Who here has worked in the tech industry for more than a few months and not experienced some sort of physical discomfort? Well, keep reading anyways…’cause it’s coming.
Spending all day—outside of the frequent coffee breaks, that is—tappity tap tapping at a keyboard and staring at a screen…Our hunter-gatherer ancestors would surely disapprove.
Myself, I have dealt with a problematic right shoulder and arm off and on for almost 20 years now. (You know, “40” doesn’t sound that old until you start calculating time in the workplace.) I started seeing a chiropractor in my 20s to deal with these issues, and have since had good ones and bad ones. (Much like with financial planning, there’s tremendous variability in personality, process, training, and philosophy—and therefore efficacy—in the world of chiropractic.)
Here in Bellingham, WA the Crazy Outdoorsy People capital of the country (just simmer down, there, Colorado folks), I finally found my chiropractor for life: Erik DeRoche at Performance Health NW. He calls himself a Sports Chiropractor and focuses, in my experience, on changing your behavior to improve your physical health. He also curses occasionally and lets his New York upbringing shine through. I do like him ever so much.
While the money and energy and challenges in the tech industry are great, the appeal dims a bit if you’re in regular pain. So, I asked Erik for his observations and recommendations for people in tech.
Meg: People who work in the tech industry tend to sit a lot in their jobs. Often for long long hours. Tapping away at a keyboard, staring at a screen. What are the most common physical problems you see in your patients who work in conditions like that?
Erik: Most commonly I observe a head carriage which is forward, shoulders rounded forward and upward, making lovely “ear decorations.” As a result of all of this, neck muscles become tight posteriorly (in the back), and upper back muscles also become tight as they have been under stress for too long. As a result of that, they become “thicker” and stiffness ensues. Pectoral muscles become tight and stiff. Lower back muscles, being stretched all day, become sore and stiff. And hip flexors become stiff and tight as well.
The above are just the acute effects! Long term, it is common to see headaches, frequently described as behind the eyes or in the forehead, and a straightening of the cervical curvature [the vertebrae in the neck], which becomes problematic because the natural shock-absorption capacity of a “normal” cervical curve is lost. Not to mention the development of a kyphotic (hunched back) thoracic (mid-back) spine. It is a cycle of poor posture leading to muscle spasm(s), tightness, headaches, and muscle weakness, which only worsens the more someone sits at a computer.
Meg: Are there any problems that women working in those conditions would be particularly prone to? (I genuinely don’t know if there’s a difference…but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were!)
Erik: On average, unfortunately, woman do not have the same muscle structure of their male counterparts. This doesn’t make them any less “tough,” I assure you! However, in my experience, this does allow for more stress and strain being placed on their necks, upper backs, and shoulders. Add to this that women wear bras and some women, with larger chests, tend to have increased strain placed on their upper back and shoulders. Not to mention, on average, woman tend to complain less and suffer more.
Meg: What is the single most important thing that people working in those conditions could do to best improve their health (either fixing an existing problem or warding off one in the future)?
Erik: The number one thing to do as soon as possible is to purchase/order/request a stand-up desk. [Meg: Erik particularly likes the Varidesk brand. I myself purchased one on his recommendation and found it easy to set up and easy to move up and down. No, this isn’t an affiliate link. I’m a fee-only advisor, after all.]
Meg: Round out that list with a few more things you recommend, either exercises, changes to work process, or specific hardware. Please.
If #1 is using a standing desk, then #2 is performing regular postural relief exercises as you sit or stand. Just because you are now standing at work does not completely alleviate the stress on the neck, upper back, and shoulders. You have to make a conscious decision: get busy “doing” or get busy suffering.
Here are a few postural exercises to begin performing as soon as possible:
- Open Book Seated: 3 deep breaths in and out, done every 20 minutes throughout the day. Can also be done seated in the car or while standing. (Follow this instructional video) [Meg: I never achieve the every-20-minutes thing, but I find it helpful even with a less-virtuous frequency!]
- Doorway Pec Stretch: 10 reps of one deep breath in and out. Gradually feeling the pec stretch out with each exhalation. Done 4 times/day (Follow this instructional video. Yes, that’s Erik!)
- Blackburn Palms Up: 10 reps, 2 sets, especially before workouts as a muscle-activation exercise (Follow this instructional video)
#3: Become more active. You don’t need to run a marathon or, for that matter, run at all. What I’m talking about is to regularly perform a full-body exercise regimen. Resistance training (weight training) combined with cardiovascular exercise of your choice, and making sure to mix up intensities, duration, and frequencies.
I will also mention that walking IS NOT ENOUGH. Read that last sentence again. [Meg: in case you missed the ALL CAPS.] It may come as a surprise that I don’t suggest walking, but after being a strength coach, then a personal trainer to many corporate-ladder climbers, then a triathlon coach, and now a Sports Chiropractor, I suggest strength training ten times more than I suggest cardiovascular training.
“Why?” you may ask. Well, put it this way: Have you ever heard someone say “I am too strong?” Walking is great for cardiovascular endurance but it does nothing for pure strength of the upper or lower body or bone mineral density. Ok, my apologies, I just went off on a tangent. [Meg: He’s not really sorry. He loves his tangents.]
You might get a sense of why I love working with Erik and how I have improved my physical well-being by obeying his (almost) every command. I hope you found Erik’s observations a useful tool for caring for your body, so you can continue to reap all the benefits of your tech industry career. Take care of yourself, will you?
Question: How do you take care of yourself physically, in a job that is so unnatural for our bodies? You can leave a comment below.
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