How To Fix the Health Issues Associated With the Engineering Lifestyle

How To Fix the Health Issues Associated With the Engineering Lifestyle
Africa Studio/Shutterstock

MinLing Zhao
November 10, 2020

As software engineers, we spend most of our day in front of a computer, usually sitting in a chair for eight hours until we go home. At home, we will probably also sit for most of the night, whether we’re watching TV, working on a personal project or just browsing the web. The job just doesn’t require much physical activity, aside from walking to meetings, the bathroom or the pantry to make a snack. The mental stress of the job also paves the way for overeating and snacking, increasing the risk of obesity.

The software engineering lifestyle isn’t necessarily glamorous, and can definitely be unhealthy. However, for every risk of prolonged sitting, there are remediations that can reduce their impact.

Musculoskeletal issues

Most people don’t think about the time spent in a chair until faced with an ailment, such as lower back pain or a stiff neck. However, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. Let’s say you dropped something and you leaned over to pick it up, causing you to tweak your back. The impulse is to blame that one action, but in reality years of compensating for bad posture meant something had to give eventually.

If you imagine your co-workers right now, you’ll probably picture them hunched over their desks staring at their screens. On your commute home, you’ll see people head down on their phones whether they’re standing or sitting. Technology is changing the way we connect with people, but it’s also changing our bodies.

If you were to count the time you spend sitting in a chair, it would probably be about 11 hours—nearly 70% of most people’s waking hours. Some people exercise after work, but unfortunately 1-2 hours of exercise will not reverse the potentially harmful effects of being sedentary for the other 23 hours.

Poor posture can cause Postural Kyphosis and it can have detrimental effects (adult kyphosis). Every inch that you hold your head forward while slouching adds 10 pounds of pressure on your spine. The rounded-forward position of flexion causes your shoulders and neck muscle to become adaptively stiff.

Over time, the cultivated stiffness can compromise your ability to straighten your spine. This rounded back can also compromise your ability to breathe fully and efficiently. This mechanical obstruction makes your body breathe in short, shallow breaths, which triggers the state of fight or flight. This releases stress hormones that will compromise your ability to get back to a relaxed state (Starrett, 2016).

A depiction of a kyphotic spine compared to a healthy one

Visual impairment

Staring at a computer screen all day also may cause retinal damage. Computer screens and digital devices emit blue light. The short high energy wavelength flickers and creates a glare that decreases visual contrast and may be one of the reasons for eye strain, headaches, and mental fatigue are associated with prolonged screen exposure (Blue Light Exposed).

You blink less when you are concentrated on a screen, which can cause irritation and dry eyes (“Blue Light and Your Eyes”). Blue light with wavelengths between 415 nm and 455 nm are closely related to eye damaging diseases such as dry eye, cataracts, and age-related macular degeneration (Zhao et al., 2018).

We should decrease screen time and take frequent breaks, and eyeglasses that block blue light might also help. Consider talking to an eye professional to see how they can protect your eyes.

Mental stress

In addition to the physical complications of the software engineer life, there are also mental ones. Sometimes, when stuck on a bug, you may get frustrated and stressed out. Stress activates the fight or flight response in your body, increasing your heart rate and adrenaline. Cortisol, a stress hormone, can cause fat to build up on your abdomen (“Study: Stress May Cause Excess Abdominal Fat in Otherwise Slender Women”).

Stress on the mind might also cause disruptions in sleep. Software engineers tend to be on the computer all day, so the blue light from the computer screen makes it harder to fall asleep. The high energy blue light inhibits melatonin secretion, and enhances adrenocortical hormone production, which will destroy the hormonal balance and affect sleep quality. Your body follows the circadian rhythm, and sunlight affects your internal body clock (Chang, et al., 2014).

Poor food decisions

When concentrating deeply on solutions to work through a code problem, the last thing you want to do is prepare a healthy meal. When the body is stressed, it wants to be comforted, so food consumption is a common stress relief. High-calorie, low-nutrient snacks are often convenient to grab since they usually come in packaged form.

You may find yourself reaching for some chocolate in the snack closet when you become stressed about something. Ingesting sweets provides a small dopamine release into your body for immediate comfort but it also raises your insulin levels, making your body less sensitive to insulin, which can lead to diabetes if it becomes chronic. Excess sugars get stored as fat in your body, leading to weight gain (Taubes, 2011). When comforting carbohydrates such as cookies and chips are easily accessible because they’re prepackaged and require no work to prepare, it is easy to overeat. Unfortunately, most of the prepackaged foods you see are full of added sugar. Sugar elicits addiction-like cravings and can even become even more addictive than cocaine, according to a study on rats (Ahmed, et al., 2013).

It’s not a surprise when excessive eating combined with a sedentary lifestyle will result in more than just weight gain. Sitting too much doesn’t just shorten lives, the Centers of Disease Control reports that we are spending 75 cents of every health-care dollar on chronic conditions linked to sedentary behavior such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. If we made small changes to be more active, it could reduce the amount of money spent for these diseases that exist due to lifestyle decisions.

Changes you can make

As you can see, having a desk job causes many stresses on the body and the mind. But it’s never too late to fix a problem, as hopeless it may seem. A few key changes can mean the difference between a healthy, active life or one of prolonged discomfort.

Desk ergonomics

The first step is to notice when you slouch at your desk. When you start to feel neck pain, imagine a piece of string at the crown of your head is being pulled up. That will relieve some tension.

Guidelines for sitting in front of a computer with good posture

Sitting properly at your desk will mitigate some of the stressors. When you take a seat on your chair, your legs should bend at a 90 degree angle with your feet flat on the floor. If you are short, you need to lower your chair or get a footrest. You also shouldn’t be reaching too far for your keyboard and mouse, because that will make you hunch forward.

Your monitor should be high enough that the top is level with your eyes, allowing you to maintain a neutral posture. Putting your monitor too high will cause you to look up, which may cause you to slouch. Being mindful of keeping your back straight is a hard endeavor in itself, but remember that small changes can turn into lifelong habits with consistency.

One solution to prolonged sitting is to get a standing desk, as it’s an easy way to be a little more active and a positive investment in your health. Personally, I’ve noticed that over time I got fatigued faster when I was standing at events or happy hours and attributed this to the fact that I sit all day long. I couldn’t stand for long periods when I did get a standing desk, either. My body had to get adjusted to the new changes of standing, because my muscles were weak from not using them. Standing can also help increase mobility.

Fitness and stretching

Strengthening your back muscles can also help; a stronger back is naturally more capable of supporting your torso. Research suggests that those who work out a lot might slouch less. A long-term study of children found that targeted athletic training seemed to improve body posture from adolescence to adulthood (Ludwig et al., 2018)

A list of resistance exercises that can help improve posture.

Remember to take regular breaks and do some stretching. As we sit, hip flexors and the hamstrings become shorter, tighter and less flexible (Farrar, 2019). Stretching your hips will help relieve the tightness. Maintaining is the key here, it is far easier to do maintenance than to fix something that’s broken. Taking breaks also allows your brain to take a rest and come back with a better perspective on tackling your coding problem. You are not a machine.

A man using a wall to stretch his hips and calves.

Deskbound Guidelines, from Deskbound (Starrett, 2016)

  1. Reduce optional sitting in your life.
  2. For every 30 minutes that you are deskbound, move for at least 2 minutes.
  3. Prioritize position and mechanics whenever you can.
  4. Perform 10 to 15 minutes of daily maintenance on your body.

Reframing food choices

Start noticing when you get stressed out and how you react to it. It’s important to be in tune with your body so you can understand your impulses. When you realize what’s actually happening, you can make better choices.

Instead of reaching for chocolate, opt for a healthier snack like fruit, nuts, eggs, yogurt, etc. Eating fewer carbohydrates will also help avoid weight gain, because carbohydrates (particularly simple, processed ones) are what prompts the body to release insulin, in turn signaling the fat cells to intake and store the excess calories.

Make healthy foods more easily available by choosing low carb alternatives, or pack your own snack bags that are full of nutrients. Surprise, your co-worker just bought a box of donuts for everyone, and that triggers your sweet tooth. It’s not a matter of ignoring your craving, you should just plan to eat half a donut instead of a full one. That should curb your cravings and still not over indulge in sugar.

When you slowly decrease your carbohydrate intake, you will crave them less. The idea is to increase the portion of protein and vegetables and decrease the amount of carbohydrates. Some people choose to eventually remove all unnecessary added sugars from their diet.

Sitting in front of a computer while eating your lunch isn’t a great idea either. People tend to overeat when they’re not mindful of what they’re eating and how much they’re eating. It is important to eat slowly so that your stomach can signal to your brain that it is full. Don’t worry about having leftovers, you can always eat that as a snack later. Having nutritious food is better than eating unneeded calories.

Practicing mindfulness

Social activities such as taking walks with your co-workers to get coffee or just enjoy the sunshine can help relieve some stress. Shows like “Silicon Valley” and “Mr.Robot” portray programmers as socially awkward, but you don’t have to fit the stereotype.

Spending your whole life talking to a computer isn’t particularly healthy because humans are social creatures. We need positive social interactions to thrive and not burn out. Especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic, it can be refreshing to talk to another human being, even if it is through a happy hour with your team on Google Hangouts.

Consider including meditation in your daily life. Meditation will help with keeping calm and curb your impulses to reach for a candy bar every time you feel stressed. It may also help you sleep better, as it did for me when I revisited the same relaxed state before I drifted away to sleep.

At LTV, we have meditation sessions every day, and attending them made me see an improvement in my mental well-being. I was able to take some time out to relieve some stress, and it improved my productivity afterwards.

There was a time that I was overwhelmed with the sheer amount of broken specs that I had to go through for our Rails upgrades, and I went to meditate in the middle of the day. It was like magic; I felt instant mental clarity and I realized that my mind felt fuzzy before that. I was able to go through specs faster and more logically afterwards because I took some time out of my day to meditate. The rewards are long lasting and greater than you think.

Keeping a healthy lifestyle, staying in tune with your own feelings and impulses, and becoming more active during the day will help you become a healthier software engineer. Health is more important than anything else. Don’t let the ergonomic and mental aspects of the job inhibit your ability to live your best life. Stay healthy!

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