06-01-09 - Computers and Bodies

Computers destroy bodies in ways you probably aren't even aware of. I'm finally getting weekly massage and weekly PT that's nominally because of my shoulder problems, but really we spend just as much time working on computer-related problems. It costs a fortune. I'll probably spend $10k this year on massage and PT and pilates and chiropractors, and it takes a lot of time, but it's completely worth it.

A lot of people think they're okay because they aren't currently in pain or having numbness or carpal tunnel problems or whatever (BTW carpal tunnel is severely over-diagnosed and is also very easy to avoid; basically it's not a significant problem unless you are a retard and just mouse in a horrible position and ignore all the warning signs your body is sending you). In reality, all of these therapies can't really do much for you once you are in pain and having problems - the best time to work is *before* you have problems to prevent them.

Let me describe what happens to you when you sit at a computer day after day :

1. Your muscles just all generally atrophy because you're not doing a damn thing. Note that even if you work out this can be a big problem because you tend to only work your big movers, so you can get yourself into a dangerous situation where you have over-developed big movers and under-developed structural/stabilizer muscles.

2. Your hips lock up and your hamstrings shorten from sitting with knees bent all the time. Most of you actually sit on your low back, not your sit bones, which puts pressure on the vertebrae and nerves in the low back which can lead to sciatic pain and other nerve impingement disorders of the low body.

3. Your back rounds forward; obviously this happens badly if you slouch, but it also affects most people who try to be good and sit on a physioball or something, because they get tired and start resting on their arms and leaning into the monitor and keyboard. The back rounding forward does a lot of things - it shortens the muscles on the front of the body (mainly the pec minor) and it over-lengthens the muscles on the back (mainly the trapezies and teres major). Permanently stretched or compressed muscles are crippled - they can't execute their movement in their power zone near neutral. Back rounding also puts lots of bad pressure on the vertebrae, it pinches discs on the anterior side. Nerve bundles run out of your vertebrae through little holes and they get squeezed which leads to pain and weakness.

4. Your shoulders roll forward and get weak; partly because of #3. This is mainly because your arms are forward all the time, never above your head or even just relaxed at your side. The weight of your arms pulls the shoulder forward off where it should be resting. The shoulder is a very elaborate and delicate contraption - it doesn't have a ball and socket, the humerus just sort of sits up against the side of the body and is held in place by the rotator cuff tendon-muscular complex. By rolling the shoulder forward, parts of it are stretched and other compressed, which leads to weakness, constriction of nerves and blood flow, and pure mechanical disfunction (because it's in the wrong place, you can't get the right leverage with the right muscles and your body winds up compensating in bad ways).

Most people who have computer-related numbness or weakness or arm pain are actually have nerve pinching due to shoulder problems, not carpal tunnel. The nerve bundles from C5-C7 run through the shoulder and down the arm; they run through very small spaces which is fine if your body geometry is correct, but when you sit at a computer and your body gets all deformed with your head way forward and your upper back kyphotic and your shoulders rounded forward, it screws up the passages that the nerves should run through.

A lot of computer users think they are okay because they are working out or whatever. Certainly that is a good thing and a huge help, however you have to be very careful about how you do it and what you do.

There's a general societal problem that our image of the ideal male body right now is focused on abs and pecs. That leads people to over-develop the anterior muscles. This is like poison for computer user's bodies, because you are already rounded forward and the anterior muscles are over-shortened. Doing a bunch of crunches and bench presses will just make this work and do nothing to develop the stabilizers that you need. In fact this kind of training can make you even more primed for injury because you're moving heavy weights around and doing extreme athletic things without good stabilizers and basic body geometry.

BTW I love that Wikipedia has an entry for Tramp Stamp .


castano said...

I agree that a couple of hours a day and $10k/year to prevent computer-related problems are totally worth it. If only I had understood that before...

I would add that the best thing you can do with your body is to do swimming workouts. Not just to go to the swimming pool and swim a few laps, but to join a masters program with a decent workout program with focused exercises and a good coach that kicks your butt if you don't swim fast enough.

I used to hate swimming, but I have to admit it's the most complete exercise that I've ever done, and it's not that bad once you get good at it.

It's especially good if you are already in pain, and you need to raise your endorphin levels, since you can work as hard as you want without the risk of hurting or damaging yourself.

Autodidactic Asphyxiation said...

What weight training do you recommend? Straight leg dead lifts? Front squats? Overhead lunges?

cbloom said...

Yeah those are all good.

dumbwell swings
turkish getup
face pulls

Basically lots of overhead, pulling, and full body extension stuff.

I think everything Crossfit does is very good, but it's too high stress and difficulty for a typical computer user so I don't recommend it. Same thing goes for the olympic lifts.

Kettlebells is good too, as is stuff like overhead backwards medicine ball throws.

billyzelsnack said...

Please keep us informed with any good info you get out of PT. I remember seeing you at GDC a few years back and the first thing that came to mind was.. He has the worst posture of anyone I know ( except maybe Miles! ) I knew my posture was shit, but the next time I saw a picture of myself sitting at the computer I was kinda freaked out.. My posture is just as bad as cbloom!

Of course I've not done shit about it since, but in the last year or so the time where I can breath properly add up to less than time than when I can't breath properly. I've not been able to figure it out ( I call it my imaginary asthma ( Cuz it's also psychosomatic. I can think about swimming pools and make it happen. ) ) and maybe it is my posture that is the true cause.

Sly said...

Sometimes I wonder if the programmer's best friend would not be a stool, so that we cannot seat on a curved back: one'd be forced to seat quite straight on his butt.

cbloom said...

Sly, I find that doesn't really work. The problem is you have a keyboard in front of you, so when you take away back support you just wind up leaning on your arms, which is even worse.

I've sat on these -

It's okay as long as you really focus on staying upright and not leaning on your desk, but in practice that's impossible to do if you're actually working and get lost in your thoughts.

The real unsolvable problem is that the human body is only capable of sitting for maybe 2 hours a day (maybe 4 non-consecutive), but we make it do 12-16.

castano said...

I have found a standing desk to work very well. Although it takes about two months to really get used to it. During that time you will feel like crap, your muscles will be soar, your articulations will hurt and you will crave a feet massage every night.

After that it starts feeling better, and it has great benefits beyond the improved posture:

- I find that interruptions are no so distracting as they used to. It's very easy to take small breaks and don't loose the focus.

- Unlike when you sit, you are in constant movement. I sometimes even dance at the rhythm of the music while I work.

- It's pretty hard to work more than 10 hours a day. Your body will simply tell you to stop. I'm not sure that's a good thing, but I still haven't lost my job, so it cannot be that bad.

Sometimes I wish I could sit down and relax, and I guess that if sitting wasn't painful it would be much harder to stay motivated to keep working this way.

old rants