6 Things To Figure Out Before You Start Writing Full Time (Part 5 – Physical Health)

Any sedentary job has health risks, but writing the bulk of your work hours poses some particular ones. That’s why I included physical well-being in this series of things to think about before writing full time.

The physical issues I’ve confronted myself or hear about most often from other authors include:

  • Aches and strains, including neck strain, shoulder and back pain, eye strain, and stress on just about any part of your body from remaining too much in one position or looking too frequently at a keyboard or monitor.
  • A step up from aches and strains are repetitive stress injuries (RSI). These types of injuries occur when we make the same motions, such as typing on a keyboard, over and over again. They also can arise from sitting or standing in the same posture for too long.
  • Weight gain from a lack of exercise and or changes to the way we eat when we write. Those changes could include snacking more often because we are home more or using food as a reward when we have something to celebrate–or a way to feel better when we get discouraged.
  • Overuse of alcohol. It’s easier to drink alcohol while working when you have no boss looking over your shoulder. It’s also easy to eat and drink without really thinking about it while you are absorbed in your writing. Finally, some writers find alcohol helps them relax and be more creative, though others find it dulls their writing or makes it harder to focus.

Below are techniques and habits that helped me or other authors I know. I also recommend Joanna Penn’s book The Healthy Writer: Reduce Your Pain, Improve Your Health, And Build A Writing Career For The Long Term.

Before you read on (you were going to, right?), a quick disclaimer.

I am not a medical doctor or health professional. Before making changes to your exercise, diet, or other health related habits you should check with your health or medical practitioner to be sure the changes will be good for you and will not create other problems. Also, if you try any of these suggestions, remember to tailor them to your own life or particular circumstances.

Vary Your Workplace

Last week in 6 Things To Figure Out Before You Start Writing Full Time (Part 4 – Where To Write) I talked about setting up a good place to work. You can look there for more on arranging an appropriate keyboard and screen height and other suggestions like standing or walking for part of your writing time.

No matter how good your set up, though, you can usually help your body by choosing a different place to write for an hour or two a day or a few times during each week.

For one thing, you need to get there. If you choose somewhere in walking distance or you drive and park a few blocks away, you’ll add some extra exercise to your day and you’ll sit less. If your home or your new writing space has steps to get in or out, you’ll add more stair climbing to your routine.

Also you’ll likely be sitting in a different position, holding your hands differently, and keeping your head at a different angle. All of these changes can ease your neck, wrists, eyes, and other parts of your body.

So if most of your writing time is at a particular desk at home, think about where else you might go, such as the library or a cafe. (You can find more suggestions on where to write here.)

Schedule Breaks

If you’re working another job now, you’re probably longing for uninterrupted time to write. Yet for your physical well-being, consider scheduling regular breaks.

You might write for 28 minutes and take a 6-7 minute break. During my breaks I try to look out the window at something far away to give my eyes a rest from close work.

Sometimes I do physical therapy exercises that I have for my neck and back, ones I can do while standing that don’t require any special equipment.

Sometimes I read a book for a few minutes. While it’s still close work, I switch position by lounging on the couch or sitting in an armchair rather than at a keyboard.

Create An Exercise Routine You Enjoy

When I shifted to spending most of my work day writing I had a hard time getting in my usual amount of exercise. Before that, I worked in an office a mile away. Every day, sometimes in temperatures below zero degrees Fahrenheit, I walked to and from my office. That gave me 10-14 miles of walking a week. And when it was below zero, you can believe I walked very fast and got my heart pumping.

When I started working primarily from home I lost those built-in miles.

So I purposely set up my routine to include walking. My business mailbox is about a mile away . I also teach classes (legal writing) at a school about a mile away and walk there several times a week.

I also do yoga almost every day for about 20 minutes.

It works for me because I can do it first thing in the morning at home. In my pajamas. And the stretching helps counteract the shoulder and neck strain I experience from writing so much. It also helps me relax.

There are other types of exercise I know from experience I won’t consistently do no matter how many schedules I create or promises I make. I hate running. I only ever feel pain with it. I’m not a fan of other types of bouncy aerobics. The only time I stuck with going to a health club was when I was a college student living at home and pretending I was going to mass every Sunday morning to make my mother happy.

You might hate what I love.

Maybe yoga makes you yawn. Maybe, though I will never understand it, you love running marathons. The point is to figure out what sort of exercise makes you feel good enough when you do it that you’ll stick with it, and figure out what time of day you’ll be most apt to include it.

The beauty is once you start writing full-time your workday schedule is almost entirely up to you.

Some questions to ask yourself as you try to figure this out:

  • Over the course of life which exercise types have I done on the most regular basis?
  • Am I more apt to continue going to a health club or class or to exercise at home?
  • What makes my body feel the best?
  • Do I prefer to exercise with other people or alone?
  • What ways can I work exercise into other parts of my life?
  • Do I have friends who also want to exercise more who might agree to a weekly date to exercise and visit at the same time?
  • Are there other things I can do while I exercise like listen to an educational podcast or plot my novel in my head?

If you can afford it, you might want to consider seeing a healthcare practitioner or exercise specialist (like a physical therapist or yoga teacher) to get exercises specifically designed to help you with whatever physical issues you have from spending a lot of time writing.

While it does cost some money, in the long run it can be less expensive if it helps you avoid more serious problems.

Finally, think about what activities you do that provide exercise that you simply find fun. Do you like playing tennis? Are you a skier or runner? Do you, like me, enjoy taking walks?

Plan Healthy Ways To Change Your Mood

It’s human nature that if we wait until we are celebrating or until we feel sad and discouraged to decide what to eat or drink we probably won’t make terrific choices. It’s easy to reach for things like cookies, chocolate, or wine.

Personally, I don’t think any of those things are terrible. But if we are reaching for anything constantly, it probably won’t be very good for us.

To help counteract that, you can choose a time when you’re feeling good and make a list of easy and quick things you really enjoy that will allow you a momentary celebration or that will lift your mood during a rough patch.

My list includes:

  • See a movie
  • Read a novel
  • Take a hot bath
  • Light scented candles
  • Watch an episode of a TV show I already know that I love
  • Call a friend I haven’t seen in a while
  • Play a song on my guitar

Whatever is on your list, pick out the things that you both really enjoy and that are, if not good for you, at least won’t impact your health negatively.

I’m not suggesting you immediately make radical changes in your eating and drinking. (Or that you never eat dark chocolate–I would never suggest that.) If you substitute a handful of raisins for a piece of chocolate cake on Day One you’re probably not going to stick with that.

I wouldn’t.

But if you find yourself having chocolate cake with fudge frosting every day, maybe you can shift to unfrosted brownies. Then a couple weeks later look for chocolate cookies that are smaller, and have fewer calories and less sugar and fat.

Or try the handful of raisins every other day, promising yourself the cake the next.

Likewise, if you tend to drink a lot of alcohol while writing or, in my case, black tea (which I know doesn’t sound problematic but it causes me a lot of problems with acid reflux and with insomnia) you can try drinking water every other glass or cup instead. You might not love the water, but you know when you finish it you can have another glass of the beverage that you really want. And you might surprise yourself by how much better you feel.

Note: I’ve never had to struggle with alcohol addiction or other substance abuse issues, which I’m sure is due to the luck of heredity and body chemistry. If you’re concerned about your drinking or use of other substances, you may want to seek professional or medical support to help address it.

Step Away From The Laptop

If you don’t already, just as you vary your writing place think about varying your writing methods to get more time away from the keyboard.

In recent years I have much more often written outlines or character sketches by hand and dictated first drafts. I also handwrite bullet points for articles I’m writing or advertising copy. Then I dictate a draft into my iPhone, email it to myself, and copy it into a Word file to clean up.

While that may sound like a lot of extra steps, I always do at least 3 or 4 drafts of everything I write. The only difference is now I’m doing one by hand, speaking one, and revising one at the laptop. Same number of drafts, but three different places that I sit and movements that I make.

Okay, that was really long.

At last, that’s all for this week.

Until next Friday when I’ll write about other habits that can help you reach your writing goals

L. M. Lilly

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