Looking after our bodies while writing

A couple of days ago I had to get an emergency remedial massage. My shoulder had seized up so badly that I could no longer concentrate on my planned work for the day. I ended up lying on the floor using a glue stick to dig into the muscle knot, much to the amusement of colleagues who walked past my open plan workspace. I also put my earphones in and went for a walk to the massage therapist. Work would come in the form of audiobooks and thinking through logic problems in my communication, rather than words on the screen for the rest of the day.

Since May, my latest academic gig is working as a full time writer on a big national research project. That means that I am reading extensively to align my thinking to the research team’s theoretical and methodological frameworks, analysing huge amounts of qualitative interviews and reports, writing first drafts of journal articles and reports, and editing the collaborative writing produced by the research team.

I LOVE THIS JOB. It is like doing a PhD again but collaboratively with your supervisors and FOR MONEY. I am so enthusiastic about it that I want to be at work all the time doing it. BUT this means that I spend a lot of my time on a computer.

So while my mind is highly engaged for extended periods of time (something I have missed in other smaller academic gigs ), my body is giving out. I am one of those people who starts writing and then all of a sudden it is 4 hours later and I haven’t moved. This is a bad habit.

While my massage therapist was exclaiming about how I win the tightest shoulder award and punishing me mercilessly for it, I complained that I had been using a heat pack. She told me that the heat pack only works as pain relief and I needed to be more mindful about moving around and stretching.

I put out a call on Twitter to other people who work at full time writing and received quite a generous response. I wanted to know routines for exercise and looking after eyes, as I have also found that eye strain has become a problem. Below I’ve summarised the responses.

Rethinking writing as a sedentary career

One of the most valuable pieces of advice passed to Professor Tressie McMillan Cottom and then to me, was that writers need to take care of their bodies just as athletes do. I am beginning to understand that this advice is not simply about moving because writing is sedentary, it’s also about being able to continue to write pain free. Many of the people who gave advice explained how they came to have exercise and self-care routines because they had injuries and chronic pain from writing for extended periods of time.

Below are some of the tips for helping avoid that discomfort. I should say that you should seek medical and specialist advise as well. I have a mat Pilates workout from my physio and I have regular eye check ups. Also a healthy diet and water is so important for your ability to maintain an exercise routine, but also to support that writing mind. Also we all know you should have a properly set up workspace. This is something I believe needs more attention from occupational health and safety professionals for casual workers who use hot desks and/or can’t access equipment like standing desks. 

Eye strain

  • Look away from the computer screen
  • Eye exercises
  • Use eye drops
  • Use a warm eye-mask for 15 minutes
  • Purchase a gamer monitor. You might not notice but your eyes are affected by the continuous refreshing of your monitor. The slower the refresh rate, the more your eyes are strained
  • Purchase computer glasses. I have some and they are great. They filter the glare but they can also be prescribed for the distance from your eyes to the monitor (like reading glasses)
  • Work on paper when you can
  • Audiobooks for non-work related reading – don’t only read for work (eg YA literature is fun, engaging, not just for teenagers, and will motivate you to walk)
  • Wear sunglasses
  • Wear glasses and limit use of contacts
  • Meditation
  • Nap

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Back pain

  • MOVE! Walk, jog or move around the way you enjoy the most  – use audiobooks (and/or dogs) make distance easier to commit to
  • Yoga, Pilates, rolfing or stretching – nearly everyone advised one or the other and you can find 10 minute routines on YouTube (here’s one I found this morning and enjoyed)
  • Swimming, floatation therapy
  • Weight training or weight bearing classes like barre, pump or cross fit
  • Work away from the computer with books, paper, audio – One tweeter even worked floating in a pool
  • Foam rollers, yoga bolsters, cushions, spiky balls, therabands, heat packs
  • Timed writing stints where an alarm reminds you to get up and stretch
  • Regular massage appointment

Fitting it all in

I am quite aware that exercise routines work for some people and not for others due to caring commitments, differing abilities and other obligations, so here is some of the time-saving advice that was given.

  • Using trips to the bathroom, coffee machine and photocopier as excuses to move further, up stairs, or as a prop for stretching
  • Do a short stretch routine after a shower so your body is warmed up
  • Having pets who need their needs tended to and distract you from getting too lost in the writerly moment
  • Do weight training while watching TV

Do you have anything to add? This is not a list of EVERYTHING that must be done, but options that are available. I hope there is something in the list you find useful. I would like to continue this conversation in the comments and would especially like to hear from writers with different abilities.*

I would like to thank the generosity of those who responded (both writers and those that use computers all day).

*I’d also like to thank the critical eye of Annie Hayford for noting the ableist assumptions I made in the first iteration.

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8 thoughts on “Looking after our bodies while writing

  1. This is SO IMPORTANT. I missed the Twitter convo but I do have a few things to add. A treadmill desk is affordable and manageable if you buy separates, info on my set-up here https://helenkara.com/2015/05/05/walking-to-work-me-and-my-treadmill-desk/ though I have to say, over two years on, the treadmill hasn’t worn as well as I would have hoped (and another writer I know who uses the same set-up has the same experience). I also use a wobble board, great for thinking time as well as balance and core strength; you can use it alone or with free weights. NB: if your flooring is smooth (lino, wood, tiles etc) you will need a small mat or rug, as wobble boards are not safe to use on shiny surfaces. (I wish I’d known that before I tested mine on my kitchen lino and promptly skidded and fell. Ow.) Also Qi Gong is a very gentle yet powerful series of movements, easy to learn from a teacher (better than from books/videos because a teacher can correct you while you learn). Qi Gong is particularly good for shoulder mobility so great for writers. Taking our physical health for granted is a sure route to losing it and that’s no joke.

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  2. There are some good resources in the Yoga International community for shoulder mobility, including some for frozen shoulder, and a nice 7 minute seated routine for upper back and neck. It’s a paid for community with a 30 day free trial but if you do yoga and want an online studio, there’s lots in there that is useful.

    Also, for the alarms to remind you to stop writing and move a bit — you can set the alarm tone as a song you like to dance to and then actually DANCE instead of just turning it off. Most pop songs are about 3 minutes long which is a good short break. May not be possible in an open plan office but if you have an office with a door, worth a try.

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  3. I can kind of relate. Moving from the classroom to an office type role, I spend a lot of my time reading and writing at the computer. Other than taking the stairs as opposed to using the lift, I have taken to listening to some of my texts using various accessibility hacks and mobile apps (https://readwriterespond.com/2016/04/reading-text-is-easy-especially-when-you-listen-to-them/). It all kind of depends on how far you want to go. Some people look at me as if I am a freak … However, I remember the computer voice that a blind student I taught put up with 🤷🏼‍♂️

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      • Whether iOS or Android, there are always compromises with listening to texts, but I guess that is life. Personally, I think that the voice-over applications have come a long way. However, the very idea of listening to a computer puts some people off. Not ‘real’ reading, whatever real reading actually is.

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