Book summary: The Healthy Writer by Joanna Penn
The Healthy Writer by Joanna Penn and Dr Euan Lawson is jam-packed full of advice for writers who may have problems such as back pain, eye strain and repetitive strain injury. But you don’t have to be a writer to benefit from this book; much of the advice can be applied to people who work from home or spend a lot of time sitting at a desk.
I’ve picked out what I think are the most relevant areas for homeworkers:
- Social isolation
- Back problems
- Eye problems
- Repetitive strain injury
“One of the reasons I left the corporate world was to change my life in a physical way, to be more healthy, hoping to add years onto my lifespan by removing bad stress and living a life I really wanted.” Joanna Penn
Avoiding social isolation
Penn and Lawson note that medical research on the effects of social isolation has begun to look beyond older people and those with mental health issues.
“Increasingly, we live in communities that are, ironically, considering our connected world, more isolated than ever before,” they write. “We may not engage with our neighbors, we won’t know the people living in our street or in our town.”
The subheading titled ‘Loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking’ should give you a good idea of the severity of the problem. Being lonely, Penn and Lawson write, is worse than not exercising and worse than being overweight. They suggest meeting up with a friend for a walk or a run, to tick two boxes at once.
They cite studies in 2015 that aimed to measure the effect of actual and perceived social isolation on mortality. Risk of death was increased by 29% in people who were socially isolated, 26% in people who were lonely, and 32% in people who lived alone. “This is remarkable evidence,” they write.
“It turns out that sitting isn’t the new smoking. Loneliness is the new smoking.”
You probably know intuitively if you’re lonely. But if you take the De Jong Gierveld Loneliness Scale test, made up of six questions, you can measure it more scientifically.
Penn and Lawson conclude:
“If you want to be a healthy writer [swap the word ‘writer’ for whatever home-based profession you do], then you should spend as much time addressing your social networks and your social isolation as anything else.”
By “social networks”, they don’t just mean social media, and reference a study that found an increased use of Facebook was associated with loneliness. However, they suggest (p274) using social media as a way of building a community of like-minded people. So get out there and meet people, but use social media as a tool for finding a support network. Meetup.com is a good tool for finding local events.
Going to conferences is another way to combat isolation, write Penn and Lawson. They suggest going to the same events for several years running so you become familiar with the same people. As conferences can be expensive, Penn and Lawson suggest choosing carefully and making the most of them when you get there.
“Meeting people in real life changes relationships and is the basis of true friendship over time.”
Preventing back and neck problems
“It’s clear that exercise helps low back pain.”
Do you experience lower back pain or aches? The authors of The Healthy Writer reference evidence showing that if you’ve had it in the past, you’re nearly 10 times more likely to get it again in the following year. Doing something about it now should therefore be your priority.
Neck problems are also common among office workers, say Penn and Lawson. We can assume ‘office workers’ means people who work sitting at computers, so this also applies to homeworkers.
So how can people avoid getting back or neck pain? The authors say: “The trick is that when you’re enjoying a period when your back isn’t bothering you, do something about it.”
According to a systematic review and meta-analysis into preventing low back pain, the most successful treatment is a combination of exercise and education. Penn and Lawson discuss a number of types of exercise that could help with back and neck problems, including:
- Alexander Technique
Find a type of exercise that you enjoy and make it a habit. And if you’re a beginner, don’t start with anything too difficult or ambitious – 10 minutes of yoga every day is more likely to be effective than an hour once a week, for example.
For me, a typical busy Tuesday during the winter when the weather’s rubbish goes loosely like this:
Work at my laptop all morning
Have lunch – possibly while checking my phone
Work at my laptop all afternoon
Have a break and send a few texts
That’s a lot of screen time.
The authors of The Healthy Writer cite studies which suggest that up to 50% of people who use screens can get eye problems, with symptoms including tired eyes, sensitivity to bright light, blurred vision, general eye strain, or dry eyes. The research found these were more common in females and worse in people who looked at a screen for more than six hours a day.
Are you blinking enough?
Penn and Lawson write that people normally blink 12 to 16 times a minute, or once every five seconds. But this drops to six blinks a minute, or once every 10 seconds, when we look at a screen.
Simply becoming more conscious of how much you are blinking will probably make you do it more, therefore helping your eyes stay lubricated. Keeping eye drops handy is another good tip.
Another idea is to build time away from screens into your day. Could you go outside and get some fresh air for 10 minutes – without your phone?
Using an app to filter the blue light from your screens can give your eyes a bit of a rest, too. I use an app called f.lux, which changes the colour of my screen depending on how light it is outside.
Penn and Lawson reference research showing that sitting more than 50cm away from your screen can cause fewer eye symptoms. You can always zoom into whatever you’re working on; I’m writing this zoomed into 200% and my screen is my arm’s length away from me.
Repetitive strain injury
The authors of The Healthy Writer note that anyone doing a repetitive task can be at risk of repetitive strain injury (RSI) – and this includes people who use the computer a lot.
Penn and Lawson say that for writers (which we can translate as people who do a lot of typing) RSI is most likely to appear in the hands and wrists. I reckon this would also apply to someone like a graphic designer who might use their mouse in a repetitive way.
“Sometimes you can run into problems with relatively short periods of typing and this often reflects poor posture and awkward positioning,” write Penn and Lawson. “It could also be due to intense bursts of activity without adequate rest.”
To sort out your posture, it might be worth getting a professional assessment of your workspace to make sure it’s ergonomically sound.
Pain is a common symptom of RSI. Penn and Lawson say it can feel like a throbbing or an aching, and there could be stiffness, weakness or cramp. They add that swelling and soreness could be present in the affected areas, and the pain may appear even when you’re not doing the activity that caused the RSI.
Type 1 RSI
- This has an obvious and specific diagnosis
- Problems often involve some kind of inflammation and irritation of the tendons
- “Carpal tunnel syndrome is the classic example”
Type 2 RSI
- Symptoms of type 2 RSI vary hugely from person to person, making it harder to diagnose
- Some evidence suggests RSI can be associated with stress, which can result in muscular tension and lead to RSI
“Keeping on the same path is not a good option. [RSI] is not the type of problem that will go away without some kind of change.”
Penn and Lawson write that a holistic approach to managing RSI can be hugely beneficial. This includes improving your workspace ergonomics, which I have written about in this blog post.
Laptops are particularly problematic when it comes to RSI, so investing in a laptop riser and an external keyboard and mouse is definitely worth it.
Physiotherapy and physical treatments can also improve your symptoms. In the book, Joanna Penn writes about how yoga helped her manage her RSI and back pain. Yoga builds core strength, promotes relaxation and reduces tension.
If you want a deeper understanding of the health issues and solutions associated with being a writer or a Homepreneur, you can buy The Healthy Writer on Amazon