While web development is not (usually) dangerous, it is physically demanding: long hours spent in front of a computer create a working environment replete with repetitive stress disorders, eyestrain, backache, exhaustion and general poor physical conditioning. In turn, these can lead to illness and chronic health issues.
Part of the problem is the sheer amount of tasks involved in designing and coding, for which there never seems to be enough time; another is the fact that the work is mentally engaging but does not exercise our muscles, quieting the usual warning systems that allow us to recognize when we are overworked or under stress. Behaviors such as sitting in cramped positions from morning until well after sunset, rarely venturing outside, and eating at the desk while working are endemic in the profession. Repeated over years, these habits can be seriously debilitating, ultimately trading short-term progress at work for long-term health risks.
Of course, these habits are by no means confined to web developers; they are equally true of daytraders, serious gamers, and many other pursuits. The recommendations I have to counter them are broadly applicable to many professions, but do not come with any kind of medical guarantee: they are only based on my personal experiences. Nor do I wish to represent myself as some kind of paragon of healthy living: I often work 12 – 14 hours a day, and need constant reminders to take better care of myself.
Ensure that your monitors are correctly calibrated
Web developers who tolerate computer monitors with the contrast washed out or brightness lowered to a dim setting are doing themselves and their work a disservice. Properly calibrated monitors make color management far more predictable and consistent, and reduce eyestrain. You can go the full route with a professional hardware/software color calibration suite, or use the tools built into your operating system. Of course, you should also ensure that the screens themselves remain clean and dust free, and that the lighting conditions are appropriate to the work you do.
Use good posture in a well-made chair that is adjusted to you.
You’re likely to spend eight hours or more in a chair: as much (or even more) time as you spend in bed. It makes sense that your office chair should be as much of an investment as your computer, and that you maintain a good posture when using it, not scrunched forward or twisted into a pretzel. I have a Herman Miller Aeron chair in my home office, but the make and model doesn’t particularly matter: just be sure it is comfortable and that you adjust it regularly to fit you.
Use web-based tools to help maintain your health.
Since we’re already on the web, it makes sense to use it in ways that help us keep healthy. This is really a subject for a seperate article, but I’ll leave a few suggestions here: I use Nike+ to track my runs on my various iDevices, Fitday to maintain an online log of workouts, and a WiFi enabled Fitbit Aira bathroom scale to track my weight and bodyfat. All of these tools also serve as motivation: if I have data, I have something I can track and improve upon.
Maintain good support for your wrists when typing; do things with your hands other than typing.
Our fingers move most in web development, but they tend to do so in very pre-determined patterns, potentially leading to repetitive stress injuries. Learning new keyboard shortcuts and using macros not only reduces and varies the number of keystrokes we make daily, saving our hands, while keeping your mind engaged and saving time. Use your breaks and leisure time to do other tasks with your hands, keeping them flexible.
Stand up and move regularly
Everyone gets into “the zone” of activity in which time seems to pass quickly and work feels effortless. Even in that state it is important to take short breaks away from the computer:at least five minutes every hour. While it might feel like a disturbance to your workflow, taking breaks provides greater benefits over the long term. (And if you’re struggling with work, sometimes stepping away from it for a short time is the best thing you can do).
Enhance your workspace with plants
It seems a silly point, but having greenery around your workspace really can help your sense of wellbeing. Plants freshen the air, work as a pleasant distraction from the computer, and create a more inviting work environment. Hardy, low-maintenence, shade-tolerant plants suitable for offices include Peace Lilies (Spathiphyllum), spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum) and cacti.
Provide yourself with scheduled “disconnect time”
I sometimes joke that human beings are evolving into homo sapiens neticus: always on, always connected, constantly checking Facebook and Twitter feeds. That’s fine, but it also puts us into a condition of desiring constant feedback and affirmation-seeking behavior. Try to give yourself at least a little time away from network connection every day to recharge and gain perspective.
Keep regular hours of sleep
The hardest goal for me to achieve personally, but the most rewarding when it is achieved, is achieving regular sleeping hours. We tend to burn daylight and push back rest for work, but inevitably that leads to showing up exhausted the next day, affecting our performance and creating a cycle that is very hard to break out of. Most people really do need eight hours of quality z’s, and you are unlikely to be the exception. Try to get to bed at regular hours, and give yourself a little time between working at the computer and bed.
Maintain good, consistent lighting in your office
Orient your computer monitor to avoid glare on the screen from sunlight or desk lamps; adjust lighting in your area so that you can view your display without eyestrain, removing bulbs if necessary. In northern climes, consider adding full-spectrum UV lighting during winter months to compensate for decreased sunlight exposure. UV bulbs will also naturally produce vitamin D in your body, which may be useful if you don’t get outdoors during daylight hours. They may also reduce symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Try to use different focal lengths and sightlines in your work environment
Staring at a screen set at a constant fixed distance strains your eyes. If possible, arrange your workspace so that looking up forces your eyes to focus on a surface significantly further away, providing them with some relief. (Office partitions designed to reduce disturbance can make this difficult).
Make time for exercise
Just fifteen minutes of exercise a day can really help. At the very least, most forms of physical activity will strengthen your back muscles, which is important for maintaining a good posture in your chair and general spinal health.
If you find it difficult to schedule gym time, try to integrate exercise into your daily routine and activities: consider commuting to work on bicycle, make the determination to always use the stairs in your office rather than the elevator, or consistently use your lunch break to take a walk outside.
Keep your workspace organized, clean and tidy
Not only is a good for workflow, but removing clutter makes it easier to focus, clears your mind of distractions, makes it more difficult for germs and bacteria to accumulate, and avoids the “depressive slump” felt when confronted with a mess.
Avoid processed snacks and fast food
It is very, very tempting to grab the nearest calorie-rich snack and consume it is fast as possible while continuing to code. Try to avoid doing so; vary your meals and eat fresh food as much as possible. If you must snack, try eating dried fruits and nuts rather than sweets.
Schedule regular medical checkups
No-one likes going to the doctor: we tend to deny personal ailments and keep working. Few people like bringing their cars in for an oil change or service check either, but we know that to maintain our vehicle in good working order it must be regularly inspected by a licensed mechanic. Our bodies are the same way: get regular eye exams and general medical assessments.
Treat your body
Programmers tend to consider their bodies as fleshy buckets used solely to contain their brains. We forget that we are slaves to our flesh; keeping the epidermis and nerve endings happy is an important part of both physical and mental health. Use moisturizers and conditioners; maintain your grooming; as nerds tend to be somewhat touch-deprived, regularly seek out therapeutic massage and other personal esthetic services.
It should be fairly obvious by now, but don’t smoke, over overeat, or regularly drink alcohol to excess.
If you have your own tricks and tips to keep healthy, please share them in the comments below!