The sedentary life of the software business

By Stephen Kellett
2 November, 2012

Software is great isn’t it? Configurable, flexible, modifiable, bend it to any shape you want. In short it’s very very useful. It also causes you to tear your hair out from time to time, but that seems to be par for the course.

But the way we produce software generally involves a lot of sitting down. A few folks have gone for standing desks, but I’m not convinced that is good for you either (your body is designed for movement, not standing in one place for any length of time). Sitting in one place is also not brilliant, but it can and should be less damaging than standing.

So if I’m sitting down a lot of the time there are some consequences.

  • The first is that you are not doing any activity that will keep you physically fit.
  • The second is a lack of activity, so you won’t burn as many calories as someone with a more active job.
  • The third is that if you’re desk, chair and monitor are not setup correctly you run the very real risk of physical injury and pain, in the form of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI).

Physically Fit

To counter your lack of physical fitness due to the nature of software engineering being a desk bound activitiy you’ll need to do some physical exercise. Due to my history with RSI I have injuries that I need to work out, I’ve adapted my swimming style to emphasize stretching (which means I don’t have to do all the physiotherapy exercises for 20 mins 3 times a day).

But if swimming isn’t your thing, you can run, cycle, go to the gym, badminton, tennis, squash, fencing. There are lots of sports to choose from, although I think the racquet sports are probably not a good idea as if you’ve got any wrist related RSI problems (carpal tunnel etc) then you’ll want exercise that doesn’t involve hitting things and the strain going through your wrist.

As a general rule I recommend exercise in the evening. All sporting world records are set in the late afternoon or evening. The thinking behind why this is so is that the body has warmed up and relaxed when you’ve been awake that long, whereas in the morning your body is not so ready to perform. Now I’m not expecting you to be trying to set world records, but it seems to me if it’s true for top athletes then a similar affect will also be in place for anyone else working out.

I know some people recommend exercise in the morning and they say it wakes them up and envigorates them for the day. I find that incredible, I’d expect to be worn out and sleepy, certainly by the afternoon if I’d burnt a lot of energy first thing. But hey, everyone’s physiology is different, so experiment, find out if you prefer morning or evening and go with it (don’t fight your body’s natural rhythms).

Lack of Activity

To counter the lack of activity you can exercise before and after work.

What about at work? Well you can choose to take the stairs rather than the elevator. I made this choice every day (to go up and down 3 floors) for the nearly 3 years I worked at SolidWorks R&D in Cambridge. I could never understand anyone using the lift, and when you did see people using the lift, almost invariably they were severely overweight and unfit. It seems a no-brainer to me, but clearly not their priority.

You can also choose to cycle to work rather than drive (easier said than done depending where you live). Or park some distance from work and walk the rest (I used to park 1 mile from SolidWorks and walk the rest – mainly because in town parking was £10/day ($15)).

You can also get a device to help you monitor your exercise level. This year at Business of Software 2012 Noah Kagan asked the audience if anyone had a FitBit. Quite a few hands went up. I confess I don’t have one but I’d been out for a meal with Trevor Lohrbeer and Levi Kovacs on Saturday evening before the conference they had both sung the praises of FitBit and both were wearing theirs.

You can also set timers to ensure you get out of your chair on a regular basis. Maybe walk the long way to the kitchen/vending machine. I seem to remember Noah Kagan talking about the games he plays at his office to get his FitBit count up. Sorry I don’t have a reference for this.

Repetitive Strain Injury

Repetitive Strain Injury is also known as Work Related Upper Limb Disorder (WRULD) in the USA. WRULD incorrectly characterises any injuries as being work related and also upper limb only, neither of which is correct. Repetitive Strain Injury is the correct term.

RSI is a very real risk to you if you type a lot (if you’re a software developer, yes you do type a lot). I’m not going to go into detail about RSI here as I’ve already written about this subject on the Object Media website.

Living your life

You can also choose to deliberately do some activities that business and money gurus such as James Caan and Ramit Sethi would advise you to spend money on (because your time is more valuable than the money). An example would be mowing the lawn, or taking garden waste to the recycling centre (or landfill, as the case may be).

They are of course right, your time as an entrepreneur is more valuable than the money it would cost to hire someone to cut your grass or take the waste to the rubbish tip. But spending money can’t make you physically fit or burn calories for you. Only exercise can. I’ve found that often the things like gardening tasks exercise different muscle groups than your chosen exercise regime. So you get a double bonus because you are improving what was being ignored.

I also happen to hate being physically unfit. When you’re unfit it’s harder to do things. Everything seems like a chore or is impossible. But when you are fit they are easy or actually attainable. As such I occasionally like to do manual labour tasks such as these.

I also happen to feel that you have a better idea of what people doing manual labour for (when you do hire them) are going through if you do it yourself sometimes. Very easy to forget what it’s like. Once you’ve lost touch with that you can be rather unreasonable with people. That isn’t nice.

Today I’ve been loading my car with all the garden waste from the front garden and the Cherry tree I cut prior to Business of Software. It took two trips, I got filthy, I did a load of exercise. And spent some time outside. Not thinking about software. Sometimes you are better to be away from the screen. Did the business keep running? Of course 🙂

I often find that cutting the grass is one of those occasions when I zone out and the next thing I know I’ve solved some important problem and amazing the grass has also been cut. And particularly aware of doing either activity.

Just to be clear I’m not saying you should do every task, I’m just saying why not choose to do some of them rather than always pay people to do them for you. You can can’t buy fitness.

Anyway, something for you to think about. Sure you can outsource all your manual labour tasks if you want, but you’ll just have to spend more time doing exercise later.

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