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Why Programming Can Take A Toll On Your Health

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If you look at the top 10 healthiest jobs in the world, being a software developer won't be in the top 100. For obvious reasons. Mainly, that you sit for 8-18 hours a day. And it doesn't matter whether or not you're in one of those fancy smashncy $400 office chairs either. Sitting is sitting. Muscles atrophy, shoulders slump, your neck tilts forward and your brain kinda just sits there waiting for some cool stuff to happen all day, but it never does. And when you think it's about to, yeah, it never does.

More recently, with new found reasons to live, I've gone ahead and completely changed the way that I program, the way that I eat, and the way that I work in general. And the results are indeed life altering, changing and improving in every way possible. And these weren't "massive" changes in any way. But more like tiny little steps that become the norm, until they were replaced by other tiny steps. And eventually voila, you're no longer halfway to a stroke in a fancy office chair. Because health should be in our top 3 daily things to think about at least once.

health comes in tiny little steps that become habits over time

Not too long ago I was about 60 pounds overweight with the worst possible sleep imaginable, which I would counteract by eating gummy bears and pizza to feel better. As it turns out, I just really hated my job. I had the worst posture imaginable, I had ongoing chronic skin conditions which I would associate with stress and I probably spent most of the day in a weird hazy fog as I sat at work like Neo looking to escape, only too confused to realize how.

So in the hopes that this sounds familiar to someone out there reading it, I'm going to go over the health effects that programming has had on my life health wise, and what I've done to correct those effects as much as humanly possible, and the results of said "experiment" during the course of about 3 months.

Stop sitting

Programming And Health

It's tough, I know. I've sat from age 5 to 30 for most of my days. Whether it's in school or playing video games or driving to work, sitting is now our #1 choice of exercise. And I can link study after study about the detrimental effects of prolonged sitting, but I don't think anyone needs convincing in this area. It's pretty common sense. Humans didn't get to where they were in the food chain by picking a chair, sitting on it, and waiting for the sun to leave. But here's a research article anyway, just for a fun read, from the Journal of National Cancer Institute in which sedentary behavior has been linked to a higher likelihood of certain cancers.

For me however, the result was an increasingly worsening posture and very weak hip strength. My squat game was weak essentially. And that caused all kinds of confusion running down the kinetic chain of my body.

But because we can't just walk around with our laptops tied around our necks, we're going to need another solution. And the one that pretty much almost every tech startup has jumped on is standing desks. And I applaud those companies for the effort. But it's going to take a little more than balancing yourself on your femurs and hip bones to get healthy I'm afraid. You don't really burn that many excess calories if you're standing around. But it's a start. Remember that whole, tiny little steps thing. This is one tiny little step. Just be sure to step around a bit every so often in order to continue your blood circulation.

Laptop pendants don't exist yet

I've set up standing desks in the past for myself, but normally that didn't last more than a few weeks, before I gave up. I like my sitting. This time around though, I'm going on month 3 of my standing journey, and it's going much more smoothly. It's a DIY solution that I found online years ago, and it works just as well now. It doesn't need to be an expensive standing desk setup by any means. My setup uses about 20$ worth of IKEA parts and here is a nice write-up that someone else did on that matter that I would highly recommend incorporating at both home and work.

Coffee vs Energy Drinks

Or both. Cans of energy drinks go hand in hand with being in the tech industry nowadays. No idea if programmers can be sponsored by energy drink companies, but it sure seems like it nowadays. For me, this energy craze started in college. Long hours and boring classes about..history and english I guess, can make a programmer exhausted. And lucky for me, every single club room in my department sold energy drinks for cheap. And so I would devour about 2-3 cans per day roughly for a good 5 years. I countered the weight issue by not eating. Totally balanced itself out and I was a skinny 130Lbs this entire time.

Programming And Health

Move ahead to 4-5 years of working in an office, and I was consuming about 5 cans of energy drinks per day, and eating very large lunches as I was a worker now. Uh oh. That was a recipe for disaster I can say. I'm a relatively short guy at 5'6...7.....So my weight should hover in the 120 to 140ish range, based on arbitrary charts I found online. However, during this time, my weight scaled up to an impressive 190Lbs. If I were a bear, and winter came, I could have slept for about 5 months.

And much of this, I would of course have to blame on the drinks. Most of these sugary delights contain about 200 calories per bottle. Not per serving, because each can pretty much is 2 servings for some reason, like if I'm going to drink half then save the rest for tomorrow. So I was averaging about 1,000 daily calories from these alone, which is mind boggling. And of course, the more you drink you more you'll eventually need as your tolerance for both sugar and caffeine increases.

Programming And Health
what was I on

So drink black coffee. A good roast can have a fair amount of caffeine, for those times that you need focus, but more importantly, plain black coffee contains about 0-5 calories per serving and coffee is awesome. It's relaxing, it's complex and it has its own culture which you can involve yourself with if you're bored on a Friday night. Ever have a Salvadorean pour over served on a bamboo cup (or something)? It's fantastic.

Vitamin D

Or lack thereof. Again, you can't really program out in the wilderness. I mean you could, but you're not. You're going to sit in a ventilated room (hopefully) with the AC turned up to 11 with tinted windows giving you just enough sunlight to remind you that you're still on Earth. And if you manage to leave work early, you will receive some sunlight as your reward. And then you'll continue to block it out with sunscreen and more window tinting on your drive home.

But before you do that, and make some massive sunscreen company billions per day, let's not forget what sunlight does to the humans. It doesn't "give you" vitamin D, like my entire family believed. That would be weird. But more like your body can produce vitamin D itself when ultraviolet radiation hits your skin. For more on Vitamin D, feel free to check out this NIH spec sheet.

So get sun, in some way. Go for a walk during lunch. Don't bathe in sunscreen like the commercials and ads mention. For me this comes in a 15 minute ride in my skateboard to a farther away coffee shop in the middle of the day. And that alone, is a somewhat zen experience and a good moment to relax the old brain from algorithms and confusing business logic and such.

But even I sometimes go days without stepping outside for sure. The weekdays tend to get busy. So I do supplement with Vitamin D3. This is a good brand and the bottle has a 1 year supply and it comes reasonably priced, so I highly recommend it for those code monkeys that are too busy to get up and get coffee.


ZzZZzzzz

This one of those things that is last one everyone's list of priorities. And for good reason. In all your years in grade school, high school or college, no one will ever talk to you about sleep in any way shape or form. School is important, work is important, homework is important and sleep is the nuisance in the day that detracts from that.

Programming And Health

Sarcasm aside, humans need sleep because well, humans need sleep. If you're doing something now, it's because humans needed to do it to survive at some point. That's the simplest answer without going into protein synthesis and REM sleep cycles. It's when you're body recovers and builds muscle and when your brain does its thing too.

Get the blue out of your eyes when the sun goes down. Blue light has been shown to effect your brain in a number of ways, and getting too much of it will impact greatly how you sleep. And if you don't believe me, here's a Harvard Health Publications article which will do a much better job at explaining this whole thing than I could.

Sadly, I know way too many programmers that go to bed around 3am-4am and immerse themselves with as much light and electronics as possible right before bed. I myself spent some time going to bed at 6am every day, thinking myself the mad scientist I assume. My average time spent in "deep sleep", which is important, was averaging about 15 minutes to 30 minutes per night. By making a few changes, just a few, like putting my phone into airplane mode 30 minutes before bed and using f.lux to filter out the blue light from my screen, I am now averaging a solid 2+ hours a night of deep sleep. And how do I know it works? Because when I wake up, I'm not tired in the slightest.

Do something fun, because death is coming

So this is the biggest tip, lesson, stern talking to, what have you that I can mention. And that's to do something besides programming. And not TV. But something. Anything. Grow a plant. Buy a skateboard. Get a french press, grind and brew your own coffee. But something. Programming is great, don't get me wrong. I'm programming as we speak. But I won't for very long. As I'm getting ready to make a coffee run and then visit my family. This list doesn't really just apply to programmers. Anybody with an office job essentially has to do these things in order to get through their day.

And just as I did for about 10 years, most people don't realize there is anything wrong, until it is too late.

Hate to end that on a dark note. But it has more of an impact I think.

Walter Guevara is a Computer Scientist, software engineer, startup founder and currently mentors for a coding bootcamp. He has been creating software for the past 15 years.
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