Do you regularly feel exhausted but can’t sleep? Tired eyes? Maybe you’ve noticed increased glare and light sensitivity? You probably have a screen based job. Moreover, after work you feel so tired you can’t but relax: read, watch TV, play video games, shop online, etc. But in doing so you rest your rested body (at work you mostly sit) and exhaust even more your already tired eyes (they’d been working very hard all day)!? Wouldn’t it be nice to be more productive at work and simultaneously more rested and upbeat during and afterward your workday? It can be done! Fight the effects of sedentary lifestyle and sedentary work with computer work in motion.
This post suggests that eye fatigue and photophobia should be added to the list of health risks associated with sedentary lifestyle – the sum of overall sitting time (screen based work, TV viewing, sitting in cars, …).
More importantly, the post proposes several ways you can set up your computer workstation to be physically active while you work.
I am really excited to share my experience about overcoming sedentary behavior because it might also improve your sleep, eye fatigue, photophobia, general health and mood, … and even work effectiveness!
I’ve been doing computer work in motion (moving/exercising at my computer desk) for over six months with great results. Best of all the positive effect it’s had on my after work activities, particularly the time I spend with my family. (And it’s been possible at a reasonable cost and with no extra burden on my time).
You should also know that non-sedentary lifestyle is not the cure against sleep disorders, tired eyes, and light sensitivity. Each of these may be caused by many different factors that are beyond the scope of this post but should be considered. (Another cause that has been addressed here on GLARminY is exposure to blue light).
Science and my experiments: Effects of sedentary lifestyle on insomnia, tired eyes and light sensitivity
Skip this section if you are already convinced.
The health benefits of a more active lifestyle
The 2010 WHO report on benefits of exercise, i.e. the downsides of sedentary lifestyle, states that:
“Overall, strong evidence demonstrates that compared to less active adult men and women, individuals who are more active:
- have lower rates of all-cause mortality, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, colon and breast cancer, and depression;
- are likely to have less risk of a hip or vertebral fracture;
- exhibit a higher level of cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness; and
- are more likely to achieve weight maintenance, have a healthier body mass and composition.”
“Adults aged 18–64 should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week or do at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week”.
Prof. Dr. Levine from Mayo Clinic (who’s been fighting the epidemic of sedentary lifestyle) argues that while it is good to go to the gym regularly, that by itself cannot offset the harm of sitting still most of the day. See his video (14 min) about sitting disease – why, how and to what extent to wage a war with your office chair (on wheels).
Sedentary behavior as a cause of insomnia
It is also well established that Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Problem. Currently 40% of US citizens get less than the recommended amount of sleep (the statistics – below – show that the situation has gotten worse). Source: Gallup.
Lack of sleep could be due to many causes but one of the big ones is sedentary lifestyle, i.e. the lack of exercise [Increased physical activity improves sleep and mood outcomes in inactive people with insomnia (2015). Is exercise an alternative treatment for chronic insomnia? (2012)].
Moderate aerobic exercise such as walking is sufficient to produce desired results. Its effects are similar to those of other non-pharmacological treatments such as paradoxical intention therapy, phototherapy and sleep hygiene, progressive relaxation, and cognitive behavioral therapy. Moreover, moderate aerobic exercise improves mood and quality-of-life [Effects of moderate aerobic exercise training on chronic primary insomnia (2011)].
Sedentary lifestyle as a cause of computer eye strain (via insomnia)
I’ve been long convinced that exercise improves tired eyes and other computer vision syndrome symptoms. But I haven’t been able to find any research demonstrating this correlation (do let me know if you know of any?). So I started asking GLARminY visitors who write to me if they notice that their eye strain is associated with the quality of their sleep. Many (though not all) agree that sleep plays an important role in how their eyes feel during the day.
Encouraged by their answers I set up a poll and asked GLARminY visitors the following question: If you suffer from COMPUTER EYE STRAIN: Do QUALITY & QUANTITY OF YOUR SLEEP AFFECT IT? Here are the results:
Nearly 70% decisively associate comptuer eye strain with lack of good sleep (564 visitors responded between October 17 – November 28, 2016).
Therefore, if non-sedentary lifestyle positively affects sleep, and if sleep improves the symptoms of computer eye strain, than physically active lifestyle indirectly improves computer eye strain.
Sedentary life as a cause of light sensitivity (via eye strain, insomnia, and dry eyes)
It is difficult to show that sedentary lifestyle influences light sensitivity. Science seems unclear about whether a certain condition is a cause or a symptom or both.
The condition of dry eyes is frequently cited as the most common symptom/cause of photophobia, computer vision syndrome and insomnia:
- Light sensitivity has many causes the most common being dry eyes [Shedding light on photophobia (2012)]
- Dry eyes are associated with computer eye strain [Computer vision syndrome: A review (2014)]
- Sleep quality is particularly bad in people with dry eyes and their insomnia is correlated with the severity of dry eyes [Sleep and mood disorders in dry eye disease and allied irritating ocular diseases (2016)]
Therefore, if you improve your computer eye strain you’ll also likely improve your dry eyes. Subsequently you might also improve your insomnia and light sensitivity. As shown above many of us benefit from non-sedentarly lifestyle in terms of insomnia and computer eye strain, so why not also photophobia? Particularly when they are all associated through dry eyes!
I’ve learned to appreciate dry eyes as the earliest sign of eye abuse (I tend to detect it first when I wake up in the middle of the night). Catching early the signs of dry eye deterioration is very important. It enables me to analyze its possible causes (what I’d been doing differently in the day(s) leading to its occurrence).
In my case eye abuse tends to consist of:
- exposing my eyes to computer screen for too long or without breaks, and/or
- computer use in suboptimal lighting conditions, and/or
- reading printed text for too long and under artificial lights (evenings), and/or
- not managing blue light from computer screen reaching my eyes.
Here is what happens if I don’t react:
- the sandy dry eye sensation slowly extends to the whole day (first I only feel it when I wake up at night and in the morning, then in notice it just before going to bed, then earlier in the evenings, afternoons, and eventually throughout the whole day).
- With some delay my eyes become more glare and light sensitive.
- Eventually chronic insomnia develops.
- Then one day a burnout-like chronic fatigue hits me very hard. I am too tired for any physical activity – even walking 5 minutes presents a problem. However, at night I can’t sleep. It is a vicious cycle which is very hard to break.
I’ve gone through the above process four times in four years before figuring out how to manage it in 2012. Thanks to observing my dry eyes symptom I hope never to let it go past feeling dry eyes during the night!
To conclude: based on the above mentioned research, responses from GLARminY readers and my personal experience it appears reasonable to hypothesize a high likelihood of non-sedentary lifestyle having similar positive effects on you: it will improve your computer vision syndrome, light sensitivity, and/or insomnia (among many other health issues).
Disclaimer: My interest in computer work in motion comes from my problems with light sensitivity (photophobia), discomfort glare, computer eye strain and insomnia. I am not an expert in any of these fields.
Disclosure: You can help sustain GLARminY – at no additional cost to you by “donating” a small percentage of anything you buy from Amazon by accessing Amazon here (commission link). Also, you may help by using the commission links below to make your purchases. Thanks a lot!
Your battle with the office chair (on wheels)
According to Dr. Levine (see video) the worst enemy of active lifestyle is your office chair on wheels and of course the nature of computer work. It is terrible – you almost never have to get up to walk and move! However, data shows that office workers need to get out of their chair and move around at least for two and a quarter hours per day more than they do now.
Below you’ll find several possible solutions to sedentary work. See which one might suit your circumstances. My favorite is described at the end.
No standing desk
This is the overarching principle recommended by Dr. Levine: never sit for a full hour without getting up!
So get up and walk around whenever you get a chance:
- for example whenever you talk on the phone
- go to the bathroom more often (perhaps not to the closest one)
- deliver your work personally rather than sending an e-mail, etc.
Remember, that increased productivity is one of the effects of active lifestyle – so don’t worry about a few minutes of computer time lost to walking around every hour – your employer will also benefit from it.
You might also want to:
- Get a free app to remind you it’s time for a break.
- Get an office chair without wheels (commission link) to force yourself to get up more often.
- Fit a pedal exerciser (commission link) under your desk to move your legs and bring your heart rate up a little.
If you have lower back problems consider getting a “chair” that works/strengthens your back and abdominal muscles and encourages you to keep proper posture:
- Exercise/Therapeutic Ball (commission link) – might be your healthiest option – no wheels :)!
- Ball Chair (commission link)
- SpinaliS therapeutic active sitting chair (many more styles available)
To move a little (or lots) more you’ll need a standing desk
Ideally you’d be moving most of your work day (moderate activity – no need to sweat).
To be able to do that, while you work at your desk, you first need to raise it to a standing level.
You can get an adjustable desk (commission link) so you can work standing, sitting, walking, cycling, or…
They run from about $30 for this adjustable folding desk:
Or if you can spend a bit more, get an electric height adjustable standing desk (commission link) such that you can set its height with a push of a button:
You can also make your own standing desk – see DIY ideas in the images below (click here for more).
Aside from its cost, the best part of a DIY standing desk might be that returning to a sitting height might imply an important “set-up cost”. This could be important if you think your willpower is not strong enough to keep you up when your body starts asking you to sit down.
Remember, having worked sitting for most of your life you are in a much better sitting than standing shape. But that is soon to change as your legs and feet get used to standing and moving. So expect some hardship and make sure you get over it when it comes.
Now you are up and free to really move
Getting up from your chair is the most difficult step. You’ll find yourself walking around more, because standing at your desk you don’t have to first get up to do it :).
Best news is that standing desk allows you to more a lot more. For that you’ll need a wobbly board, treadmill, or a stationary bike.
A Wobbly Board (commission link) will add extra motion while you stand at your desk (it makes you keep balance as you would when surfing or snowboarding).
I am using a wobbly board. It is really great. It makes standing easier as it allows me to make some movements – or quite a lot if I want to. The best thing about it is its simplicity. It doesn’t take up much space, it is not very likely to break and it is relatively cheap.
Desk treadmill (commission link) is perhaps the most popular option of all. Admittedly I’ve never tried it. What most users recommend is to walk at a relatively slow and steady pace, about 1 mph (~1,5 km/h), so you don’t have to think about it and there is not too much disturbing up-down movement. (See this and this video of users’ first impressions – keep in mind that it does take some getting used to).
My favorite is stationary bike (commission link)! Yes, I am still sitting, but you should see me move when I want to (usually I pedal lightly most of my work day and go quite hard (sweating) for one to two hours out of my work day). Thus I take care of both moderate-intensity and vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity.
On a bike there is no up-down movement which is inherent in walking and appears to cause difficulties with reading in some users (see videos in previous section).
Besides, I tend to alternate between stationary bike and wobbly board. I find this combination great – I sit and I stand, I can go really hard or just balance on the wobbly board with minimal effort. But I am always moving. And none of it interferes with my computer work … OK, when I cycle very hard, I have to wipe the sweat off my face from time to time :).
The best of all – I feel fresh after work and doing whatever I have to or want to do afterwards is much more fun and fulfilling! Try it!
Very important: make sure the seat is comfortable! You’ll have all your upper body weight on it most of the day, so no fancy, tinny racing seats! In my initial excitement I made the mistake of getting one – Ouch! That hurt!
Also: make sure the bike will fit under your desk.
Apart from that, any stationary exercise bike should do (commission link) – there is no need to look for anything special. But in case you want to, you may look for a cycling workstation or an under desk exercise bike (commission links.)
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2 thoughts on “Sedentary work may cause Insomnia, Tired eyes & Photophobia; How to exercise at your computer desk, be more productive and feel better”
I’d like to mention two additional things.
I choose OUTDOOR exercise as often as possible because it makes the eyes use DISTANCE rather than close-up vision, giving relief to long days spent at the computer. You often come across the rule, “Every 20 minutes take a 20-second break and look 20 feet away.” That’s because looking into the distance rests your eyes.
Also, there is a hidden health risk in any chair or other apparatus (ball etc.) that puts you in a very upright position for hours at a time. The hip flexor muscles run from the front of the thigh to connect to the lowest vertebrae in the back. When you sit for too long, these muscles contract and shorten. When you try to stand up they stay in this contracted state, pulling on the lower back and creating back pain. Over time this tightness can become chronic and you might even find that you can’t stand up straight—ever! After experiencing this condition I now work in a position that is angled back as far as possible. Yet another reason to get up every hour, move around, and get outside. Here’s a good article on the hip flexors: https://lowbackpainprogram.com/tight-hip-flexors-and-back-pain/
Orchid4892, thanks for this comment. Yes, very important!! Do go outside as often and as much as possible!