>> Staying healthy as a programmer

2016-06-22

Disclaimer In this post I link to some specific products. These links serve as examples and are by no means direct reccomendations. Some of these are just the result of a quick web search. If you decide to buy stuff, do your research, figure out what exactly you need and choose a product based on that.

One of the most important things in your life is your health. As programmers, and other professionals who mainly work at a desk, staying healthy can be surprisingly difficult, even though sitting all day seems not particularly demanding. Some of this risks can be avoided by consciously changing habits, but often the right equipment can also play a big role. You really should not skimp when it comes to maintaining your health. I will discuss some free, and also some non-free ways that can help you with that.

Repetitive Strain Injury

There are several big health risks that programmers are affected by. The first one is repetitive strain injury, which can happen to anyone and can completely stop you from coding if it gets too bad. The easiest way of preventing RSI is the right setup. You want your desk to be at the right height, so your elbows are at a right angle. Depending on the keyboard, a wrist rest can also be helpful. As a rule of thumb, if your hands or arms start hurting after several minutes of continuous typing, there’s something wrong.

No matter what you do, doing things as unnatural as typing for long periods of time is harmful to your body, like almost anything. So make sure to take regular breaks, and also do some stretches for your hands and arms.

You can also try using alternative keyboard layouts, although this is quite a big step. I switched to using colemak, which is still relatively close to QWERTY, on all my machines early this year, and it has helped me tremendously, but it also took me about 10 weeks using it full-time to get back to my own typing speed, and regain muscle memory for vim. Another popular alternative is dvorak, which is more widely supported (read: on Windows without extra software), but radically differs from QWERTY.

If you want to go all out, there are also various kinds of ergonomical keyboards, which some people swear by. I haven’t had any personal experience with these, but I feel like being able to e.g. have your hands wider apart can make a big difference in your wrists, especially if you are typing for 6-8 hours a day.

Back problems

Another problem many office workers have are posture and back problems, which can lead to chronic pain. Make sure your whole working environment is set up in a way that does not slowly kill you.

Proper posture illustration

A relativaly cheap solution I value very much are monitor arms, which are key to get both your monitor high enough to not to have look down at it and also your desk low enough to not strain your elbows and wrists while typing. An added bonus is the free space under the monitor. I personally prefer the desk mounted ones for flexibility reasons, and they also allow you to run the cables behind them, but wall mounting is also an option that can come in handy.

Another big part of your setup is your chair. Many office chairs are bad for your posture and do not support your lower back properly, encouraging you to lounge instead of sitting upright. Good chairs can be very expensive, the KAB Executive retails for way above $1000, but I’d go as far and say it is worth that. I do not believe in saving money when it comes to my health. Also it is going to last a decade or more without problems. But you might not have this kind of money to spend on a chair, which I also fully understand. All I want is to make you think about how you sit in your chair, especially for long periods of intense concentration.

Another option can be a standing desk. There are many different ways of doing things, fixed height standing desks, manually variable desks and of course also electrically operated ones. In addition to that, there are also mini add-on desks that you place on an existing desk. Standing makes it easier to keep a proper posture (and also burns some additional calories), but standing all day long is also bad for your back, so the proper mix between sitting and standing is important.

There is one more point, and it is perhaps the most important one I have to make: whatever you do, as an office worker on a desk, it is extremely important to take regular breaks, get up (or sit down), stretch a bit, go for a short walk. I would reccomend intervals of at most once per hour, better twice. This is important for your cardiovascular system (i.e. your heart), and can also help you think. Regular exercise of any kind is also something everyone should do. Go to the gym, running or ride a bicyle. Do something that makes you sweat two or three times a week, and your overall quality of life will skyrocket.