(As a reminder, this is a question I received in my first blog-style Ask Me Anything.)
Kate Baray asks, “Since I know you irl, I know you’re a fit guy even though you type at a computer all day. As a very sedentary author, I’d love to hear your tips on dealing with the special physical challenges writers deal with.”
I’ve gone through my own struggles over the years with fitness. When I was 16 a sports-related injury began to cause me chronic pain in my lumbar spine. I already knew I had scoliosis, but this particular injury has flared up and been exacerbated over the years by desk jobs and the sedentary lifestyle this causes.
It’s only recently that I managed to get my pain under control, and even now, every day is a constant battle to make sure I exercise enough, stay limber, and take care of myself in a way that prevents the pain from recurring or the injury from flaring up again.
After twelve years dealing with this chronic injury, and roughly seven years of various types of desk jobs, I’ve got two pieces of advice.
1. Learn to listen to your body
I’ve found that I can predict when a bad spell is coming on if I listen to my body. If I work too long at my desk, or lift something heavy with bad posture, or overdo it at the gym, I can tell. Learn from these mistakes, and make sure you don’t do anything to make things worse.
If you notice after three hours, you start to get sore, go outside and walk around the block before coming back to your desk.
2. Develop your toolkit
When I don’t listen to my body and I overdo it, causing the chronic pain to flare up again, I fall back on my toolkit.
You don’t need to go to the gym to exercise. I use a Fitbit to track my steps and try to walk 10,000 steps a day. I find that’s usually enough to keep me moving and free of pain. My back never hurts from sitting too much if I’ve also walked my 10k steps that day.
Just like your writing muscle, your body is built to move. Let it.
I also try to go to the gym 2-3 times a week to really get my heart rate up and do strength conditioning. I lift light weights with a focus on core strength. I also go to the climbing gym when I can. Core strength, for me, goes a long way to fighting the chronic pain issues.
While I’m at the gym, I try to do some cardio. I can’t run (bad on the back) so I use an elliptical or bike or rowing machine.
Don’t just exercise, also stretch! Hold for 30 seconds. Don’t be lazy or skip this, it’s important. People underestimate how much being limber helps prevent pain and other problems caused by a sedentary lifestyle.
When I’m at work, I use an Uplift sit/stand desk and try to stand half the day. When I discovered standing desks, it was a difference maker for me. Even when I worked in a calling center and I was the one weird person standing all day long, it brought my pain down significantly. I used to go downstairs to a quiet room on my lunch breaks and spend 20 minutes stretching every day, too.
You don’t need a fancy standing desk. I used a cardboard box on top of an ikea desk for years, and it was better than sitting.
Overall, I’ve just found that moving regularly—not necessarily hard exercise or sports, just simply walking—stretching, and trying to limit how much you sit makes a huge difference all on its own.