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 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.
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.
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:
- Cell phone use can increase possible cancer risk (CNN / World Health Organization)
- Cellphone Use Tied to Changes in Brain Activity (NY Times)
- Cell Phones and Cancer Risk (National Cancer Institute)
- Health Effects of Electromagnetic Waves (Wikipedia)
- Electromagnetic radiation and health (Wikipedia)
- Increase in brain cancer risk from mobile or cordless phone use (Powerwatch News / Journal of Oncology)
- Mobile phones ‘more dangerous than smoking’ (The Independent)
- Mobile phones can cause brain tumours, court rules (Telegraph, UK)
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.
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:
- Sitting 6+ hours per day can increase risk of death up to 40%
- People with sitting jobs have twice the rate of cardiovascular disease as people with standing jobs
- As soon as you sit, electrical activity in leg muscles shuts off, calorie burning drops considerably, and enzymes that help break down fat drop 90%
- Sitting up straight is actually bad for your back
In addition to the articles already linked to above, here are some other sources cited in that infographic:
- Your Office Chair is Killing You (Business Week)
- Phys Ed: The Men Who Stare at Screens (NY Times Blogs)
- Why Your Desk Job is Slowly Killing You (MSNBC/Men’s 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.
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:
- Trans-Fats Increase Risk of Depression (Science Daily)
- Fast-food diabetes link warning (BBC News)
- Living Near Fast Food Ups Stroke Risk (ABC News)
- Junk Food Almost as Addictive as Heroin (The Telegraph)
- Fast Food: The Fast Track to Organ Damage (ABC News)
- Snack Chips, French Fries Show Highest Levels Of Known Carcinogen (Center for Science in the Public Interest)
- Most of What We Eat is Not Real Food (Spiegel Online)
- Americans Are Obsessed with Fast Food: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (CBS News)
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:
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol) tied to blood cancers (Reuters)
- FDA calls for pain reliever warning (USA Today)
- Even at Advised Doses, Tylenol May Harm Liver (LA Times)
- Heart attack risk with pain drugs (BBC News)
And here are some links on proper use of a mouse, and how to avoid the dangers:
- Mouse-Related Pain and How to Prevent it (MFL Occupational Health Centre)
- Safe Computer Use Tips (University of California)
- 10 Tips for Using a Computer Mouse (Cornell University)
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.
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:
- Energy drinks can be dangerous for teens, report says (MSNBC / Associated Press)
- As sales soar, experts warn about energy drinks (Reuters)
- Sugary sports drinks often mistaken as healthy (Food Navigator-USA)
- Gout surge blamed on sweet drinks (BBC News)
- Diet soda linked to heart disease: study (Reuters)
- Two soft drinks a day may lead to long term liver damage (The Telegraph)
- Soda may increase diabetes risk by 85% in women (USA Today)
- Drinking Water Proven To Help Weight Loss (Discovery News)
- ‘Evil’ Fizzy drinks play havoc with health
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:
- Vitamin D Kills Cancer Cells (ABC News)
- Vitamin D deficiency linked to more colds and flu (Scientific American)
- Vitamin D fights Crohn’s disease (Toronto Sun)
- Low vitamin D levels linked to metabolic syndrome (NUTRA-ingredients.com)
- Vitamin D dramatically cuts cancer risk: study (CTV News, Toronto)
- Creighton Study Shows Vitamin D Reduces Cancer Risk (Creighton University)
- Higher Vitamin D Intake Could Cut Cancer Risk (MSN / HealthDay News)
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.
- Common Programmer Health Problems (By Zed A. Shaw)
- Is your desk job bad for your health? (CNN)
- Health hazards for IT workers — how that desk job wears your body down (Computerworld)
- Five health hazards of your office job (TechRepublic)