Stand up for your health

It’s not good news for programmers…  “Prolonged sedentary time is ubiquitous in developed economies and is associated with an adverse cardio-metabolic risk profile and premature mortality.” according to recent research.

In English… Too much sitting is bad for people’s health even if they exercise several times a week.

David 1504 vs David 2011

David in 1504 vs. David in 2011
(Photoshop creator unknown)

 The good news is that simply standing up more often during your working day makes a positive difference.

The Risks

Let’s get the scary medical stuff into the open.  The researchers studied the movement of 1,000s of people wearing accelerometers to measure their activity and inactivity.  The results are in Sedentary time and cardio-metabolic biomarkers in US adults and summarized here.

They found that prolonged periods of sedentary time (not moving) lead to…

  • larger waist circumferences,
  • lower levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol,
  • higher levels of C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation) and
  • high levels of triglycerides (blood fats).

These indicators are all associated with a worse future for your heart.

Worse, they found that long periods of sitting led to these problems even for people who also spent some time in moderate-to-vigorous exercise.

Programming as (Bad) Exercise

Programmers are used to “prolonged periods of sedentary time”.  Sitting down is almost a job requirement.

Programming at it’s best is Programming in The Zone.  Being in the zone leaves you near motionless for extended periods and actually has the effect of separating you from awareness of your physical being.  Over long periods this isn’t good for heart health.

The Compendium of Physical Activities Tracking Guide assesses a wide range of activities by their metabolic impact.  Not surprisingly, programming and other light office work score low.

0.9 Sleeping
1.0 Sitting watching TV
1.5 Light office work including programming
2.5 Playing piano
2.5 Slow walking
3.8 Brisk walking
4.0 Volleyball (non-competitive)
5.0 Walking up stairs
8.0 Running at 8kph / 5mph
8.0 General bicycling
16.0 Race bicycling (> 30 kph, 20mph)

The Fix

The lead author on the study, Dr Genevieve Healy, says about sedentary work:

“Our research showed that even small changes, which could be as little as standing up for one minute, might help to lower this health risk. It is likely that regular breaks in prolonged sitting time could be readily incorporated into the working environment without any detrimental impact on productivity, although this still needs to be determined by further research. ‘Stand up, move more, more often’ could be used as a slogan to get this message across.”

Some practical suggestions for getting up include:

  • Walking to see a colleague rather than phoning or emailing (and this should improve your collaboration too!)
  • Having standing meetings or encouraging regular breaks during meetings for people to stand up
  • Going to a bathroom on a different floor
  • Centralizing things such as rubbish bins and printers so that you need to walk to them
  • Taking the stairs instead of the lift where possible
  • Think on your feet by taking a walk to think about or talk about your work

It really helps if your team and the work culture encourages mobility and if you can use mobile communications to stay connected while moving about.

There are many mobile apps to monitor your movement during exercise.  Perhaps some enterprising developers can turn that upside-down to provide tools to warn office workers about their inactivity.  The “GetOffYourButt” app could…

  • use the accelerometer or GPS on the mobile phone to warn the user of extended periods of inactivity
  • use Bluetooth proximity on the desktop to warn the user they haven’t left their computer for a while
  • use the app support in the latest TVs to monitor the on-time

Get Up

Alas, in the last decade I’ve had each of the worrying medical symptoms listed above.  I certainly can’t blame my 25 years in programming because ultimately I’m responsible.

But I think programmers need to recognize that it is not a career that encourages exercise and respond appropriately.

To younger programmers I say prevention is better than cure so make your health a priority.  Start with good health habits and maintain them for the long haul.

For those like me who are further into their programming career, the good news is that bad habits are reversible and the sooner the better.

All of us should encourage healthier working environments for programming.  And as a bonus, good health and activity improve mental alertness, so perhaps good behavior will lead to better software.

Stay healthy,
Andrew H – Psygrammer


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