How to Be Healthy (Even if You Live at a Desk)

How to Be Healthy (Even if You Live at a Desk)

In Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, Jimmy Stewart’s Buttons the Clown character says, “Every man kills the thing he loves.” I have this rather morbid theory that it works the other way around too: the thing we love often ends up killing us.

Mostly, I think this is simply because “love” is usually code for “do unto excess.” The thing I love, of course, is writing, and I’m blessed to get to do it full-time. No complaints there. But one of the biggest challenges of my life has been figuring out how to be healthy while basically living at my desk.

What Happens to Your Body When You Live at Desk

This problem is faced by thousands of people these days. Even if you don’t write full-time, chances are good you still spend a significant amount of time on your computer, and your body has all kinds of painful ways of compensating.

I’ve run the gamut of desk-jockey problems: everything from repetitive-stress injuries in my wrists to chronic stiff necks to TMJ to back pain. In a lot of ways, I’ve been lucky: no carpal tunnel syndrome yet!

But if I’m having all these issues at thirty, after less than twenty years of active computer use, what am I going to feel like in another (God willing!) fifty to sixty years of pursuing my creative dreams?

I’ve made it my mission these last few years to “hack” my lifestyle and create the kind of daily habits that are as healthy as possible under the circumstances. If you live life at a desk, I encourage you to do the same! If we’re going to be in this for the long game, then we’ve got to have a long-term plan.

10 Hacks for How to Be Healthy at a Desk

Here are the steps I’m taking to stay healthy in my desk-bound lifestyle.

1. Exercise Daily

I admit I’m better at this during the summer than the winter. In the summer, I’ll walk a mile every morning while drinking my breakfast smoothie. In both winter and summer, I do a quick round of weights and standing sit-ups every morning before my shower.

Morning Walk With Smoothie Shadow

2. Eat Healthy

This one should go without saying, even though it’s arguably the hardest to do. There’s so much junk out there to eat these days. We all just have to do the best we can. But I try eat organic, non-GMO foods. I avoid wheat and especially corn syrup when possible. I try for at least a little protein for breakfast and only a few small snacks or sweets throughout the day.

Hawaiian Salad

3. Get the Best Desk Chair Possible

This is huge–and it only took me most of my life to figure it out. After buying and discarding cheap chair after cheap chair, I finally threw up my hands and decided to spare no expense. I bought what is probably the most expensive desk chair out there — Herman Miller’s “Embody” model — and there hasn’t been a single moment when I’ve regretted it. It has made a massive amount of difference in my overall health and comfort. Seriously. If you’re going to spend the majority of your life in one chair, isn’t it worth the investment to get a good one?

Plus, it looks kinda like Captain Kirk’s chair on the Enterprise. Win-win.

Herman Miller Desk Chair


4. Create an Ergonomic Working Environment

The key to keeping your body as happy as possible at your desk is making sure everything — keyboard, desk, monitor — is at the optimum height for your body. The center of your monitor should be right at eye level, so you’re not hunching over and leaning forward to see properly. Your chair should adjust to keep your feet on the floor with just a little space between your thighs and the chair seat. It also needs to support your lower back, while allowing your upper back to lean back. Your keyboard needs to be at a level that keeps your arms parallel with the floor from elbow to wrist.

5. Cut Down on EMF Exposure

It’s pretty much impossible to completely avoid electro-magnetic frequencies these days, since they’re everywhere: cell phones, computers, TVs, Wi-Fi, you name it. But since some studies have shown they’re cancer-causing, it’s a good idea to downsize their impact on your life wherever possible. I work in a room that’s on the opposite side of my house from my wireless router. I keep my cell phone and tablets in airplane mode and powered down when I’m not using them. And I use wired keyboards and mice instead of wireless.

6. Take a 5-Minute Break Every Hour

This is my own take on the Pomodoro Technique. Every hour, I get up from my desk and move around for at least five minutes.

7. Drink a Glass of Water Every Hour

Staying hydrated is important to good health. I use my hourly five-minute breaks to drink a full glass of water. Doing so on the hour means I need to use the bathroom more frequently–which makes me get up, even when I might otherwise be too distracted and busy to remember.

Aloha Water Bottle

8. Stretch Every Hour

I also use my hourly break to do some stretching.

  • Stand up straight and hang your head, stretching the muscles in your neck and upper back. I do this twice for thirty seconds each, at different angles.
  • With your head still hanging, pull both hands out in front of you and hold for thirty seconds.
  • Touch your toes for thirty seconds.
  • Stand in front of your desk or a cabinet and hold onto the edge with one hand. Turn your head in the opposite direction and lean into the pull in your neck. Do it for thirty seconds, then reverse sides.

Remember to breath deeply and regularly and relax into the stretches.

9. Massage Sore Muscles Every Day

My personal problem areas are my neck and upper back. Every evening, I’ll spend eight minutes with a handheld massager, going over all my ouchy spots. I notice a huge difference in my daily discomfort level if I skip even a day of this.

10. Get a Massage Monthly

Last January, I started scheduling a monthly massage. A year later, I’m happy to say my structural health is better than it’s been in a long time. I’m a big fan of the chiropractor too, but one year of monthly massages has served me better than the previous year of bi-monthly chiropractor visits. I feel this is very much worth the time and financial investment as a measure to protect my health in the future.

11. Don’t Work Overtime Unless You Have To

I always say schedules are my secret weapon. This goes for downtime as well as worktime. I admit I’m not always spot-on in enforcing this one. But I do my best to quit when it’s quitting time. From 7:30-ish to 11PM is downtime, and I do my best to honor that. My brain needs the break as much as my body. Plus — there’s life out there beyond the desk! Who knew?

K.M. Weiland Snow Day

12. Get 8 Hours of Sleep

Sometimes I tease that my favorite hobby is sleep. In all honesty, I think I do like sleeping even better than writing. I feel so much better when I get at least eight hours of sleep each night. I do my best to make sure I’m in bed by eleven every night, which lets me wake up naturally (alarm clocks=evil) around 7:30.

Not all of these hacks will work in everyone’s lifestyle, but if you can incorporate even a few of them, you can make a serious stand against the health threats of a deskbound lifestyle. Here’s to doing what we love and feeling awesome while we’re doing it!

Let’s chat! What’s your best tip for how to be healthy doing what you love? Tell me in the comments!

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  1. Thank you for this post!

    A few things…

    1. Currently my schedule doesn’t allow me to write every day, but I’m planning on it in the future.

    2. My desk chair is so uncomfortable that I’m sure if I was writing a long time each day the chair would kill me. (thankfully I did nanowrimo at a table, not my desk.)

    3. I am horrible at staying hydrated.

    4. I don’t think I remember the last time I got eight hours of sleep.

    In other words, I should probably print this post out, at least when I begin writing every day, and hang it where it will always be visible when I am writing so that I can’t justify neglecting these things.

    That’s a great picture at the end!

  2. All good points! I stand when I work on my laptop. I also have a shelf for it on my recumbent bicycle! I also periodically sit on an exercise ball when I’m at my writing desk. A friend of mine has one of those pedal thingies under her desk and she really likes it. I may invest in one.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      I’ve toyed for a long time with the idea of getting a standing desk. I bought a portable one, but it turned out to be more trouble and clutter than it was worth. Right now, I’m incredibly happy with my Captain Kirk chair. But I can see myself getting a standing desk sometime in the future as well.

  3. Joleen Scott says:

    Great to see others not spending every waking moment at their desks! I feel guilty sometimes because I tend to do a lot, and work around the little things instead of working around my writing. For example, I put the washing on and leave the laundry door open so I hear it, the I have to get up when the machine finishes. I’ve taken up aquarobics 4 times a week, plus I do lots of tramping with my partner. And I have a 5-yr-old, who tends to make me get up from the computer and pay attention to him when he’s home.
    My desk chair is possibly the best present I’ve ever been bought, aside from my Kindle. My partner takes good care of me, and makes sure I am comfortable so eventually I can sell lots of books and he can be a kept man 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      I think this goes along the lines of you #YouKnowYouAreAWriterWhen you start thinking of grocery shopping and household chores as exercise. :p

  4. We all need reminders when our work is sedentary, but right now I especially needed to be reminded following a fall down some stairs. I have some ouchy spots!

  5. I saw a tweet from the American Heart Association saying heart disease is the the number one killer in the United States! Yikes! If that doesn’t make you get on the treadmill then I don’t know what will. Great post.Sitting for hours on end is absolutely hazardous to our health. We have to find ways to keep ourselves moving. Any movement is good but especially aerobic exercise for 20- 30 minutes. By the way I’m thoroughly enjoying your new book. The 5 secrets of story structure where you discuss the reacting protagonist vs the passive protagonist. When it comes to our own health we can’t be the “reacting protagonist”. We must take preventative action.

    Take care of those wrists! We only get one pair! Mine are actually feeling better. I use soft wrists brace when necessary, and basic range of motion exercises. There are some many aspects to health besides the obvious. Mental, social, spiritual and emotional are all part of it. Laughter is another one that has helped me stay emotionally healthy. In my lowest times, a good hardy laugh was all I needed.

    See ya!

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Yes, wrist exercises are great. I do a routine my chiropractor recommend. I also use a gel wrist rest on my mouse and occasionally wear a padded brace.

  6. I’m glad you brought this topic up. I don’t spend nearly the amount of hours at the desk, therefore there’s a lot of this that I haven’t considered. So for you and the others that DO spend many hours at the desk, I can see how this would be helpful. And if the future allows me to write full-time, then I will definitely revisit some of your tips here.

    For anybody else reading this, depending on how many calories you intake in a day (depends on WHAT you eat), will depend on how many calories you should burn to stay healthy. There are a number of different exercises you can do right from your desk or staying within the same room. Things like: squats, pushups, leg lifts, wall sits, etc. If you strive to eat healthy like Katie does, then obviously you won’t have to be as rigorous, but any exercise is better than none! Don’t forget, you only get ONE body 🙂

    Katie, why does it look like your chair is taped or Saran-wrapped?

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Hah. Good question. The chair came with a two-week window for returning it. Since it was so expensive, I wanted to be sure I liked it before unwrapping it and committing to keeping it. I’ve freed it from its shackles since. 😉

  7. Sad to say, I haven’t been spending enough time at my desk lately to worry about having problems. Hopefully I’ll get my crazy schedule ironed out so I can be back to consistent writing. 🙂 When I *am* writing consistently…it mostly involves large amounts of water, coffee and tea, as well as sitting somewhere comfortable and refreshing. Usually on my front or back porch, weather permitting.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      That sounds lovely! Time away from the desk is important to a writer too. Have to have something to write about!

  8. I’m so bad at all of these…although I’d say I’d actually question #5. Still, I don’t use a ton of EMF’s–my bluetooth on my phone if I’m in the car, though I do have my phone at hand all the time. Kinda have to with a kiddo with too many doctors to count. :p

    I’m really bad at #11 & 12. I consistently work later hours due to what does happen in my house on a daily basis, and I rarely see 8 hours of sleep. I consider myself lucky if I get 6.5. (I probably only need 7 or 7.5, unless I’m coming down with something.)

    I used to be in a good habit at exercising at least a few times a week. Not so much anymore, but you’ve inspired me, and I’m trying to do planks and situps and some weight lifting and squats in the morning before I get dressed. Once the cold subsides, hopefully I can work on getting out with the dog a bit more often.

    Something I’ve found that helps me health-wise is drinking a glass of water with lemon juice in it (about a tbsp or two in 8 oz of water) first thing in the morning. I feel a little sharper with it, and it helps rid my body of toxins, which helps the acne I’m prone to. I can tell a big difference when I’m doing it than when I’m not. Also, getting allergy tested last year really has changed how much I’m sick–not because of the allergies per se, but now I’m aware of everything I’m allergic to and I’m proactive about staying on top of my allergy meds, which means I haven’t gotten as sick as frequently in the last 9 months or so.

    Oh, and I’m with you on the protein. I prefer to have eggs for breakfast or an egg-based GF breakfast burrito. I try to have protein at every meal, and notice a huge difference if I’m snacking on chips rather than grabbing nuts for snacks.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      I think I have a mild allergy to eggs, so I don’t eat them frequently. Kinda nixes most breakfast options. Most mornings I opt for almond butter on a piece of spelt toast with a grapefruit (as long as they’re in season).

  9. As a fellow food-allergy sufferer, I can relate. Mine are fruits, though: avocados, bananas, tomatoes, stone fruits, citrus… :p

  10. Ugh. Stinker! I love eggs.

  11. No bananas or citrus would be tough. 🙁

  12. For me it’s all about routine (and scheduling). I work out religiously every morning for an hour or more, and actually come up with a lot of ideas doing so. I consider workout time to be writing time.

  13. Lorna G. Poston says:

    For the protein, I like scrambled eggs with cheese for breakfast, but Chia seeds are a good option too. Add them to smoothies, mix with peanut/almond butter, etc. Lots of protein in those little seeds. I usually add 1 Tablespoon to an 8 oz glass of OJ. And yes, they are the same seeds from that “cha-cha-cha-chia” commercial. If I start growing green sprouts out of my head, I’ll let you know. 😉

    For exercise, I love to walk about 1 mile as long as it’s not too hot & humid or too cold. This morning I had planned a long walk, but when I stepped outside I changed my mind quickly. It’s 22° with a “feel-like” of 11°. Nope. No way. No interest in becoming a human Popsicle. I’ll try again tomorrow.

  14. K.M. Weiland says:

    I’ve been thinking about trying chia seeds in my summer morning smoothie when the weather gets warmer.


  1. […] Source: How to Be Healthy (Even if You Live at a Desk) – K.M. Weiland […]

  2. […] K.M. Weiland shares her insights into being a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder and a writer. She also offers some tips on how to remain healthy even if you live at a desk. […]

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