Health Hacks for Computer Workers

I spend a lot of time on the computer, which was fine until I hit my mid 30s. And then I started to suffer from pain in my arms, and random back spasms.

That’s when I learned that sitting down is bad for your health (in fact, sitting for 5 hours is as bad as smoking a pack of cigarettes). 20 years of frequent sitting was taking its toll.

After much experimentation, I’ve found ways to avoid these problems. Hopefully, by sharing my solutions, I can help some of you avoid these issues.

Tip 1: Sit/Stand Treadmill Desk

The most effective (and most expensive) change was getting a sit/stand treadmill desk.

I ordered an 80″ wide LifeSpan desk with a TR1200 treadmill (see http://www.thehumansolution.com/uplift-lifespan-treadmill-desk.html).

I chose the widest model because sometimes I’m tired of walking and just want to sit.  So I keep a chair next to the treadmill, and move the monitor/keyboard from one side of the desk to the other.

My setup

My setup

So now I walk 5 or 6 miles every day.  More than anything, this change has mitigated health issues, while also increasing my overall energy.

The cost was $2600, which I consider some of the best money I’ve ever spent.

Tip 2: The Gokhale Method for a Pain-Free Back

I had dozens of chiropractor visits, and started practicing yoga a few times a week.  None of that seemed to help.

Then I bought 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back.  The book’s basic premise is that back pain is mostly a symptom of bad posture, and is rare in developing countries where people don’t sit all day long.

From the book: “Notice that his shoulders are aligned toward the back of his torso; his neck is elongated without much curvature and, as a result, his chin angles down; his belt is lower in front than in back, reflecting a pelvis that is tipped forward and a sacrum that is angled back; his chest is “open”; his breast bone is more horizontal than vertical; and his rib cage is flush with the contour of his torso. Even though he works on a low table for much of the day, he does not stoop forward or hunch his shoulders at all”. Free image courtesy of www.egwellness.com

What I like about focusing on posture, is you can always be working on it.  With back-strengthening exercises, you have to find time to do them.  But you’re always standing, or sitting, or walking, or lying down.

After reading this book, I got rid of my fancy Aeron chair (which tries to mold your back into a C shape), and bought the ugly-but-functional Gokhale chair ($560).

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Tip 3: Trigger-point Massage

Sometimes, your best efforts at prevention don’t work, and you need a cure. A couple years ago, I had pain in my right arm that just didn’t go away.

I went to doctors and physical therapists. I tried acupuncture, took various vitamins. None of it worked.

I stopped using a computer, thinking rest would fix my arm. But it didn’t, not even after over a month of not working.

Finally, I discovered the book It’s Not Carpal Tunnel Syndrome!: RSI Theory and Therapy for Computer Professionals, which explains how wear and tear can accumulate in the human body. Sometimes, nerves get snagged by knots of tissue. What’s tricky is that, when this happens, you will feel pain somewhere other than the source of the problem.

Once I identified the type of therapy I needed (which goes by “trigger point massage” or “myofascial release”), I was fine after a few sessions.

The Utility of Perspectives

There are some oddities in the perspective with which we see the world. The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be, but we have done various things over intellectual history to slowly correct some of our misapprehensions.
- Douglas Adams

My parents were in the foreign service, so I moved around a lot as a child.  I spent years living in such places as Senegal, Egypt, and Bolivia.

Perhaps because of this background, I’ve always been aware of different people’s perspectives.  Not only does everyone have a different perspective, but the range of perspectives that intelligent people can possess is vast.

As the anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt wrote:

Anthropology has taught us that the world is differently defined in different places. It is not only that people have different customs; it is not only that people believe in different gods and expect different post-mortem fates. It is, rather, that the worlds of different peoples have different shapes. The very metaphysical presuppositions differ: space does not conform to Euclidean geometry, time does not form a continuous unidirectional flow, causation does not conform to Aristotelian logic, man is not differentiated from non-man or life from death, as in our world.

Now maybe you’re thinking “yeah yeah, I know, intelligent people can disagree about things and other cultures are really different, but how is this relevant to my life?

I’ll give you two ways: authority and power.

On authority: since there are so many different but valid ways of seeing things, no one else can lay claim to ultimate truth.  Everyone else is just making things up as they go along.  So it’s up to you to construct your own world view.  Figure out what perspectives resonate with you, and become your own authority figure.

On power: you have limited power over the external world.  Sure, you can move your limbs this way and that.  Can you make millions of dollars and retire rich?  Maybe, but that’s hard.  And good luck trying to make yourself younger.

But you have a lot of power over the perspectives you employ in dealing with the world.  And your perspectives shape your attitude, which shapes your internal reality.

In other words, if you can cultivate a persistent attitude that “life is an amazing gift and I’m just so grateful that I have these few years to enjoy it”, that attitude will make you happier than a bitter attitude plus all the money in the world.

Successfully cultivating a new attitude isn’t easy, but it is possible and is in fact easier than a lot of goals we burn ourselves out trying to achieve (see above on “make millions of dollars and retire rich”).

Happiness through Intelligence

“I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.”
- Emo Philips

If you ask most people what their #1 goal in life is, some form of “be as happy as possible” tends to be the top answer.

So I’m constantly baffled by how bad most people are — even incredibly smart people — at applying their intellectual faculties in service of this goal.

Our brains serve our genes, not vice versa

This inability makes sense when you think about it from an evolutionary psychology perspective.  The Darwinian game of “genes optimizing their ability to make more copies of themselves” has been going on for a couple billion years — many orders of magnitude longer than human-level intelligence has been around.

Animals that acquire resources and high social status have the best mating opportunities, so it’s little wonder that we’re naturally motivated to climb the resource / status ladder.  In fact, we likely evolved such big brains just so we could navigate the complex web of status hierarchies of our communities.

But, as research in positive psychology tells us, these trappings of status don’t make us happier.  It’s not about how much money you have (above a low threshold).  It’s not even about how smart or good looking you are.

Instead, the factors within our control that correlate with happiness (as opposed to genetics, which is outside our control) are such things as having free time, having good friends, regularly entering a state of flow, and feeling attached to something bigger than oneself.

So why can’t we apply our big brains to the task of making ourselves happier?  We can, but it’s hard, because our brains are not monolithic entities.

Elephant and the Rider

A metaphor that I like comes from the fantastic book The Happiness Hypothesis. To quote from the book:

The mind is divided in many ways, but the division that really matters is between conscious/reasoned processes and automatic/implicit processes. These two parts are like a rider on the back of an elephant. The rider’s inability to control the elephant by force explains many puzzles about our mental life, particularly why we have such trouble with weakness of will. Learning how to train the elephant is the secret of self-improvement.

You can use your conscious mind to make yourself happier, but it take more than a simple act of will.  You need to retrain the elephant.

The author lists three ways to retrain the elephant:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy.  Basically, you practice becoming aware of negative thought patterns.  Whenever you catch yourself in a negative pattern (e.g. “I’m so bored with my life”), you substitute a positive thought (e.g. “I’m bored so… I should sign up for an acting class!”).  Over time, the negative patterns diffuse.
  • Meditation.  Practicing mediation makes you mindful of your thoughts, and able to intervene at a meta level by asking yourself “does this thought serve me”.  You learn to create a more positive internal state by not reacting to craving and aversion.
  • Prozac.  The shortcut to giving yourself a healthy balance of neurotransmitters :)

This retraining is hard.  It takes commitment to repeatedly practice the steps needed to retrain the elephant.  But if you think that “be as happy as possible” is your highest goal, shouldn’t you invest this energy?

Think about how many hours per week you devote to making money.  And you know (in your conscious brain) that this money isn’t going to move the happiness needle as much as having free time, good friends, a flow state, etc. — doesn’t it make rational sense to shift some of these hours away from making money (if you can’t find the time elsewhere) and instead apply them towards those activities that research says is more likely to make you happy?