Being a full-time write/author is great, but what about the health risks involved?

Don’t let anyone tell you that writing isn’t a dangerous occupation.

Just last week I came perilously close to stapling my manuscript to my thumb, and yesterday I dropped my dictionary on my foot.

It’s a large dictionary and it was from a considerable height.

The Health Risks Of Sitting

The worst afflictions are the ones that creep up on you.

One day you’re sitting at your desk typing away, in the creative flow, with your protagonist about to stab the serial killer/her personal trainer/a thermometer into the roast lamb.

Next thing you’re grasping your back in agony and hobbling around like a geriatric donkey.

That’s what happened to me a couple of weeks ago, when I had an attack of lower back pain which lasted a few days.

I’m sure that a major contributor was the accumulated result of the number of hours I spend sitting in one position in front of the computer.

I've always been aware of the health risks of sitting too long.

And I always had good intentions of getting up regularly and moving around.

But it’s easy to forget when you’re in the middle of a shootout or a raunchy love scene.

Or looking at baby and dog videos on Facebook - get back to work!

Think You're Sitting Pretty?

There’s been a lot of publicity lately about the dangers of a sedentary job.

Sitting is the new smoking’ is the catchcry.

Scientists say that our bodies are designed to be mobile and that even if you exercise regularly (which I do), it doesn’t negate the effects of sitting down for 8 hours a day.

According to an article in the UK Daily Mail, ‘When we sit for long periods of time, enzyme changes occur in our muscles that can lead to increased blood sugar levels.

The effects happen very quickly, and regular exercise won’t fully protect you.’

But There's More Bad News

Apparently, sitting for too long more than doubles your risk of diabetes.

It also increases your risk of heart attack and kidney disease, and often leads to muscle and joint pain.

So given that it’s not very practical for us all to throw in our desk jobs and find a job digging ditches, what can we do to prevent these ‘sitting down’ diseases?

In this article, two suggestions are given:

1. Make sure you’re sitting up straight in your chair, with your shoulders down and back, your buttocks against the back of the chair and avoid crossing your legs.

2. Get up every 30 minutes and move around for at least a couple of minutes.

The Health Risks For Writers Solutions

I have now set a timer on my computer to go off every 30 minutes, whereupon I get up and walk around the house.

I often find that the movement and change of scenery from one room to another sparks inspiration.

Every hour I spend 5 minutes doing hamstring and hip flexor stretches to loosen up.

Prolonged sitting causes the hamstring and hip flexor muscles to tighten, a major cause of lower back pain.

Obviously I can’t do those exercises on the days I’m working in a café or the library without causing a stir, but I’ve found a couple I can do fairly unobtrusively while sitting in my chair.

Here's a few more suggestions that can work.

Stand Up And Be Counted

A popular solution to the sitting down issue is a standing desk.

Many famous authors, including Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokoff and Lewis Carroll, wrote standing up.

However, prolonged standing can exacerbate lower back pain, so if that’s your issue, experts recommend alternating standing and sitting.

Most standing desks can be accommodated to sitting as well, but I’m not sold on them, especially if I have to alternate standing and sitting.

I’d be up and down all day like a jack in the box.

And with the rapid change in trends, who knows, the health risks might change too.

Next year we may well be warned about the dangers of standing, and the new catchcry will be ‘Standing is the new sitting.

On The Treadmill Of Life

Then there’s the treadmill desk.

I must admit I find this idea appealing for its sheer novelty, but as I’m uncoordinated at the best of times, I’m not sure how good I’d be at walking and writing at the same time.

Of course, you’re only walking very slowly and enthusiasts insist it doesn’t take long to get used to it.

Many writers love them, including A.J Jacobs, author of Drop Dead Healthy.

He tried hundreds of health-conscious life adjustments in researching his book, and the treadmill desk was one of the few he stuck with.

Devotees of the treadmill desk tend to superiority and hyperbole, like those who’ve discovered a new religion.

In the article Work While Standing and Walking, staff writer from The New Yorker Susan Orleans says,

‘The biggest problem with working at a treadmill desk: the compulsion to announce constantly that you are working at a treadmill desk.

It’s a lot like the early days of cell-phone calls, when the simple fact that you were doing what you were doing seemed so amazing that most conversations consisted largely of exclamations about the amazingness of the call.

As I see it, the main problem with treadmill desks is that they’re big and expensive.

If you buy one and find you don’t like it, it becomes an overpriced, cumbersome clothes-drying rack and ends up as an ad in the local paper.

For sale – one treadmill desk. Hardly used.

Dictation Is The New Pilates

It looks like for the time being, I’m stuck with my non-adjustable, non-moving desk.

However, I’ve recently bought a new tool which will help get me out of my chair more often and reduce some of the health risks.

It’s the voice to text software Dragon Naturally Speaking.

Dictating is the new craze amongst authors and those who do it swear by its benefits:

1. better health, because you can walk around while doing it and there’s less strain on the hands, especially for those who suffer from RSI.

2. higher productivity. It’s touted as being three times faster than typing. It’s certainly true in my case.

My mind works much faster than my hands can type.

When I try to keep up I make so many errors the result is something only a Martian would understand.

Authors have always used dictation, but previously only those who could afford to pay for transcription did it.

Or those in the Barbara Cartland mould, lounging on their chaise-longue with a gin and tonic and the obligatory fluffy dog, while dictating to their personal secretary.

Dragon Training For The Mature-Aged.

Dragon Naturally Speaking has an accuracy rate over 90%, with the latest versions taking less than 5 minutes to train themselves to your voice.

Dictation is now a viable and practical alternative to typing. I use it a lot for myfiction and non-fiction book review posts.

And I am currently using Dragon for brainstorming notes for my next novel.

I record on my mobile phone or tablet while I’m walking around the house or outside.

Then I save the file in the Cloud, retrieve it on my computer and use the ‘transcribe’ function to have it typed straight into Word.

It’s taking my brain some time to adjust to speaking the words and not seeing them on the screen however.

There are lots of long pauses and ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ while I collect my thoughts and work out what I want to say.

But I am confident that will improve with practice, and I’m aiming to dictate the first draft of my next novel in a few weeks.

How To Get A Seat By Yourself On The Train

It’s quite common these days to see people talking into their mobile devices, so you shouldn’t get too many strange looks if you dictate while you’re out and about.

Granted, most of those people are probably engaged in phone or video conversations, but if you hear something like this:

‘She drove the knife into the soft flesh of his belly again and again, until her new white Versace dress was drenched in blood,’ it’s probably not a phone conversation.

It’s undoubtedly a writer engrossed in their latest novel. It could even be me.

What's your technique for reducing the health risks of writing?

Have you had any health problems due to prolonged sitting?

Or experiences with standing/treadmill desks or dictation?

Let me know in the comment box below.

  • I have a treadmill desk and I LOVE it. It requires no coordination and is very easy to use. I tend to use it for most of the morning and then sit down for most of the afternoon when I also run errands and do other stuff. It’s a life-changer.

    • Hi Daphne
      It sounds great – I would love to try one just to see how I would go, before I spent the money buying one. I guess like anything, it just takes getting used to.

  • Robin, I’m 87 with a very bad back. I do my writing mostly laying on the floor under a portable desk. I get up every hour for ten minutes, stretch and walk around. 3x a week I swim for one hour. 3x a week I stretch, walk, and lift light weights. Next I’m getting Dragon. Thanks for posting.

  • I have an adjustable stand that cost about $40.00 on my desk. I slide it backwards and forwards when I decide to sit or stand. I tend to stand more when reading stuff on my computer and sit while typing. We also have a home treadmill which I use when reading hard copy. I rigged up a book stand and a lot of pegs to hold pages in position, but it works. I can’t go very fast of course but it’s better than nothing. Have thought of getting something like Dragon naturally speaking so thanks for the recommendation.

    • Hi Pippa
      The adjustable stand sounds like a good idea; I might investigate that. I can highly recommend Dragon Naturally Speaking – I got the Dragon Professional Individual 15, which is the latest version – that’s for Windows. I believe the Mac version is not as good.

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