Rest Your Writer’s Brain

(c) Roy JH Han (CC BY-ND 2.0) icanhascheezeburger.com

(c) Roy JH Han (CC BY-ND 2.0) icanhascheezeburger.com

This week will wrap up The Healthy Writer’s Body series and the topic for today’s post is sleep.  Now who doesn’t love a little shut eye?  We all do it, we all enjoy it.  Sleep is the body’s natural process of recharging and rejuvenating.  The problem is most of us don’t get enough of it.

Jobs, family, personal commitments, writing–these all take up so many hours of our day that, in the end, we sacrifice sleep to fit in all these activities.  I admit I am one of the biggest offenders of giving up sleep to get things done.  And does it ever take a toll on my body and writing.  Studies have shown that getting less than 5 hours of sleep per night decreases brain function and makes it harder for one to concentrate. Motivation, creativity, and other cognitive functions are also negatively affected.

When I am tired, I can barely form a sentence let alone put forth any structuring to a story.  That all takes some serious brain power to plot and develop.  I am sluggish and the act of typing is exhausting.  Words float out of my brain and are lost when I try to focus on them.  Sleep deprivation makes me lose hold of whatever writing skills I have.  It is a very ugly thing to see one go through.

So as a writer, you want to make sure that you make sleep a priority in your daily routine.  That means you may have to restructure your day, say “no” to some things, or find time to take naps.

Waking up and still feeling exhausted means that you did not get enough sleep.  If you have a set time that you must get up everyday and you feel sluggish throughout the day, there is a good chance you are being forced to wake before you normal circadian alarm clock goes off.  A circadian clock is your natural, internal alarm clock that wakes you when you have had enough sleep.  For most, they are being forced to wake 2 hours before their natural clock goes off.  This wreaks havoc on one’s brain.

A way to counteract this is to go to bed 2 hours earlier at night so that you get the full amount of sleep that your body needs.  A standard of “8 hours a night” is a good ideal timeframe, but everyone is different.  Some need more, others need an hour less.  The goal is to recondition your body to automatically wake up at the time that you need to roll out of bed by adjusting your schedule.

As humans are diurnal beings, we wake best when the sun is rising.  Unfortunately, most of us have to wake before the sun is up.  I personally can’t wake up if the sun hasn’t risen.  This past winter has been the worst experience in my life in trying to wake before the sun is up.  So I purchased a Philips Wake-up Light Alarm Clock.  Combining this alarm clock with going to bed earlier, I have found that I am waking just as the alarm’s light is coming on–about 30 minutes before I am actually supposed to be up.

Once you are on a better sleep cycle, you will notice that your cognitive abilities and writing output will increase.  Also, as a bonus, your memory will become stronger.  A benefit to this is that you will be able to better remember your dreams.  And since you are sleeping more and your sleep quality is better, you will dream more.  Soon you will find yourself spewing with creativity and story ideas!

Here are some ways to better your sleep cycle:

  • Figure out your ideal sleep timeframe and balance that against your circadian clock.  Adjust your day’s schedule accordingly.
  • Keep your bedroom as dark as possible.  No one likes to sleep with a light shining in their face.
  • The best sleeping temperature is between 60F-75F / 15C-23C.  Ensure the room is well ventilated too.  Sleep hates hot, stuffy rooms!
  • Establish a routine.  Maybe your routine is that you wash your face, brush your teeth, tuck your puppy into her bed, and then climb into yours.  Doing that process on a daily basis signals to your brain you are getting ready to go to sleep.  This will help queue your sleep cycle, making it come on quicker as soon as your head hits the pillow.

Having trouble falling asleep?

  • Introduce essential oils in infusers in your bedroom.  The scent of certain oils, like Lavender, aid the sleep system (NOTE: Do not use an infuser that requires an open flame.  Fire and sleep do not mix).
  • Drink decaf herbal tea.  Herbal teas with chamomile help to calm the body and prepare it for sleep.  A good suggestion is to drink it a few hours before actually going to bed or you will wake up in the middle of the night having to pee.
  • Listen to soothing music, nocturnal nature sounds, or white noise as you try to fall asleep.  There are many products out there that have a timer that plays these sounds for a specified amount of time, turning off after you have fallen asleep.
  • Avoid electronic devices and exercise right before laying down.  Both are stimulants and increase your heart rate and brain activity.  This counteracts with your body as it is trying to wind down towards slumber.

Also, don’t forget about the amazing power of naps.  Naps are not only good for kids, they are fabulous for adults.  When you are feeling exhausted, put your head down and take a 20 minute power nap.  It is a good way to recharge and make it through the rest of your day.  Taking one 20 minute nap around midday will not impact your sleep cycle.

I hope you have enjoyed The Healthy Writer’s Body series and have learned that taking care of your writer’s body will help you succeed in your writing career.  Now, go take a nap!
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Nourish the Writer’s Brain

(c) 5demayo

(c) 5demayo

Being health conscious about what you eat should not only focus on trimming to your waistline.  As a writer, taking your nutrition into account should also focus on nourishing your brain.  A good diet fuels your creativity.  One must be mindful about what passes their lips because, well not to be cliche, you are what you eat.  Garbage in, garbage out.  If you have an unhealthy eating lifestyle, your creativity and productivity will suffer.  There are thousands of studies out there that show the direct correlation of how diets loaded with processed foods, high sugars, and an oddity of chemicals makes one’s body lethargic, unmotivated, and mush-brained.

There are so many lists out there of what to eat and what not to eat.  Honestly it is exhausting trying to filter through it all.  I am not about to critique out all the diets and fads that are supposed to produce more brain power.  Nevertheless, I will list out some things that are beneficial to start introducing in your current diet that will help spur creativity and keep you motivated with writing.  From there, do your own research to see what kind of diet will work best for you.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Foods that contain this fatty acid helps grow gray matter volume.  Our bodies cannot naturally produce this type of fatty acid, so we must include in our diet a standard intake of Omega-3’s.

  • Foods: Flax, Salmon, Tuna, Nut Oils, Fish Oils

Folic Acid:  Increases cognitive and critical thinking.  Some studies have shown that folic acid also increases memory.

  • Foods: Dark Green Veggies and Citrus Fruit

Chocolate:  (Just for you, Robyn LaRue) Research from the University of Nottingham shows that “eating chocolate could help to sharpen up the mind and give a short-term boost to cognitive skills”.  Now, that doesn’t mean that you can pig out on that 1 pound bag of M&Ms.  While chocolate is good for you, it is only beneficial in moderation.

Glucose:  In moderation, glucose boosts creativity, concentration, and alertness.  Focus on foods that are on the healthier end of the spectrum rather than reaching for those loaded with high levels of fructose and carbs

  • Foods: Blueberries, Oranges, Strawberries

Water:  Water is like gasoline for one’s brain.  A brain cannot function when dehydrated.  Not only does a body become sluggish, but dehydration can cause a myriad of other problems like headaches, body aches, and even death.  Can’t write when you are dead!

Writer Brain Friendly Noshes:

  • Broccoli (not steamed)
  • Dark Chocolate (in moderation)
  • Black Currants
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Salmon
  • Popcorn (plain – no butter or salt)
  • Apples
  • Green Tea
  • Chia / Flax / Hemp Seeds
  • Kale
  • WATER!
Disclaimer: I am by no means a doctor.  This article is not meant to be medical advice.  Please consult with your doctor if you have any questions.

Want to know what your favorite authors ate?  Here are Favorite Snacks of Great Writers from the The New York Times.
Nourish the body, nourish the mind.  Check out the other posts in The Healthy Writer’s Body Series.

 

The Proper Way to Sit

(c) Joe Loong  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This is correct posture (left).    This is incorrect posture (center).    This is… oh… he’s dead (right).  (c) Joe Loong (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I know a few weeks ago I griped about how sitting at your desk chair is killing you, and don’t get me wrong–it is.  Each night as you sleep, it secretly plots your murder.  Well, mine does at least.  But you know what, sometimes my knees want to kill me.  They are also are bent on my demise (…catch that pun?).  I can’t stand for long periods of time because my left knee wants to fill with fluid and stiffen up, causing me to walk like a wooden legged pirate–Aaargh!  I have to come to a compromise for the 12+ hours per day that I am at a computer.  I must alternate between sitting and standing.  Since we have already discussed standing, this week I am going to tell you how to ergonomically sit your tucas in your desk chair.

Like I said in my other post, sitting for long periods of time can cause a myriad of disease and bodily injuries along with shortening your life span.  That is why standing over sitting is highly encouraged.  However, not everyone can continuously stand.  Mixing in short periods of sitting is a viable option to diminish any pain from long term standing.  Over these past few decades, people are sitting for longer and longer intervals.  Given that increase, there has been a lot of research on how to sit properly.  The most ergonomic practices in sitting can help alleviate pain and long term stress injuries to the body (like slipped discs, varicose veins, blood clots, etc.).  Though, I can’t guarantee that your desk chair won’t still be out for your sweet, sweet blood.  Seriously, wouldn’t you want to kill that “thing” that sits on you for hours on end?

The ergonomic practice of sitting

1. Don’t cross your legs or ankles while sitting.  Keep your feet flat on the floor and if your legs are too short, use a box to elevate your knees so that they are in line with your hips.

2. Don’t lean too far forward or backwards.  Full back support is key. All three points of your back (thoracic-lumbar-sacral) should make contact with the chair back.

3. Sit in a chair with arms that place your forearms and wrists in line with your desk’s surface (or keyboard tray).  Your working surface should be at elbow height.  Ensure that your wrists and hands are comfortably inline to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome.

4. Raise your computer screen so that the top of the screen is in line with your eyes.  You should not have to tilt your head up or down to see your screen.

5. Don’t sit so rigid like you have a stick up your [insert favorite word for derrière here].  Yes, you need to maintain good posture, but don’t lock your joints and muscles.  Keep your body fluid and limber.

6. If you can, try to sit actively as opposed to passively.

Active sitting vs. Passive sitting

Passive Sitting – By definition, it is rigid in a regular desk chair with only your hands moving to type or write.  Your heart rate is decreased to a normal resting rate due to the inactivity.  In some situations, this type of sitting is needed, but it is important to sit in this position correctly and for only short periods of time.

Here is a great video by Buzzfeed that exhibits how to properly sit passively:

Active Sitting – You just can’t sit still… and that is good!  Active sitting has your body in some sort of motion and keeps your core engaged (hint: 6-pack abs).  If you have a back on your desk chair that reclines, rocking back and forth for about 2 hours, while you are working, can keep your body in that “active” mode and increase your heart rate to a heart-healthy number (hint: burns calories).  There are also chairs specifically designed for active sitting  (though poor coordination skills may see oneself sitting on the floor with some of these designs).

Find your Ergonomics Dude!

If you have a day job where you spend your time at a desk, see if your company has someone trained in ergonomics who can configure your desk area to properly fit your body type.  I am serious, people like this do exist!  I once worked at a company where this employee was in the “Environmental, Health, & Safety” department.  He came to my cube, measured me, and properly set up my chair and desk.  He even installed a keyboard tray that was on hydraulics!  (Note: I am insanely tall and need my keyboard lifted to a weird height)  That desk and chair setup was a little piece of paradise.

Get yo’ butt up!

I know this post is about good posture, but you just can’t sit for hours on end.  I am sounding like a broken record, but get up every 20 to 30 minutes and move around.  Stretch,  take a walk, jump in place, do a little jig, whip out those Macarena moves–get active and your heart rate going.

Every position that our bodies are in for extended periods of time has a direct impact on our health.  Be mindful on how you sit.

 


Need more help on maintaining your writer’s body?  Then check out the other posts in The Healthy Writer’s Body series

Heal your Hands

(c) CarpalTunnelGadgets

(c) CarpalTunnelGadgets

Your writing career can be adversely affecting the health of your body. While writing is not necessarily a physical job, it can still be a harmful occupation.  For most, a career as an author is a sedentary job.  We sit for long periods a day, staring at computer screens, clacking away at keyboards.  After I wrote the article, Your desk chair is killing you, I began to think about my own health.  It is not just sitting for long hours that is harmful, but also how I type, how I look at the computer screen, my posture while sitting, and my eating habits.  All of these factors, when done improperly, can lead to a myriad of diseases and overall poor health.

Over the next few weeks I will be posting articles for The Healthy Writer’s Body series, which was inspired by the Your desk chair is killing you article.  For this week, the topic is going to focus on the one part of our bodies that probably feel the most effects from poor ergonomic habits: hands and wrists.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is the monster of all repetitive stress injuries.   It occurs when the median nerve (a nerve that runs from the forearm to the palm) becomes compressed at the wrist.  This nerve controls all feeling in the thumb, fingers (except the index) and palm side of the hand.  Carpal tunnel syndrome can cause shooting pain or a cold numbness through the hands and fingers.  Surgery is an option to fix the injury, but the healing time is about six weeks.  As in six weeks of no typing or writing!  Also, from what I understand the procedure is painful and usually leaves a noticeable scar.  The surgery cuts the carpal ligament to relieve the symptoms, however,  a possible side effect is a loss in wrist strength.  Kind of scary, right?  The New York Times estimates over 500,000 Americans go under the knife to fix carpal tunnel syndrome.  That is a staggering number of surgeries for this one specific injury.  Luckily, this is an injury that is easily avoidable.

There are several things that can be done to negate the effects of carpal tunnel syndrome:

  1. Use wrist support– There are a few options here.  You can wear an actual wrist brace while typing or rest your wrists on a wrist pad that is for a keyboard and mouse. The key for this support is to keep your wrists and hands in line.  Having your hands bent, more so back towards your body, is the main culprit in carpal tunnel for writers.  Remember that median nerve that I mentioned earlier?  Having your wrists flexed in one position for long periods of time compresses that nerve.  Over time, carpal tunnel sets in.
  2. Go Ergonomic! – The definition of ergonomic is to provide the most optimum comfort while reducing stress or injury.  Though this relates to your body on a whole, if you are looking specifically for products to aid in preventing carpal tunnel, “ergonomic” is a good SEO term to use in your keyword search.  I zeroed in on this when looking for a more “wrist happy” keyboard and mouse.  My hands and wrists fell in love with the Microsoft Sculpt setup.  I have been 100% pain free in the hands for a year since switching to this model.  There are several other things you can do with your keyboard and mouse setup to make it more ergonomic.  Here is a great article (with pictures!) that shows you how to set up the perfect workstation to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome: Healthy Computing – Keyboard: Setup and Usage
  3. Use an external mouse and keyboard – Well this kind of ties into #1 and #2, but laptop keyboards and mouse track pads are by far the worst for your wrists.  There is little to no support there and because of the more compact size of a laptop keyboard, you usually have to place your hands in an unnatural angle to type.  Using laptop keyboards and mouse track pads are fine short term, but definitely not for extended periods of time.  Do yourself a favor and get yourself an external set.  Your wrists will thank you.
  4. Take a break – This is the “Apple a Day…” advice.  We all need to take breaks from the computer, every 20 minutes if possible.  This is not only good for the hands, but for your whole body.  Humans were not built to sit for long periods of time.  Push back that chair, stand up, shake out your hands, and…
  5. Exercise – There are plenty of exercises that can be found online to help keep wrists and hands nimble, alleviating pain and potential long term injury.  Go to your favorite search engine and type in “Carpal Tunnel Exercises” and you will be bombarded with thousands of exercises and products.  Or better yet, check out my Pinterest board Exercises for the Writer’s Body.  Put together a regimen for yourself and try to do it twice a day.  Seriously, it should only take a few minutes to exercise your wrists and keep them healthy.

Do you think you may have carpal tunnel?  The best advice is to see your doctor as soon as possible.  If it is not bad enough, he or she may recommend additional exercises to help to counteract the effects so that surgery can be avoided.

Don’t know if you have carpal tunnel, below are a few signs.  However, this is not medical advice to diagnose yourself.  You should definitely contact your doctor with any questions or concerns that you may have.  I mean really, of all the people in the world, do you honestly want medical advice from me?  Remember, I am the muse who likes to lock people in TSM lab and run “experiments”.

Possible signs of Carpal Tunnel:

  • Loss of feeling in thumb, index, and middle finger
  • Pain radiating up forearm
  • Hand and / or wrist pain
  • Loss of hand grip strength
  • Poor circulation in hands and fingers
  • Clumsiness of hands / Loss of Strength

 

Take care of your writer’s body–it’s the only one you have.

 

Your desk chair is killing you

Hey, you!  How long have you been sitting in that chair?  Bet you’ve been there for a few hours, haven’t you?  Don’t you realize that sitting for hours upon end is slowly killing you?  Don’t laugh at me.  You are totally being murdered by your chair.

As technology demands our almost constant attention, humans have turned into lazy lumps plopped in one spot staring endlessly at electronic screens.  The only movement comes from hands clacking away at keyboards or touchscreens.  And let’s not bring writing into the mix… ok, lets–this is a writing blog after all.  Writers are some of the worst culprits of sitting on their ‘tukas’, typing or scribbling away without a break.  You become so lost in your story that time ceases to exist.  Before you know it, 6 hours has flown by and you has not shifted  even an inch since sitting down at your desk chair.  It is terrifying what we writers do to our bodies for our craft.  I would like for this post to be a wake up call to all of the writers out there.  Sitting is killing your body!

As a kid, I despised sitting for long periods of time, especially in school.  Whenever I was forced to sit during class, my attention always wandered to the the nearest window.  I would get antsy and start shifting about in my chair.  A powerful yearn surged to be outside, running and playing.  If class would have been conducted where everyone could stand and learn by being in motion instead of sitting, I may have been a better student.  My body slowly became accustomed to sitting for an hour or two straight.  When I entered my mid-20’s, something awful happened.  I obtained a corporate job, which mandated sitting at a desk for almost 8 hours straight (aside from an hour lunch and two 15 min breaks).  I grew complacent with sitting at a desk in “cube land”.  It became the norm.  I converted to the dark side and accepted never leaving my desk.

Sitting is so incredibly prevalent that we don’t even question how much we’re doing it. And because everyone else is doing it, it doesn’t even occur to us that it’s not OK. – Nilofer Merchant at “Got a Meeting? Take a Walk” TED 2013

10 years later, I am still working in the corporate world and on top of that I am a writer.  So after I finish working an 8+ hour desk job, I sit for another 4 hours to write / blog / view social media.  Oh, there is also a 3 hour commute to and from the office in which I drive.  That is at least 15 hours of sitting on my butt per day!!!  My total of non-active hours is staggering.

Recently there has been an increase in “sit studies” and how prolonged sitting is affecting our health.  Do you want to read a horrific article about the ill-effects of long term sitting?  Then check out Is Sitting a Lethal Activity?, written by James Vlahos and published in the New York Times magazine.

Sedentary lifestyles lead to a myriad of health issues: obesity, heart disease, blood clots, stroke, and even death.  Vlahos’ article describes a 14 year study, which was conducted by American Cancer Society epidemiologist Alpha Patel, that found out of 123,000 Americans, men who spent 6 hours or more per day sitting had an overall death rate 20% higher than those who sat for 3 hours or less.  For women, the death rate was an astounding 40% higher!

If you think that exercising once a day for about an hour is going to counterbalance the effects of sitting for long periods of time and prolong you last hour on Earth, you are dead wrong.  The only cure is to STAND UP, take many breaks, and get active for more than an hour a day!

After reading Vlahos’ article and various other studies, I cannot take sitting down anymore.  Unfortunately, deskbound is not something I can alter, however, I can help rectify my “sitting” situation.  One major change that can be done is to obtain a standing desk.  The downside to this is that most commercial standing desks cost several hundred dollars.  Though, author Andrew Knighton came up with a solution to that.  He created his own standing desk and blogged about it here.  He has a rather ingenious design that piqued my interest to see what other blueprints are out there. I jumped on one of my favorite websites, lifehacker.com, to see what designs they had for standing desks.  Lifehacker has several creative examples, like a treadmill desk.  If nothing on that site is to your fancy, then there are always those famous “Ikea hacks“, which can be more economical.  Some of these desks are absolutely gorgeous and trendy, though I really don’t need a third desk (yes, I have 2 already).  My option to turn my existing desks into standing desks via bed risers.  Here is an adjustable set that will raise a desk 5 to 8 inches.

Elevating your desk to a standing height is only one solution.  Another is to take breaks away from your chair.  This is something that I struggle to do.  A time keeper I am not!  Realistically you should step away from your desk every 20 minutes.  The break can be anything from stretching, taking a walk, or going for a quick run.  The point of the break is to get up and do some kind of activity get your heart pumping and your limbs moving.  Sitting for long periods of time not only has negative consequences on your health, but on your muscles as well.  Your glutes and hamstrings stretch out like a rubber band, while hip flexors tighten from being constricted all the time.  Let’s not even get into what it does to your back!  With your muscles all out of whack, your posture is going to be hunched and your mobility / flexibility will become limited.

Sitting for long periods of time — when you don’t stand up, don’t move at all — tends to cause changes physiologically within your muscles.  You stop breaking up fat in your bloodstream, you start getting accumulations of fat … in your liver, your heart and your brain. You get sleepy. You gain weight. You basically are much less healthy than if you’re moving. — Gretchen Reynolds, The First 20 Minutes

As I said, I am a horrible time keeper.  I started keeping a timer at my desk that would go off every 20 minutes, reminding me to get up and take a break.  That didn’t even last through the first notification.  I promptly turned the timer off and kept typing away, ignoring my body’s pleas to get up and move.  Some tough love was needed.  I now set my oven timer, which is on a different floor in my house.  That incessant beeping forces me to get up, go downstairs, and turn it off.  So far, this has been working.  Once I am away from the desk, I go about taking a break by letting the dogs out, getting my mail, or stepping outside to take in a deep breath of fresh air.

If you absolutely can’t walk away from your desk, then do something to wake up your muscles.  You don’t have to leave the vicinity of your desk to do this.  Stretching is a key component to keeping a body flexible and healthy.  Stand up, push back your chair, and go through a couple cycles of Sun Salutation.  If you absolutely can’t leave your chair, there are several stretches that can be done while sitting (though the goal is to really get out of that damned chair…).  If you are in an office setting and think you may become embarrassed–who cares!  Start busting out your moves in front of your co-workers.  Maybe you will inspire them to get their butts moving.  Should you need stretching examples, I started a Pintrest board of different exercises that help counter the effects of long term sitting.

The writer’s brain is the hub of creative processes.  It is nourished by the writer’s body.  If the writer’s body is not taken care of, how can one expect the writer’s brain to produce at an optimal level?  We need to start caring for our creative bodies just as much as we care for our creative brains.  It is time to get off our tushes and get moving.

Have you found a creative way to break the sitting cycle?  If so, please help out your fellow sedentary writer and comment below!