Coder's Health Tips: Stretching
So you code, eh? Got a pretty sharp brain? Make sure you keep your body up to par! The healthier your body, the clearer your mind, the more comfortable you will be as you sit down to code.
A lot of the stress related problems and distractions that we have can be quickly alleviated though simple exercises. Here are some that I've found have worked well for me. This routine is designed to stretch almost every muscle in your body. It is also designed to fit practically into a coder's daily routine, once you get used to it, will take about 15 to 20 minutes tops. It is ideal for deadline related stress. I suggest doing this twice per high-stress eight hour period.
The results will be that your body will be far more comfortable, relaxed, your mind will be clearer, and it'll make reaching that deadline easier. My belief is that it's better to take a couple of 15 minute breaks that lead to increased productivity, than to spend the time in fruitless stress.
I'm not a medical doctor, physical therapist, or an accredited health expert of any kind. I'm someone who has had a variety of physical discomforts in the past and have studied how my body works to successfully overcome them. I am knowledgeable on these topics, but in no way should this be considered medical advice. I suggest that if you have physical issues of any nature, bring them to the attention of your doctor, and ask for her recommendation regarding the suitability of these exercises for you. That having been said...
A gentle background, some body basics
This is a deliberately brief overview of some elements to keeping an overall state of health. Note: If you are familiar with basics of physiology, you may wish to go straight to the exercises.
Muscles are groups of fibers. The fibers consist of cells that do one thing exclusively: They contract. Tension and stiffness is often a result of the muscle cells being constantly stimulated. Stretching provides the balance by giving them the "relax" signal, and by litterally causing them to expand.
Try the following: Raise your forearm for a moment, move your hand down. The action was created by a muscle directly underneath the forearm. Now raise your hand. The pulling muscle is on the top of your forearm. Mechanically, a contracting muscle brings a body part from one position to another. If you aren't sure which muscle in effect, simply attend to the direction of the motion. As a general rule of thumb, the direction of the motion will point you to the muscle(s) in action.
A very important factor in keeping your body feeling good is that of healthy exercise. The value that exercise brings is that it enables the body to adapt to a stress. The response of the body is very similar to what the body does when it's young. Chemically and biologically, you are essentially telling it to reproduce youth, and grow.
There are five important general areas to consider for overall well-being:
- Nutrition. Keeping your body fueled with clean (fresh, natural, unprocessed) foods and liquids.
- Strength. Available mechanical force; increased by responding to a stress.
- Suppleness. Keeping the cell walls flexible, thus increasing your range of motion, and the ability to remain relaxed) This article focuses on suppleness.
- Cardio-vascular efficiency. Basically, the ability to process and deliver oxygen, and expel waste gases efficiently.
- Rest. Allowing your body the time to clear out toxins, make use of nutrients and regenerate tissue.
A few obvious things will help keep your cells, therefor your body, in good condition. Keep them well watered. Drink lots of clean liquids. Pure, fresh water is the best. Juices are great too. Alcohol and coffee have the tendency to limit the amount of water a cell can retain, thus affect the ability to remain comfortable, relaxed, and clear headed. Keep your cells well fed with quality fruits and vegetables. We'll keep it to this, since nutrition isn't in the scope of this article. Well enough said that the better you feed your body, the more effective a tool it will be for you.
Strength is a description of your muscle's cell abilities to contract. The more a cell can contract, the stronger it is. The more cells you can recruit in a motion, the stronger you are. The value of strength is reflected in myriads of daily ways: Opening a door, reaching for a book at an extended arm's range, opening a bottle of beer. (Did I say that out loud?)
Suppleness is the ability for muscle and sinew to extend to it's full range, thus permitting our joints a full range of motion. It has as a very nice side effect: the increased ability to maintain muscular relaxation, and thus the bio-mechanical machine can operate more efficiently. Of all the essential elements to health, this seems to be one of the most overlooked.
Cardio-Vascular efficiency is perhaps one of the least overlooked, yet one of the most misunderstood in terms of it's application in daily life. Having a strong heart and efficient lungs isn't just for sports. It keeps our mind clear, and our body rested for longer periods of time. This means that we can get more juice from an overnight charge. It also boosts our immune system, so we get to forgo sick days. (Good for free-lancers, bad for full timers )
Finally, another often overlooked item is that of rest. The body and mind needs rest. There is a classic example of the Code Warrior's All Nighter feeding off Jolt Cola and Pizza. Don't do it. Respect your body's natural cycles, and it will reward you by feeling good, and thinking straight.
Taking care of your body as a routine will improve your ability to think clearly, your energy levels, your ability to handle stress (deadlines anyone?) and will enhance your life away from the monitor as well. I think that it's quite reasonable to assume that if you keep these exercises up for three months*, and do them in a gentle, respectful way, that you will notice an extremely positive and measurable effect on your general state of well being.
*Think three months is long? How many three months periods in your life have you given up, that had they now been past you would have been glad to reap the benefits of feeling great?
The following exercises will focus on suppleness, relaxation, and to a small degree, strength.
Remember: If you haven't stretched regularly for a long time, go slow! It takes a while for the body to change.
Observation: Go into your stretches slowly and gently. When faced with the unfamiliar, the body responds by tightening up. Hold it very gently, the body will suddenly relax (in about 15-20 seconds) and the stretch will begin.
Observation: Remember to keep breathing deeply and gently throughout the exercises. The goal is one of relaxation, and suppleness, not exertion and teeth gritting agony. These exercises shouldfeel good.
Got sore neck muscles from being hunched over at your computer? This is usually a result of keeping an unnatural body position for extended amounts of time. Quite often we lean forward, with our necks extended towards the monitor. Consequently, the surrounding muscles tense up in an attempt to compensate.
The neck is a fairly sophisticated structure, owing to the fact that there is relatively little support for the spine, which is holding a 15 to 20 lb load that is in constant motion. There are many little muscles. This exercise bears doing slowly and gently.
- Stand comfortably, feet shoulder width. (If you've been sitting all night, stand!)
- Allow your arms to hang naturally at your side, your shoulders and neck to relax. Heave a comfortable sigh.
- Drop your chin to your neck (not chest?neck) and gently let gravity hold it in place. Notice how this stretches the muscles in the centre of your back?
- Very, very slowly, move your head in slow circle to one side. Notice how the muscles that are being stretched are in the opposing direction that your head is facing?
- Let your head roll onto your shoulders; donot raise your shoulder to meet your head. Time and flexibility will take care of that.
- Keep breathing slowly and with relaxation.
- Continue the circling motion. Don't push your head down, let gravity do the pulling for you.
- Repeat three times, both directions.
If you go to the gym, do shrugs. If you don't, you can still do these at home. Grab a couple of evenly balanced, and heavy items (milk jugs with handles, filled to the brim). If you are all out of milk, you can do this by placing your finger tips under something heavy and solid like a desk, to provide resistance. If you have nothing, do the motions, and squeeze the muscle.
- Keeping your hands to your side, lift your shoulders as high as you can. (Don't scrunch your neck down).
- Repeat the "I don't know" motion until the area near your neck, and upper back feel warm. (If you pay attention, you'll notice that the motion starts in the middle of your back).
- If you like, empty handed, you can push your shoulders as far as possible to the front, release your shrug, pull your shoulder as far back as is comfortable and return to the shrug, to create one large rolling motion.
- Take a minute break. Do this three times and feel that head ache disappear!
Back: A follow up to shrugs
- Stand Straight, pretend that someone is lifting you by the hair of your scalp.
- Touch your chin to your neck, if you can. (If you can't, start here!).
- Gently and slowly curl over (like a piece of paper), let your arms hang?don't push them forward, allow gravity to pull your body. Make sure you keep your knees gently bent (Don't keep them locked straight). Do this motion gently as far down as you comfortably can. Hold for a count of about 20, then uncurl as slowly and gently. If it feels good (and it takes time, go slow!) you're doing it right. If it genuinely hurts, you're pushing too fast.
- Make sure you practice this daily!
- Repeat three times.
This will stretch every posterior muscle, from the top of your scalp to your heels. Result? You'll feel great.
The Other Side
Now that we know how to stretch our back, we need to remember something important: The body is one coordinated item, not separate pieces. That means we need balance.
I know very few people who have flexible trunks, especially in the "leaning back" department, so we'll go slow with a few exercises, which once learned will blend seemlessly.
Stretching the front of your body
- Find a soft surface, and kneel, head and trunk straight.
- Keep your feet flat; ie: The tops of your feet touching the floor.
- Move your arms to the back, palms facing the front.
- Rest the palm of your hands on the soles of your feet.
- Gently arch your back and hold.
- Hold for a count of about 20, then gently lift back to a kneeling position. If it feels good you're doing it right. If it genuinely hurts, you're pushing too fast. Slow down!
- Repeat three times.
This will have the effect of stretching most of your upper body, including your shoulders and arms.
Once you've managed to be able to hold the above position comfortably,
- Walk your hands backwards, roll your foot onto it's sole. Both fingers and toes should point in the same direction.
- Arch your back as high as you can.
- Hold for a count of about 20.
- Gently relax your body.
- Return to the kneeling position.
- Repeat three times.
- Turn your hands so that they face palm down, fingers, spread, towards you.
- Place them on the floor in front of you.
- Gently lean forward as far as you comfortably can.
- Hold for a count of 20 or so.
- Gently return to your knees.
- Repeat three times.
At this point we've stretched every front, and back muscle. We've stretched our necks, shoulders, forearms and hands. Now we are left with the "in-side" and "out-side" of our body.
The inner thighs
- Still kneeling, place your hands in front of you.
- Gently let your knees slide apart.
- Go as far as you are comfortable with.
- Hold for about 20 counts.
- Repeat three times.
The side abdominals and side of our back.
- Stand, keeping your feet slightly wider than shoulder width.
- Raise your hands palms forward in a two handed "Stop!" motion.
- Turn the finger tip to point at each other.
- Clasp your hands together.
- Raise them, in this position above your head.
- Lean to the side as far as you are comfortable.
- Keeping your hands clasped, shoulders extended, make as big a circle as you can, from the trunk. (Imagine that your hands are the end of the hand of a clock, and that your trunk is the pin.)
- Repeat these circles three times in both directions.
Feeling tired? Can't focus? Remember to breath! Sounds obvious? Deep breathing goes into the bottom of your belly, not your chest. If you find you need to clear your mind, walk away from your monitor. Find a quiet place and take 25 as-deep-and-slow-as-you-can breaths. Stretch a bit. Now go back to work. Nice difference, eh?
I don't know about you, but coffee (love it as I may) does NOT pick me up. It makes me stupid and dull minded. I keep a couple of litre bottles of water by me at all times. For some reason it helps. And having to get up and pee once an hour saves me from RSI!
Get away from the monitor. Take a few minutes to keep your eyes closed. I find this refreshes my eyes more than rubbing them. Rubbing your eyes isn't a good idea. Optometrists recommend a) remembering to blink (no joke!) and close your eyes, if possible provide them with true darkness.
That's a quick stretching routine. All exercises are meant to be followed in order. Remember to be gentle to your body, especially if it's not used to the exercise. The goal is to make it feel good so that you can get back to work, not to force it into performing unnatural acts. Ideally, in a couple of weeks, you should be familiar enough with this whole routine that you can incorporate everything simultaneously and fluidly; that is to say, eyes closed, breathing deeply and the stretches flowing one into the next.
Good health and happy coding! I welcome your feedback,