26-Mar-2014 by Allison McMillan

Read Time: Approx. 5 minutes

Being a Healthy Programmer

Health issues. Something we all face as developers but is not really talked about. Being a developer comes with some very specific health concerns that are different than what I’ve experienced in other fields. As I’ve learned to code over the past year, I’ve gotten a lot of advice and learned a lot of best practices. None of this advice, however, has included anything related to health! All of a sudden, I was coding full time and experiencing all these new issues and I had no idea why. We all experience similar physical pains of transitioning into a new industry but it's one of the things I think isn't discussed adequately enough to prevent it from happening. Additionally, a lot of the solutions cost money, which may be something you don't have a lot of if you are going through a career transition, coming out of a bootcamp, or just in the beginning of your job. In speaking to others, I found that most of the stuff I was experiencing are really common among developers. I sent out a request to understand what people experience and what some solutions are and here’s what I got.

Eyes. Obviously looking at a screen that is two feet away from your face all day has got to have some serious long term effect. Additionally, if you don’t have the right prescription then you’re also probably dealing with some sort of eye strain.

Back. Posture and sitting up straight is really important. Long term affects can include needing physical therapy, surgery or just constant pain.

Headaches. I know a few people (including myself) that have been experiencing afternoons headaches. There are LOTS of things that can affect headaches including hydration, food, eye strain, muscle aches, and more.

Hydration. Turns out we all forget to stay hydrated during the day. Between coffee intake (which actually dehydrates you) and getting so focused on work that we forget to make sure we’re drinking, this is a major issue (that can, of course, relate to other things on this list like general draining, back pain, and headaches).

Food. What?! You forgot to eat again? Me too! I can’t even count the number of times I’ve looked up from my computer and realized it’s 2pm and I haven’t had breakfast or lunch yet. Obviously, not a healthy practice.

Sleep. “Just 5 more minute and I’ll be able to solve this issue and close my computer.” I’ve said this to a friend or my husband so many times. We tend to try to power through problems, drink coffee or energy drinks to push that last bit of code to production, or just accomplish a little more by working through the night which is solid, uninterrupted time. This is also related to something someone called “sleep creep” (which I love). Instead of working through the evening, some developers will get up at 4:30am, have some solid morning work time and then have to check out for a bit in the afternoon for a nap or to recharge.

Weight Gain. We sit. A lot. Like all day. There are lots of ways exercising can affect other things on this list, but weight gain and circulation from sitting all day can definitely be harmful and a tough pattern to break out of.

General draining. What we do involves a lot of brain power and a lot of thinking. It is easy to get exhausted and it’s easy to finish the day and just want to get the easiest thing for food and sit on the couch to unwind. This isn’t so much a solution, but a good article that goes into this issue further.

Hands. There’s lots of concern about repetitive strain and carpal tunnel syndrome. This is definitely an issue that, as a newbie I don’t think about much but as someone getting started in a longterm development career, I probably should.

(Thanks to @vicfriedman, @pamtaro, @embryoconcepts, @robyurkowski, @tundal45, @stevenhaddox, @_ZPH, and @peterbroderick for your help and mentioning issues you’ve faced or are concerned about)

So, how do we improve out situation? It’s great to offer solutions like a standing desk, complex raised screen setup, and other such tools but these tools are expensive! Here are some cheap ways we can solve these issues.

“Pretend” standing desk. My first standing desk was literally 3 boxes stacked on top of one another to give me computer a little bit of height.

Pomodoroing. Following the pomorodo work style basically means that you do focused work for a specific amount of time (usually 25 minutes) and then you take a mandatory break for 5 minutes. There are lots of benefits to doing this but I find that it makes me more aware of myself. When I have a forced break, I make myself drink water, use the restroom during the break. I also find that when I break every 25 minutes, I’m way more aware of my posture and actively correcting my slouchiness.

F.lux. This app helps alter your computer screen lighting based on the time of day. I wasn’t so much a believer until I started using it but the gradual deletion of blue light from your screen helps you mind get ready for sleep even if you’re still using your computer.

Posture exercises. This is one a friend passed along to me. I also recently saw an app that focuses on alerting you when you aren’t holding good posture.

Exercise in general. I’m lumping standing versus sitting into this category as well. Exercise is always tricky to make time for but it is definitely an important part of being a developer (I reluctantly type as someone who really hates going to the gym). Put GYM in your calendar.

And finally, there’s the Healthy Programmer book which I haven’t read at all, but I’d bet it’s pretty informative.

I’ll be honest, I’m not the best at following all of these. I haven’t found good boxes to make a standing desk, I only successfully pomodoro’ed once in the past 3 weeks, but being more aware of these issues motivates me to make sure I’m establishing best practices for my health. And of course I’m hoping in the near future to be able to purchase the things I need to make my home office and work situation even better (ie- the chair I use is like the worst chair for programming EVER).

Got more issues, suggestions, and cheap alternatives? Leave them in comments below.

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