Potion Factory Blog

Will the Real Techie Please Stand Up?

Happy new year! I had my ups and downs in 2007, but overall it was a great year for me and for Apple users in general.

As I was doing my year end review, one thing that stuck out was that 2007 was the year that I started taking workplace ergonomics seriously. I made some drastic changes and I would like to share how it made me a happier and more productive person.

The Problem

As I neared the end of my indestructible 20s, I began experiencing minor pains in my hands and wrists. It seemed pretty innocuous at first as I would experience it for a short while only for it to go away for long periods of time, but in 2007 it got more frequent and more painful. It got to a point that if things got worse, it would endanger my career. A little frightened, I turned to the Internet for some research and discovered that I was getting RSI because, well... I was doing pretty much everything wrong.

I was:

  • Not taking frequent breaks
  • Staying in a single body position for too long
  • Putting a lot of weight on my wrists
  • Bending the wrists too much
  • Leaning my head forward too much, forcing the neck joints to support the weight of my head. This is quite bad for the nerves, according to my research

The Solution

The first thing I started doing was taking 30 second breaks every 10 minutes. Then a 5 to 10 minute break every hour. This was the easiest part and I saw immediate benefits.

Next was the single body position. For this I got a height-adjustable desk that lets me work sitting down or standing up. I was skeptical about the merits of working standing up, but after trying it out on an improvised standing desk, I saw that it was a no brainer.

The main benefits are that:

  • It makes it much easier to walk away from the desk while you have to think
  • I now do little stretching exercises many times an hour without even consciously thinking about it
  • The little stretching sessions and walking gets the blood-flow going
  • I burn more calories while working.

As any working position, standing up has its own problems if you overdo it. It's also not easy at first to stand up for even an hour. I now find it pretty relaxing to work standing up though. I feel more active even though programming is the least physically demanding thing you could do. And you know how you can easiily spend half an hour following Wikipedia links or reading reddit or digg? That just never happens when I'm in front of the desk standing up. I seem to get into a more committed mode of working in this position.

There aren't that many height-adjustable desks on the market and they all tend to be pretty expensive for the quality of wood, but it was money well spent in my case. It goes from sitting to standing position in about 10 seconds. I can adjust it to the exact height that I want.

To fix the wrist bending problem, I got the new Apple Wireless Keyboard and a Microsoft Natural Wireless Laser Mouse 6000. I'm not sure if ergonomics was one of the main goals of the Apple keyboard, but it's a godsend. The keyboard has three things going for it. It lies almost flat on the surface making it unnecessary to bend your wrist even if you lay your forearm on the desk surface for comfort. Next, the keys require much less pressure, making it easier on your finger joints and hand, in addition to making it a pleasure to use. I don't get Emacs Pinky anymore thanks to this keyboard. The third feature, which I like the best, is the lack of the number pad. I would have gotten its wired sibling if it wasn't for this because I hate wireless input devices. However, the fact that there is less distance between the keys I use the most and the mouse, makes it not only efficient to go back and forth between the two devices, but also ergonomic since I don't have to keep my mouse hand out there in a weird position.

The Apple keyboard isn't perfect though, and I'm proven right once again about wireless input devices. For one thing, it's too smart for its own good, ignoring the caps lock key when it's released too fast. This is a problem because I remap the caps lock key to control, making it one of the most used keys. It also sometimes performs a keystroke 3 times even though I only pressed it once. This gets quite annoying especially with the delete key. The positives are too good to give up this little gem though.

The Microsoft mouse was also effective in curing my hand pain. It's much higher off the ground than a typical mouse and it's designed so that you put the weight of your hand on the blade of your hand, instead of the lower palm and wrist. You get a straight wrist while holding this mouse naturally because of the design.

Thanks to all these changes, I'm happy to report that I haven't experienced the slightest bit of RSI for a while now. I don't even take mandatory breaks anymore since I tend to get that anyway stretching or walking about the room while in standing mode.

Here are some pictures of the entire setup:

DSC_0274DSC_0272DSC_0270DSC_0268DSC_0264DSC_0255DSC_0234DSC_0240DSC_0283

Bonus:

The cable and power brick hanger in photos 4 and 5 were indispensable for a height-adjustable desk, but I would recommend it to anyone. It's nice not having a monstrosity of intertwining cables down there.

And finally, the last picture shows a mini-stepper exercise machine that I sometimes use in front of the computer. It's a little sturdy machine that makes me look quite ridiculous, but it gets the job done. It'll have to do until I can figure out how to smash together a desk and a treadmill or maybe an exercise bike.

Comments

Mark Boszko

I get the feeling I missed it somewhere, but which adjustable desk did you end up getting? I've been meaning to try this for a while-- Walter Murch edits films standing up, and I've been having some back problems and some of the same RSI problems you mentioned. Plus, I'd like to avoid the dreaded "editor's butt". Thanks!

Andy Kim

Mark,

I got the GO-2 desk that's sold by Topdeq in the US. It's designed in Germany by Leuwico.

Here's the link to Topdeq

I also looked at the one sold by Relax the Back and one other company, but this was more affordable and I couldn't see much of a difference in quality.

There are many height-adjustable desks out there, but very few that can actually go from standing to sitting heights with an electrical motor.

John C Beatty

There's another really good reason to work standing up - it's a good way to lower the long term risk of a heart attack. I had a mild one about 4 years ago, and the cardiac rehabilitation people explained that they see more bus and truck drivers than any other profession because they spend their entire work day sitting down. Sound familiar? Their main message, though, was that a little (regular) exercise goes a long way. So I bought a treadmill.

A few months later I ran across an article in the New York Times about a fellow at the Mayo Clinic (James Levine) who's keen on the idea of combining a treadmill and a workstation. The idea is that instead of just standing, you walk slowly - say 0.5 mph or a bit more. So I rigged a support frame around my treadmill that allows me either to (a) walk at 4-4.5 mph at 5-7 degrees slope while listening to an audio book or watching a DVD, or (b) to amble sedately at 0.5-0.7 mph at 0 degrees slope. The keyboard and mouse sit on a board that I sling across the front end of treadmill. Higher up there's a larger board slung across the treadmill that supports two Dell LCDs.

It's actually a bit more exotic than that - the treadmill equipment is on the second floor of my house, slaved via splitters and USB to a traditional seated workstation on the first floor, where the CPUS and KVMs are. I typically spend an hour or so a day in the morning and/or early afternoon (when I'm at home) ambling upstairs while I work, and an hour at 4+ mph / 5+ degrees getting serious exercise in the late afternoon. And when I'm working at home, whenever I find my butt getting a little sore from sitting down, I pop upstairs for half-hour or so. I wear out other parts of me after an hour or so of ambling, so I actually find it more comfortable alternating between the two. But then I'm a bit older than you likely are :-) [namely 60]. See

http://www.mayoclinic.org/feature-articles/levine-office-of-future.html

and

http://www.mayoclinic.org/news2005-rst/2836.html

for info on Levine's work.

Cheers!
-jcb

Andy Kim

Hi John,

Thank you for your insightful comments. It sounds like a heck of a setup you have there.

I had seen the Levine treadmill desk before on CNN and it was actually my inspiration behind the mini-stepper exercise machine. It's no substitute for a treadmill though, as you're forced into a limited position. There's also too much vertical movement with the stepper. While I can't use it all the time in front of the desk, it's still nice to have around for those times when I'm watching a video of decent length or just reading something.

kenneth

Did you try Wacom's graphic tablets? For everything other than gaming, they rock... It's the best thing to avoir RSI too.

Andy Kim

I actually have a Wacom tablet too, but I don't find them convenient enough to replace the mouse. I don't like messing with the pen as I switch between the keyboard and the tablet. The other advantage of the mouse is that you make movements relative to its last position. This makes it more efficient to do repetitive tasks. The tablets also have a relative positioning mode, but I found it awkward and very unnatural. Maybe I just haven't used it enough, and just need to give it another go, but for now I'm happy with the mouse.

They're great for drawing though. It would have taken me a lot longer to make the Tangerine! icon without one.

Chris Ryland

The Biomorph Personal desk is my favorite (with the maple finish), though I only use the hand-cranked version. Only takes a minute or so to adjust from standing to sitting. A bit pricey, but I've been able to find a few copies used (for about 1/3 to 1/4 the retail price).

Andy Kim

That's actually the third model I looked into. I got as far as hunting down a used one. The one I saw didn't have an electrical motor and that was a deal breaker. It's necessary, because otherwise, I wouldn't be able to go from standing to sitting many times a day without it becoming a chore. Plus, as you mentioned, It is indeed pricey. A new one with the motor option would have cost me twice as much as the desk I got. It seems like they have the reputation and quality though.

StuFF mc

Andy: you got it right for the Desk, but just completely wrong for the rest ;) I'm really into ergonomics since years (and still not enough), and here's where you *really* wrong:

- The Apple Keyboard is all except ergonomic. It's completely anti ergonomic ;) I have a Microsoft 4000, which is okay and cheap, but the *real* solution I'll go for in the next days/weeks (once I get my last invoice paid) is the Kinesis Keyboard. It looks super weird, but it's because it's super ergonomic. It has a common point with the Apple Wireless tough: no numeric keypad. The numeric Keypad is simply wrong (but if you have a french keyboard you pretty much NEED it since the numeric keys up need a SHIFT to give the number :( Hopefully I'm into US Querty since a few years, and German keyboards also do no need a numeric)

- The microsoft mouse is kinda okay, way better than a Mighty Mouse (the worst mouse ever in terms of ergo), but the best thing is to have a vertical mouse. I have one from Speed Link, speed but good, and Kinesis (or others) also make those.

- Standing is a good idea, but on what chair do you sit, when you sit (because you sit sometime, right?). I found a company making *really* ergonomic chairs in a east european country and I'm seeking to buy one of those.

BUT... That said, you got it 200% right when you speak about making PAUSE every now and then. Programmers are not realizing the risks of RSIs, until they actually have it :(

Hey I'd love to do a Pomcast about that with you, buddy! Now it makes us another common point...

Andy Kim

Hi StuFF,

Oh, come on. The Apple keyboard is not completely anti-ergonomic. If there were a scale of 0 to 10 where 0 is completely bad for you in terms of ergonomics, I think the Apple keyboard would fall at about 6 or 7 while most keyboards lie at about 3. Sure, there's room for improvement, but it's definitely not a disaster.

I actually know a friend who has the Kinesis keyboard and I tried it out for myself. That keyboard requires some serious commitment from you. According to my friend taking frequent breaks helps more than switching to the Kinesis.

David Sinclair

Excellent setup. I've been thinking about switching to a transformable desk too, as I'm too sedentary, sitting at my Mac pretty much all day. Since I work from home, the only exercise I get is on a stationary bike.

Taking regular breaks really helps, too. You didn't mention what you use for your break reminders... but I hope you use Dejal Time Out. :)

Andy Kim

Hi David,

I actually used a freeware application just because that's what I got when I did my search on VersionTracker. I think it was called AntiRSI. I gave up on it after about a month though, as I found the forced breaks frustrating sometimes when I'm right on the verge of completing a piece of code. After that I just took frequent breaks at natural points.

I didn't know about your software though, and I'll have to give it a try sometime.

David Sinclair

Time Out is also freeware. The breaks can be postponed, skipped or enforced, as you desire. I'm working on a major upgrade that'll be even better, with both freeware and shareware editions. If you have any suggestions for features, let me know.

Rory

The physio had me stretch out my arm to my side, lift my hand up (like giving a stop signal to a person at my side) then bend my arm back towards my head until my finger tips nearly met my ear. I had to do this about 10 to 20 times a couple of times a day for a few weeks. You can sort of feel it stretching the tendons in your arm. This was specific to my condition of course so it may not necessarily be the right exercise for someone else.

Matt

Hey all,

I found the blog while scanning the internet for solutions. I have similar RSI and back issues and the bad office setup wasn't helping.

I did a lot of chair researching, and found that the Steelcase Leap seems to be the big thing out there right now. Most people rate it higher than any Herman Miller stuff. I get it in the mail tomorrow, so if anyone is interested, I can let them know what I think.

I also ordered the Biomorph XO2 desk, which should be here in a week or so. I too really like the Biomorph Personal, but after spending $900 on a chair, I didn't want to spend over a grand on a desk.

I too agree that taking breaks seems to be about the best thing you can do. My PT says that ergo stuff helps but isn't really the solution.