For whatever else we may love about it, programming can be one of the worst things for your health. Developers face a myriad of physical and mental health challenges in today’s world. Whether it’s wrist and back pain, migraines, eye strain, loss of motivation, or trouble focusing—programming can be a pretty risky profession!
If you haven’t encountered one of these yet, consider yourself lucky (but know that one day, you almost certainly will!). Thankfully, there are lots of simple hacks and techniques to make this better.
Here are seven easy ways to take care of yourself and keep your mind and body in excellent shape.
1. Take a walk
It’s becoming common knowledge that sitting is the new smoking. We’ve probably all sat in front of our workstations for hours at a time. It’s creating your back problems, straining your eyes, and sapping your energy, and it’s probably why you have a migraine.
So take a walk instead! A recent study has shown that adults who walked for 40 minutes three times a week for a year literally grew their hippocampus! The hippocampus is the part of your brain that helps create new memories. It also helps regulate the autonomic nervous system, as well as your mood. In addition to the cognitive benefits, walking for 20 minutes will cause you to burn an average of 70–140 calories. On top of that, walking’s a great way to prevent back pain!
[40 min ✖️ 3 times a week = brain growth + better health]
Now, 40 minutes may sound like a lot to you, but it’s actually pretty easy to break down throughout your day:
- Every 30 minutes to an hour, get up and walk around the office for five minutes—stop by the kitchen, speak with a coworker, or use the restroom even! However you do it, when you sit back down, you’ll find yourself refreshed, happy, and able to focus better.
- Get lunch outside the office, somewhere 10 minutes away. By the time you’ve walked there and back, you've gotten half your walk time for the day!
- If you take the subway home, get off a stop or two early and walk off some of that end-of-the-work-day exhaustion!
To help make this happen, you can also use an app like 30/30 or Wunderlist to remind yourself to get up and walk. (Side note: 30/30 is a highly customizable timed to-do list and can be a really amazing way to stay focused and get work done. I use it all the time!) Another way to get yourself walking is to buy a pedometer. It will show you how many steps you’ve taken throughout the day. On any given day, you should be getting in a minimum of 10,000 steps (five miles) per day.
Better yet, there’s another even more fun way to get in your walking…
2. Start a daily walk group
Early in my programming career, I participated in a batch at the Recurse Center (a three-month self-directed retreat where programmers of all levels can dive deep and explore their biggest interests). While I was there, one of my batchmates—inspired by the book The Healthy Programmer—started a daily walk group.
Every day around 2 or 3 p.m., a group of us would get together and go for a 20-minute walk somewhere. Sometimes we’d treat ourselves to some coffee, pastries, or ice cream, and sometimes we’d walk over to a park. One summer day, we even walked over the Brooklyn Bridge (well, part of it, anyway—we had to get some work done, after all!).
This arrangement was perfect (since 3 p.m. is about when everybody starts getting tired and feeling that end-of-the-day lag). It was also a great and fun way to build relationships with each other (especially people you might not otherwise have a chance to talk to). It sure beat going to the gym!
If you’re a manager or team lead, consider this: a daily walk group is really excellent for productivity! It can bring members of different teams together and get them to talk to and build relationships with each other. This is a huge benefit for collaborative work. At some point your engineering team will need to communicate with the design or customer insight teams. While your role probably already includes that cross-department communication and decision making, wouldn’t it make your life easier if your engineers had some idea of how the other team thinks and approaches things, too?!
Of course, walking’s not the only way to take care of yourself and improve your health…
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3. Manage your blue light exposure with f.lux
Blue light, also known as high-energy visible (HEV) light, makes up one-third of the visible light spectrum. In and of itself, blue light is not bad: our main source of HEV light is the sun, and HEV light is what makes the sky look blue. Additionally, taking in blue light boosts alertness, memory, cognitive function, and mood (is is also used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder). While blue light isn’t all bad, staring at our screens and monitors all day exposes us to really unhealthy amounts of it. Making matters worse, our eyes are poor at blocking it out!
HEV light scatters more easily than other light, and all this scattered light reduces contrast and creates digital eye strain. It’s damaging to our retinas and causes changes similar to macular degeneration, which can lead to gradual (but permanent) vision loss. If you find yourself needing a new glasses prescription every year, blue light may very well be the culprit!!
But here comes f.lux to the rescue! Originally created to help people sleep better, f.lux continually adjusts the color temperature of your computer screen by automatically filtering out blue light (based on the time of day). Its configuration lets you determine your preferred color temperature and the exact amount of light you’d like to filter out (you can also adjust this manually at any given moment). If you’re a designer or doing color-sensitive work, f.lux includes an option to disable it for an hour, or even until sunrise!
The best part of f.lux is that it’s available for free on all the major desktop and mobile operating systems (the one exception is Apple mobile devices, though iOS 9.2 recently introduced a very similar feature called Night Shift).
4. Optimize your monitor setup
Your monitor setup goes a really long way toward preventing Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS). CVS symptoms can include:
Thankfully, with some preemptive mitigation you can help shield yourself from some of the damage!
First, if you’re a glasses wearer and don’t have the right prescription lenses, your eyes will have to work harder to focus. This causes muscle fatigue, which will lead to headaches and worsen your vision.
Second, position your monitor between 20 and 40 inches away from you. This is roughly the length of your arm. If you can give your monitor a high five, you’re too close. If you can’t touch your monitor, you’re too far.
Third, adjust your monitor’s brightness relative to the rest of the room. A great way to test that brightness is to look at a website with a completely white background. If your screen looks like a light source, it’s probably too bright. If it looks dull and gray, it’s probably too dark. A large disparity between your monitor and the room will cause you to squint and strain your eyes. If you’re using f.lux, as I suggested earlier, it’s already helping you out with this (though you may still need to make slight manual adjustments). f.lux is on your side!!
Fourth, check for excessive glare. An easy way to test this is to sit with your back to a window and check whether you can see the window reflected on your screen. If the answer’s yes, there’s too much glare, and you might want to consider getting a screen filter. Another great option is to get anti-glare coating on your glasses. Anti-glare coating blocks reflections on the front and back of your glasses, making everything easier to see!
5. Protect your eyes with the 20/20/20 rule
Just like taking walk short walks, exercising your eyes is essential! You can use what eye doctors call the “20/20/20 rule” to prevent focus fatigue and eye lockup (also known as accommodative spasm, or “programmer’s stare”). The rule is: every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away, for 20 seconds. You can do even better with this and increase the distance and duration. Try looking away for 30 seconds, or even a minute!
Alternately, use the “10–15” variation to level up your eye protection. Every 20 minutes, look at something up close for 10–15 seconds, and then look at something far away for 10–15 seconds. Repeat this 10 times!
Finally, save yourself from dry eyes: remember to blink!
6. Cut the caffeine
I know, I know—we all love our coffee, tea, and soda. A tiny bit of these each day won’t really harm you (the tea might even help), but consume more than a little bit, and you’re pretty much setting yourself up for fatigue.
Caffeine works by binding to receiver sites in your brain. In doing so, it blocks the essential spaces that your neurochemical signals need in order to get through and do their job. Essentially, you’re cutting off important parts of your brain function! Even worse, once the caffeine high wears off, you’re left feeling tired and depleted. You might also end up with a headache or a migraine. Most people’s response to this is to just drink more caffeine. Given the extremely addictive nature of caffeine, it turns out this is a pretty bad idea.
As you drink even more caffeine, you’re blocking off more and more receptor space. When you continue to do this on a daily basis, your brain expects this increased level as its baseline, meaning you’ll need to drink even more caffeine to get the same effect. If that’s not enough to convince you to cut the caffeine, consider the fact that caffeine’s a stimulant. The more you drink, the higher your blood pressure goes, and the harder your heart has to work to keep your blood flowing!
Quitting caffeine can pretty challenging, and going cold-turkey on your caffeine intake is probably too drastic. Instead, try gradually reducing your consumption throughout the week. Maybe start by drinking half a serving less than you usually drink. Continue reducing the amount you consume, at a reasonable pace, until you’re down to zero (or at least a very tiny amount). Alternately, try switching to decaf coffee or herbal tea. Maybe even consider a caffeine-free soda such as ginger ale (which, by the way, is great for your stomach in moderate amounts!).
As you reduce the amount of caffeine you consume, you’re going to need to replace it with another drink. Ready to hear the best way to do that?
7. Drink more water
It may not be as exciting as sugary or caffeinated beverages, but drinking water is pretty much the very best thing you can for your health. Your body is made up of 50–65% water (depending on your gender and body composition). Additionally, your heart, brain, lungs, kidneys, and muscles are made up of 75–80% water, too! Suffice it to say that you need to stay hydrated in order to stay healthy; and staying healthy is key to keeping your energy levels up, maintaining a good mood, and accomplishing your best work! By the way, all those other things we’ve talked about so far (the headaches, fatigue, eye strain, back pain, etc.)? Staying hydrated is the easiest way to help prevent those!
On top of all that, drinking enough water increases your metabolism by 24–30% for the next hour and a half. It also helps you digest your food better! If you’ve followed my advice and cut and replaced your sugary drinks with water, that’s a lot fewer empty calories you’re taking in, and a lot less sugar crash. So go ahead and drink more water. You’ll feel really awesome!
As you can see, there are lots of simple steps you can take to keep your mind and body in great shape. Do these every day, and enjoy the benefits of feeling happier and healthier! These seven are really just the tip of the iceberg. If you want to learn even more, I highly suggest checking out The Healthy Programmer by Joe Kutner. It’s a treasure trove of information and was my inspiration for writing this article.
P.S.—Here’s one more bonus hack: Remember to breathe!!