Taking care of your body when you work at a computer all day

The reality of a translator’s work day is that most of it is spent at the computer. This falls into the “great” category in terms of location-independence and the ability to work from nearly anywhere with a reliable Internet connection. But it falls into the “not great” category in terms of the effect on one’s eyes, hands, spine, and overall health. Here are a few suggestions for mitigating the damage, and feel free to add your own in the comments!

Think about your desk setup
In 13 years of freelancing, I’ve tried various setups; standard desk with a standard chair, standard desk with a yoga ball, a treadmill desk, and now a standing-height desk with a high stool. I do think that being able to change your position is important; if you want to see a sit-stand desk in action, you can check out this video interview with Karen Tkaczyk, who uses an Ikea Bekant motorized multi-position desk.

All of these desk setups have their pluses and minuses: I like sitting on a yoga ball because you can’t slouch (or you fall off the ball…) and you can’t sit with your legs crossed, unless you have unusually good balance on one leg. Treadmill desks are excellent for your health, but can be loud and large, and can also leave you feeling just exercised enough that you don’t feel motivated to do more vigorous exercise when you’re not working.

At my co-working office, we have Ikea Linnmon trestle desks, which look like this:
linnmon-finnvard-table-white__0209291_PE362856_S4
They’re an interesting solution because they allow you to change from sitting to standing by using a high chair or stool, rather than by changing the desk height. I use a wooden stool as a desk chair, which a) prevents slouching since there’s no back, and b) is just uncomfortable enough that I have to walk around or stand up regularly, which I like. If I had a Herman Miller Aeron, I might never get up again, whereas the wooden stool kind of forces me into activity.

Think about your hands and eyes

As translators, we type *a lot*. Unless you use speech recognition software, your fingers are working overtime, so make sure you have a really good keyboard. I am an evangelist for Unicomp keyboards; I have the classic buckling spring model at home, but it’s so loud that I purchased the quiet touch model for my office (it’s still pretty loud compared to something like an Apple keyboard, but it’s doable). Using the Unicomp keyboards, I have had zero repetitive strain problems in 13 years of translating, so I think they’re well worth it.

If you have a laptop as your primary work computer, invest in a good-quality, large monitor so that you’re not squinting at a little screen. And look at some basic ergonomic guidelines when you set everything up in your office: adjust the monitor so that your head is in a neutral/level position when you look at the center of the screen, and place the monitor so that your fingertips just touch the screen if you reach your arm out straight in your normal sitting/standing position.

Make exercising a habit
I once told an audience of freelancers, “Do something physical for at least an hour a day.” To which someone in the audience responded, “That sounds kind of X-rated, don’t you think?” I’m not going to judge your choice of physical activity, but I’ll give you my doctor’s advice: if you are completely sedentary at work, you have to consider an hour of exercise as part of your work day. I know…you don’t have time, you hate Jazzercise, and so on. Here’s how I do it: I consider a gym membership to be a business expense. I mean, in the IRS’ mind, and thus on my actual taxes, it’s not a business expense. But in my own mind, it’s a cost of doing business in a job that I love, but in which I do a lot of sitting on my tail. I deliberately sought out a gym that is a five-minute walk from my office, and that offers “lunchtime express” exercise classes. The class varies by the day: one day it’s power yoga, one day it’s TRX, one day it’s kettlebells. Honestly, I don’t even look at what the class is: I just go on the gym website and sign up, and that’s my lunch break. The gym is so close that I can change clothes, walk there, do the class, take a quick shower, change, walk back, and be back at my desk in about an hour and fifteen minutes. Maybe there’s not a gym right near you, or maybe you loathe the thought of group exercise classes, or whatever, but if you are at all avoidant about exercising, you need to find a “hook” that forces you to keep up with it.

If you work at home, you can try all kinds of little tricks to force yourself to exercise: when your phone rings, stand up before you answer it, and walk around while you talk on the phone. Keep a set of dumbbells on your desk, and lift them while you’re listening to a webinar. Set a timer and work for 50 minutes, then “work out” for 10 minutes by doing jumping jacks, squats, or running in place in your office.

I’m sure you have some great tips on freelance health, so let’s hear them!

14 Responses to “Taking care of your body when you work at a computer all day”
  1. Lucy September 9, 2015
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    • Jonathan Beagley October 16, 2015
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