Strategies for Healthier Dev

Not too long ago, I was part of a panel at the launch event for TechLadies, an initiative that encourages women to learn to code. Along the way, I mentioned a bit about my background as an athlete. As we were leaving to go home, the woman next to me jokingly asked if I was a better basketball player or a better developer. Without missing a beat, I said I was a better basketball player. After all, I’ve been playing basketball for over half my life; I’ve only been coding for two and a half years.

We’ve probably all come across the stereotype of the nerdy programmer who is all brains and no brawn. I’m a counterexample of that cliché, and I personally know developers who are avid cyclists or marathon runners—even a mountain climber (the kind who scales Mount Everest). And yet a stereotype, “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image,” often comes into existence for a reason. Think of Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs. Think of any number of mainstream dramas featuring wan (usually white, usually male) programmers staring at screens. Many so-called knowledge workers are too sedentary. Our lives and work stand to benefit if we become less so.

Now, no one likes to suffer. And yet when it comes to exercise or training, it’s too easy for us to think that fitness is all about self-discipline—that we just need to have the willpower to persevere through the agony. But that’s not a good strategy for most people. Unless you genuinely find pleasure in pain and suffering, you have to want something badly enough to endure pain and suffering. Ask any athlete if they enjoy running extra sprints or lifting extra weights. Even Olympic medalists will tell you they don’t. They do it because they want to be the best.

My point is this: forcing yourself to do something you don’t enjoy is not sustainable. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a big fan of running. A little ironic coming from someone who used to play basketball full-time, maybe, but the only reason I did any running at all, ever, was because competitive basketball required me to. When I stopped training full-time, I simply couldn’t muster the energy or motivation to get up and run every day (or even every week, for that matter).

So I had to come up with a different game plan—one that required minimal effort, near-zero effort, and minor effort. You can do it, too. No excuses. Ready?

Minimal effort

I’m lazy.

I’m pretty good at talking myself out of doing things that require extra effort to get ready for. For example, going swimming requires that I pack toiletries, a fresh set of clothes, and goggles. Then I actually need to make it to the pool after work before it closes, which means I have to plan to leave the office earlier than I usually might, and so on. Guess what? Eight out of ten times, I end up telling myself to go swimming next time.

By contrast, I commute to work on my bicycle. Yes, it helps that I love to ride. I thoroughly enjoy swimming, too—just not enough to overcome my laziness. But because cycling is my main mode of transportation, I don’t even think about it as exercise. It’s just something I do as part of my day, like brushing my teeth.

The “while-you’re-at-it” technique works very well for me, and maybe it’ll work for you, too. In a nutshell: build healthy habits into things you already do. Kind of how parents hide vegetables in more palatable stuff to get their kids to eat them.

Near-zero effort

Let me list some simple activities that involve minimal effort, but have significant returns on investment. Consider these the minimum viable products (MVPs) of healthy habits.

Drink more water

Most of us have been told to drink eight glasses of water a day, but how many of us actually drink that much? The real amount of water people need on a daily basis seems debatable, but I’m going to make the bold assumption that most of us don’t drink more than one liter (or around four glasses) of water a day. And no, coffee doesn’t count.

This means that most of us operate in a mildly dehydrated state throughout the day. Studies done on both men and women have shown that mild dehydration negatively impacts one’s mood and cognitive function. Given that our work requires significant mental acuity, upping our water intake is a minimal-effort lifehack with significant benefits.

Note that people often mistake thirst for hunger. Studies have shown that we’re notoriously bad at distinguishing the two. Assuming that most of us probably don’t drink enough water throughout the day, odds are that you’re not really hungry when you reach for a snack. In fact, you’re probably thirsty. Don’t grab a can of soda, though—drink water.

Move more

A study done on the effects of sedentary behavior revealed that long periods of inactivity increase one’s risk of diabetes and heart disease. The study also mentioned that encouraging individuals simply to sit less and move more, regardless of intensity level, may improve the effectiveness of diabetes-prevention programs.

Think about how you can incorporate more movement into your routine. Try drinking water throughout the day. Not only will this reinforce the “drink more water” habit, but you’ll also find that you need to get up to go to the bathroom more often. And going to the bathroom is…movement. Note: do not refuse to go to the bathroom because you think you’re “on the brink” of solving a bug. That’s a lie you tell yourself.

Since you’re getting up and sitting down more often, you might as well sneak some exercise in while you’re at it. Instead of plonking down in your seat when you get back, lower yourself slowly over the course of five seconds until your butt touches your chair. You’re building leg muscles! Who needs a gym? The point is, all the little things you do to increase movement add up.

Don’t eat while you work

It might surprise you to know that being aware of what you put in your mouth—and when you put it there—makes a difference. I know many people, not only developers, who eat lunch at their desks, balancing a spoonful of food in one hand while continuing to type with the other. Lunch becomes something that’s shoveled into our mouths and (maybe, if we have time) swallowed. That’s no way to appreciate a meal. Make lunchtime a logical break between your coding sessions. Some folks may protest that there’s just no time to eat: we have to code 20 hours a day!

First of all, it’s impossible to be efficient that way. A study (PDF) from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has shown that taking a deliberate break can reboot focus on the task at hand. It offsets our brain’s tendency to fall into autopilot, which explains why we can’t come up with good solutions after continuously staring at a bug for hours. Tom Gibson wrote a beautiful post explaining how human beings are not linear processes. We are still operating on an industrial model where emphasis is placed on hours worked, not output achieved.

We need to aim for a healthy “Work Rate Variability” and develop models of working that stop making us ill, and instead let us do our best.

Tom Gibson

Also, by actually bothering to chew your food before swallowing, you eat more slowly. Research has shown that eating slowly leads to lower hunger ratings and increased fullness ratings. Chances are you’ll feel healthier overall and gain a fresh sense of perspective, too, by giving yourself a proper lunch break. Such is the power of minimal effort.

Use a blue-light filter at night

Personally, I’m a morning person, but most of my developer friends are night owls. Everybody functions best at different times of the day, but if you’re someone who operates better at night, I recommend installing f.lux on your desktop and mobile devices. It’s a tiny application that makes the color of your computer’s display adapt to ambient light and time of day.

Melatonin is a hormone that helps maintain the body’s circadian rhythms, which determine when we sleep and wake up. Normally, our bodies produce more melatonin when it gets dark. Scientists have found that exposure to room light in the evening suppresses melatonin during normal sleep hours. Research on the effects of blue light has shown that blue light suppresses sleep-associated delta brainwaves while stimulating alertness. Because it doesn’t make sense, given socioeconomic realities, to ask people to stop working at night, the best alternative is to reduce exposure to blue light.

Minor effort required

If you’ve already started incorporating zero-effort health habits into your life, and feel like putting in a bit more effort, this section outlines tactics that take a little more than zero effort.

Walk

When I started writing code, I found myself glued to my chair for hours on end. You know that feeling when you’re debugging something and obstinately refuse to let that bug get the better of you? But I realized that my efficiency decreased the longer I worked on something without stopping. I can’t tell you how many times I worked on a bug till I threw my hands up in frustration and went for a walk, only to have the solution come to me as I strolled outside enjoying the breeze and a change of scenery.

Walking doesn’t require any additional planning or equipment. Most of us, if we’re lucky, can do it without thinking. The health benefits accrued include a reduction of chronic diseases like stroke and heart disease. Try this: as part of your attempt to have a better lunch break, take a walk after you’ve properly chewed and swallowed your lunch. It limits the increase of blood sugar levels immediately after a meal. You’ll get fitter while you’re at it.

Stretch

I don’t know about you, but sitting for long periods of time makes my hips feel tight and my back tense up. The scientific research on the exact effects of sitting on the structural integrity of your hip flexors seems to be inconclusive, but I know how I feel. A lot of us tend to slouch in our chairs, too, which can’t be good for our overall posture.

If you find yourself craning your neck forward at your desk, with your shoulders up near your ears and back rounded forward, news flash! You have terrible posture. So what can you do about it? Well, for starters, you can refer to a handy infographic from the Washington Post that summarizes the ills of bad posture. The TL;DR: bad posture negatively affects your shoulders, neck, hips, and especially your back.

Slouching for prolonged periods causes the soft discs between our vertebrae to compress unevenly. If you take a sponge and place a weight on one side of it and leave it there for hours, the sponge will warp. And that’s exactly what happens to our discs. As someone who has suffered from a prolapsed disc, I can tell you that back trouble no fun at all.

Here’s another thing you can do: stretch at your desk. You don’t have to do all of these exercises at once—just sprinkle them throughout your work day. The improved blood circulation will be a boon for your brain, too.

Sleep

Most of us don’t get enough sleep. I hardly know anyone under the age of 12 who goes to bed before 11 p.m. Maybe that’s just the company I keep, but there are lots of reasons for not getting enough sleep these days. Some of us work late into the night; some of us game late into the night. Some of us care for children or aging parents, or have other responsibilities that keep us up late. I live in Singapore, which ranks third on the list of cities clocking the fewest hours of sleep: six hours and 32 minutes.

Sleep deprivation means more than just yawning all the time at work. Research has shown that the effects of sleep deprivation are equivalent to being drunk. Insufficient sleep affects not only your motor skills, but also your decision-making abilities (PDF) and emotional sensitivity (PDF). You become a dumb, angry troll when sleep-deprived.

Changing your sleep habits takes some effort. The general advice is to sleep and wake up at the same time each day, and to try to aim for seven and a half hours of sleep. According to Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychology professor at the University of Hertfordshire, our sleep cycles run in 90-minute intervals. Waking up in the middle of those cycles makes us groggy. Wiseman offers tips on how to sleep better.

Resistance training

By “resistance training,” I don’t mean hefting iron plates and bars at the gym (though if you like to do that, more power to you). If you enjoy the privilege of able-bodiedness, try to make vigorous physical movement part and parcel of your daily life. Ideally, you’ll have the basic strength and coordination to run and jump. And to be able to get right up without much effort after falling down. You don’t have to be an elite athlete—that’s a genetic thing—but with luck, you’ll be able to perform at least some basic movements.

Our own body weight is plenty for some rudimentary exercises. And it doesn’t matter if the heaviest weight you’re willing to lift is your laptop and you couldn’t do a push-up if your life depended on it. There are progressions for everyone. Can’t do a push-up on the ground? Do a wall push-up instead. Can’t do a basic squat? Practice sitting down on your chair very slowly. Can’t run? Take a walk. (Yes, walking is a form of resistance training). And so on.

There are two websites I recommend checking out if you’re interested in learning more. The first is Nerd Fitness by Steve Kamb. He and I share a similar philosophy: small changes add up to big results. He covers topics ranging from diet to exercise and offers lots of resources to help you on your journey. Another site I really love is GMB fitness. It teaches people how to move better, and to better understand and connect with their bodies.

Wrapping up: slow & steady

There is only one way to build new habits: consistency over time. That’s why it’s so important to do things that take minimal effort. The less effort an action requires, the more likely you are to do it consistently. Also: try not to make drastic changes to all aspects of your life at once (though that may be effective for some). Regardless of whether you mind change in your life or not, almost any change introduces stress to your system. And even constant low-grade stress is detrimental. It’s better to start small, with minor changes that you barely feel; once that becomes a habit, move on to the next change.

We spend hours maintaining our code and refactoring to make it better and more efficient. We do the same for our computers, optimizing our workflows and installing tweaks to eke out those extra seconds of performance. So it’s only right that we put a little effort into keeping our bodies reasonably healthy. Fixing health problems usually costs more than fixing bugs or machines—and often the damage is irreversible. If we want to continue to write great code and build cool products, then we should take responsibility for our health so that we can continue to do what we love for decades to come.

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