Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Good Health

Margaret Atwood was asked by the Guardian to provide advice for aspiring writers. Her reply: 'Take care of your back.' 

You want to get a bunch of writers talking? Ask them what chair they use, what keyboard, what desk.
Forget about asking about character or plot development or how to structure a novel. For most of us our craft is a deeply personal process and what works for one person may not work for another. But touch on the topic of seating, and man, that sure starts the conversational ball rolling.

Why? Because TOO MANY of us have bad backs, occupational overuse or gradual process injuries.

As an ex-physio (physical therapist) I find it scary and oftentimes sad, how so many talented writers work in chronic pain, pain that could have been easily prevented if they'd been more aware of their own body and acted before it became a problem. 

So today I'm going off-topic and ruminating on Health and how important it is and how you only miss it when you don't have it. (And also today, I need a break from writing my novel)...

Disclaimer: These are general guidelines only. If you have specific problems, see a doctor. And use common sense - if these suggestions make your pain worse, don't do them.  

How to Get a Bad Back

Do You:
  1. Adopt one position all day, every day. (Extra points if you bend, lift heavy weights or sit)
  2. Dislike getting out of your chair.  (Extra points if you move the coffee machine, printer and photocopier close to avoid having to stand)
  3. Never adjust your chair
  4. Write in the following places: bed, sofa or the dining table (using a dining chair)
  5. Only use a laptop
  6. Smoke
  7. Are too heavy for your height
  8. Never exercise
  9. Avoid all thoughts of stretching, walking, running or getting outside ( Extra points if you term hanging out laundry as exercise)
  10. You are passionate about craftwork hobbies
  11. Have arthritic hips and/or knees
  12. Drive around the supermarket carpark for thirty minutes to ensure you don't have to walk
  13. Have a history of spinal problems, such as spinal fractures, back surgery, chronic arthritis or disc damage?
  14. Have a history of chronic health problems?

If you can answer YES to all or some of these then congratulations! You are on your way to Bad Back Heaven.

Things you can do to reduce your risk - in order of effectiveness

  1. Start before it becomes a problem. If you can answer yes to many of the points above then back pain is not an if, it's a when.
  2. Try to lose weight. Seriously. Best thing to do. Note the word 'try'. The reason: if you are seriously trying to lose weight (and believe me, I know. I put on ten kilos this year so I'm in this process right now) you WILL exercise more. This increased activity reduces your other risk factors. Plus, weight loss involves an attitude change, a can-do mentality. This attitude is really important in managing pain.
  3. Move around more. Park the car at the far end of the carpark. Put the coffee maker in the other room, relocate your printer. Set a timer on your phone to act as a reminder to stand up and stretch.  Use a mobility tracker, like fitbit, or put a health app on your phone - it's easy to overestimate activity levels. Ideally, you want to get out of your chair at least hourly. 
  4. Exercise regularly. Ideally, exercise into positions you don't adopt during the day. So walking, netball, yoga, gardening, golf are all good options. Cycling or rowing are, on the other hand, mostly sitting, so if you're a serious cyclist and a serious writer you need to think about adding something like yoga. 
  5. If you are seriously unfit (can't walk up a moderate slope) start easily. Remember, anything is better than nothing. You may find investing in a personal trainer worthwhile. If you have significant health issues, like heart problems, talk to your doctor before starting on an exercise programme.
  6. Discourage sedentary hobbies. If you're a quilter and a writer, do something active as well.
  7. Stop smoking.
  8. Invest in decent office furniture. If you're short use a footrest, if you're tall make sure the desk height is right for you. Decent doesn't mean expensive, it means comfortable, well made and adjustable. Have a look at the products in government offices; generally, government buys good but affordable products. You can also consider more specialised products, such as a stand up desk (I had a patient who worked on top of a filing cabinet for the sake of his back) but if you're needing things like that its worth talking to an specialist clinician in ergonomics. Your practice nurse should be able to help you find a local practitioner. 
  9. If you're having back problems, talk to a professional. Do the exercises they prescribe, make the lifestyle changes. Do NOT rely on over the counter medication and hope it will go away. Meds are great for reducing acute pain but generally for chronic problems, they don't make the causes disappear. Sometimes, they mask the causes.

Most important: Prevention is always, always better than cure. Don't wait for your back to give way on you before you make lifestyle changes. 

If you're serious about writing, do as Margaret Atwood says, and look after your back.

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