply to many fields of work, they are certainly appropriate for those who build websites for a living.

Article Disclaimer!

The information found in this article is solely my opinion, and I am not a licensed health care practitioner. These suggestions should not be taken as professional medical advice, nor do any of these suggestions claim to offer any kind of cure or treatment for any disease or medical condition. Any and all of this information should be considered only after consulting with a medical health professional.

Now let’s get on to the tips.

Minimize Wireless Use

It used to be that the only wireless device in our homes was the remote control that operated our television set. Those days are long gone. Today we see wireless mobile and home phones, wireless keyboards, wireless mice, bluetooth headsets, WiFi, and much more.

Although the results of studies in this area are somewhat contradictory, at this point we may not yet know the long-term effects of heavy use of such devices.

But I’m not saying that you should avoid wireless devices completely — something that would be next to impossible for most of us. Instead, my advice is: If you can do without a particular wireless device, then avoid it. You have almost nothing to lose, and potentially a lot to gain.

Contradictory evidence that claims wireless devices are harmful is a whole lot worse than no evidence at all. So play it safe wherever possible, and think about the potential long-term effects before spontaneously spending a boatload of money on yet another unnecessary wireless device.

Of course, if you have some productivity-related reason why a particular wireless device works for you, then go for it. Just remember that most high-tech gadgets fall under the category of “wants”, not “needs”.

Of course, each of us must make informed decisions in this area, so here are some links covering this topic:

Update (Jan. 14/2013): A study was done in this area, just released: The BioInitiative Report.
Update (March 20/2013): Another study in this category.

Sit Properly and Take Breaks From Sitting

At one of my previous jobs, my boss noticed I was hunching over my desk, exhibiting very poor posture while I worked through what was often an eight- to ten-hour day. This led to some back pain and discomfort.

He told me he used to do the same thing. Because of back troubles, he had gotten some expert advice on proper posture and chair position. He quickly made a few adjustments to my chair height and positioning and from then on I was much more comfortable and rarely felt any pain in my back.

I know we can often get in a zone when programming or writing CSS, and it can be tempting to stick to it for fear of breaking the momentum. But if you’re doing that with incorrect posture for extended periods of time, you’re bound to have problems down the road.

Sitting Down is Killing You

But the problems go far beyond just some back pain and stiffness. Take a look at the above infographic created by Medical Billing & Coding that shows the importance of proper posture and encourages more non-sitting activities. Here are a few highlights from that graphic:

In addition to the articles already linked to above, here are some other sources cited in that infographic:

Update: (March 20/2013) Here’s another new study that discusses the negative health effects of excessive sitting: Stand up for your health.

Avoid Fast Food and Junk Food

When you’re stuck in an 8-hour-a-day office job, or even if you’re a freelancer working out of a home office, fast food and junk food consumption can become second nature. After all, why spend two hours preparing, cooking, and eating a homemade meal when you can just order out or run to the McDonalds on the corner?

Web designers and developers who work full time and also freelance or blog regularly (often on weekends or evenings) can easily fall into this trap. But it’s a dangerous one.

Most fast food and junk food barely qualifies as food at all. It’s over-processed, laced with all sorts of chemicals and additives, and has very little, if any nutritional value.

You may not feel the effects right away. You might even feel good for years while consuming fast food regularly. It’s the long-term effects that you should be concerned about. Obesity, diabetes, cancer, and depression rates increase dramatically when people rely on fast food or junk food. Even the so-called “healthy” options in many fast food restaurants, are not really that healthy. Even the ice in their soft drinks is suspect.

This seems to be a bigger problem in Canada, the UK, and the U.S., where in many places you can’t walk a few hundred meters without seeing a fast food joint.

But don’t take my word for it. Here are some articles discussing the negative effects of these pseudo-foods:

Avoid Unnecessary Non-Prescription Drugs

A graphic designer that I used to work with was not much of a keyboard user. He used his mouse almost exclusively, and never used keyboard shortcuts for anything. Because of this mouse-dependence, he developed regularly-occurring pain in his mouse hand. So what did he do? He told me he took Advil to alleviate the pain. Every week.

Trusting over-the-counter medicines to temporarily solve our problems can be dangerous. Just think about it: Your body is not in pain because it has an Advil or Tylenol deficiency; it’s in pain because of a deeper underlying issue. The Advil or Tylenol only masks that problem, and can potentially lead to other health issues.

In the case of the graphic designer I worked with, I feel he could have eased his discomfort considerably if he took the time to learn some keyboard shortcuts. That way, he would be moving back and forth between mouse and keyboard, not allowing stiffness or other problems to take hold.

I also think it’s a good idea to stretch your hands and fingers regularly between mouse and keyboard uses. And of course, take regular breaks.

Naturally, there are instances where prescription and non-prescription drugs are necessary. If you’ve had surgery, or have a serious medical condition, then you may have little or no choice. The problem arises when someone becomes dependent on over-the-counter medication to solve problems that could easily be solved otherwise.

Here are some studies showing the negative long-term effects of over-the-counter pain medication:

And here are some links on proper use of a mouse, and how to avoid the dangers:

Drink Mostly Plain Water

Many office workers are highly dependent on coffee and sugary sodas, particularly for the caffeine boost. It’s even worse when they turn to stronger energy drinks to compensate for lack of sleep or fatigue. While I don’t particularly have a problem with coffee (which has been shown to have medical benefits), it’s the sodas and energy drinks that can cause serious health problems.

What about artificially-sweetened drinks? Unfortunately, those have been shown to be dangerous, so they too should be avoided. Even so-called “Vitamin water” is not what you think it is.

One of the best ways to kick the sugary or diet drink habit is to simply switch to a water habit. It might be difficult at first, but when you think about the long-term effects these beverages may have on your health, this can be a good motivator.

At first you may find it repulsive (or just boring) to drink mostly water all day. But you’d be surprised what you can become accustomed to. Personally, whenever I’m thirsty, the first thing I reach for is a glass of water. I’ve trained my body so that it craves water. I believe anyone can do this over time.

I should mention here that there are many studies that have shown minimal benefit from drinking 6-8 glasses of water a day (the classic recommendation), but doing so is not necessarily for the purpose of improving your health. Instead, water can serve as a neutral replacement for the aforementioned problematic beverages.

But again, I don’t expect you to take my word for it. Here are some articles discussing this and related topics:

Increase Your Vitamin D Level

Due to the fact that a desk job will keep you indoors for a majority of the work week, this leads to a natural decline in Vitamin D levels.

Vitamin D at healthy levels can be achieved from just a little bit of sun exposure each day. But if you’re like me and you work from home, there may be days when you don’t even leave the house, thus leading to vitamin D deficiency.

In that case, you could probably use some vitamin D supplements. Proper vitamin D levels have been shown to have numerous health benefits, including fighting depression, cancer, and even the common cold.

Below are some studies on vitamin D:

Conclusion? Live Naturally and Be Physically Active

Due to the nature of our work (indoors, sitting for long hours, constant overtime, etc), living a natural life can be a challenge. But it’s not impossible to decrease our artificial dependencies and increase our level of physical activity.

So try to walk daily or get regular exercise of some other sort. Eat homemade food whenever possible, or buy something that actually qualifies as food and isn’t teeming with additives and chemicals. Avoid sugary sodas and other fattening and unhealthy foods, and try not to rely on coffee and energy drinks for artificial energy boosts.

And once again, nothing in this article should be construed as medical advice outside of the care of a licensed health practitioner. These are merely suggestions, supported by dozens of reputable sources.

We all want to have long healthy lives and continue to be part of a thriving community of designers and developers. We can increase the odds that we’ll be able to do this for a long time if we take some of these suggestions to improve our health.

Related Links

27 Responses

  1. That’s a really nice article! Thanks for doing so much research on the subject – haven’t seen anything like this one (web) design blogs. Thanks for the link to the sitting-illustration on medicalbillingandcoding.org too – that’s gold. *changes her office chair to 135 degrees, gets up and fetches a glass of water*

  2. Excellent article! I’ve been a web designer for 11+ years and just converted to a desk that I stand at rather than site. I wish I would have thought of doing this 10 years ago…

  3. Sean:

    Very useful article and great lists of resources. One of effective ways to keep your shape and sanity is bicycling. Speaking about web designers, cycling may be not only a way to make themselves healthier, but also can help in their professional activity, e.g., see the discussion on http://www.htmlcut.com/blog/is-webdesign-like-bicycling-or-car-driving.html

  4. Great tips, although the challenge is of course HOW to do all this :)

    I’d like to add that although you mention coffee is not that bad, it does dehydrate you. So especially for people who only drink coffee all day, their fluid intake in reality is close to zero. If you love coffee, be sure to take a cup of water on the side.

  5. Long overdue this. Good on you for writing.

    I’m a one-armed chap who also takes pain-pills to help chronic pain. It’s been this way for 21 years and somewhat miraculously for me I’ve never had issues with the good arm or hand and I would typically be using a PC 12 hours a day.

    I wouldn’t wish chronic pain on my worst enemy, so would thoroughly recommend people to consider some changes if they feel the slightest risk of developing as posture or work related condition.
    Robbie

    • Hey, Robbie. Thanks for commenting on this. Hope you can continue to fight through any discomfort you feel. I totally understand that there are instances where prescription drugs are necessary, so I don’t blame you for that.

  6. Rhys:

    One bug bear of mine is that desk heights in offices are often too low (http://wheresrhys.co.uk/2010/03/stooping-to-the-law-of-averages/), which makes it very difficult to not stoop in most jobs.

    Also, my tip to counteract bad programming posture is to take up juggling (http://wheresrhys.co.uk/2009/09/saving-my-neck/).

  7. Thanks for this information! we’ve tweeted it too. @swimming_hippo

  8. I can tell you about mouse related pain. It’s mostly the repeating jobs that cause those problems.
    If I had a hard week I try not use my pc at the weekend which is hard. ;)

  9. Bill:

    Couldn’t agree more! This is good stuff.

    A couple of things I would add in the wireless section.

    1) If you aren’t working wirelessly, turn the wireless port off of your device. I noticed I sit with my laptop in my dock with Wifi on. Why? It’s still talking to the nearest access point but all my traffic goes through the wire… for 8 hours a day. Click, it’s off.

    2) Don’t leave your cell phone in your pocket all day long. It’s doing the same as your computer… and it’s only an inch or two away from you..all day and sometimes all night. If you can either leave it on your desk or in a desk drawer, you’re not cooking yourself slowly.

    Good post!

  10. Marrowmaw:

    Nice to see a post like this :)

    Maybe some extra motivation for myself as well.

  11. Russ:

    Great article seems like common sense things but it always helps to be reminded.

  12. Great information on health tips for designers, i am freelancer graphic designer, n use to work late night, n some time all the day. often i just dont take my launch cuz tons of work! n but after read that simple tips, i will try to follow them for my better health!
    thanks

  13. This is a tremendous article. I host a marketing podcast for small business owners and I too seldom talk about anything but marketing. However I recently had a spinal operation due o my poor posture and overuse of the damn computer. I’m now in a neck brace for four weeks. As a result I have a new found enthusiasm for all things ergonomic. The best improvement so far is my stand-up / sit-down desk. I’m now looking for the best mouse. And am currently deciding between voice recognition and typing lessons. I also did an interview with a personal trainer who approached me on Twitter and offered me some sage advice about being a Desk Jockey! Here’s the interview http://smallbusinessbigmarketing.com/improve-performance/ Thanks once again for the great advice.

  14. good read. thanks for bringing out the health points, all designers, developers, programmers, coders, need to read this.

  15. Thank you so much for these tips.

  16. Great article, I would’ve added one item only. Exercise. It’s so damn good for the mind, health and body. I know it’s one of the hardest thing to do and have discipline, but it’s a must. For those struggling, try to see it as a way of solving some of the problems you may have and this time you allot it to think about it (a design, UI, coding issue, ideas, etc). Trust me, sometimes you think so damn hard, you forget you are actually jogging, biking, swimming, which ever.

    Last but not least, the back issue is true; I thought it was bogus stuff until I developed a small hernia due to my posture. I had to purchase a $2000 chair, ergonomic and all that jazz. I can’t live without that chair. Most of us want to buy fancy computers and gadgets and forget about good, solid, well rounded desks and chairs that will help us with our backs, legs, and arms.

    Anyway, fantastic read. ALSO, what you say about the water? 10000% spot on.

  17. An extremely useful article!
    I want to share a trick: I put my phone on the top shelf of the cabinet, which is in the opposite direction from my desktop location. Every time the phone rings, I have to run through the office, climb on a chair and reach for the shelf with the phone. A great exercise! Try this way.

  18. Very important tips you have shared, that would be very important for all blogger, developer and designers. thanks

  19. One thing that I didn’t mention in this article that I probably should have is:

    DON’T SMOKE

    If you smoke, then none of the things I suggest here will even matter. Smoking is lame and cigarettes should be illegal. Sometimes I think it’s just common sense, but it’s obviously still a problem causing health issues to many people, not just office workers.

  20. I once got the symptoms of RSI in my hand from using a mouse all day at work and in the evening at home too. I found an easy solution that cured my problem – I moved the mouse to the opposite side of the keyboard on my desk! I did this at home only, so I was then using both left and right hands (as I kept the mouse on the original side at work).

    I know what you’re thinking – I could never work like that! But try it! You soon adapt and it becomes second nature.

    Now whenever I get hand cramps again, I swap the mouse over to the other side and the cramps disappear!

    • That’s actually a really good tip, Chris. Thanks.

      Also, I believe I’ve read/heard that if you use your wrong hand for common tasks, it helps exercise a different part of the brain that is normally stagnant. But that could be a myth, I’m not sure. :)

  21. i appreciate all the tips , many of them are indispensable , still i find it great idea to make sure that you have breakfast before you start working hah make sense !!!!! :) )) etc .. everything was detailed , i will remember sleeping and getting up early : )))) thnak You

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