Ask Tania: Being a writer is physically tough--how can I keep fit??

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Dear Tania,

Being a writer is physically tough. I'm spending so much time sitting, sitting, sitting, especially when I get passionate about what I'm working on (which is often!). Not only am I putting on a little weight, I can feel my bones rusting. How can I keep fit?? How do you keep active? Do you have a routine? Any tips appreciated!


Hi, Mallory,

Oh, I love this question, and it's very timely for me right now, having come off 10 months of illustrating for my first self-illustrated book. Let's just say I'm feeling a bit rusted and pudgy! I find longer projects (like Australia Illustrated) and deadlines are the worst times of all--and not only is this period of inertia physically challenging, it absolutely takes a mental and emotional toll, too.

It took me many years to learn how to create a finer work/health balance. I would easily commit to 12 - 18 hours a day in front of my computer, most days of the week, and I never understood the concept of 'sharpening your axe', until I heard the actual 'sharpening your axe' story--and it finally made sense. That, and back pain and jeans that wouldn't zip up and a brain that had turned to mush.

Here is the story ...

It's a really simple concept, but for some reason, this story just suddenly made sense to me. I had always marvelled at the insistence that working less hours could possibly be more productive, but this analogy made it clear that time out is vital--not only for health, but yes, to actually be more productive. It intimates that you can still be productive if you work SMARTER, not harder or longer.

So, in answer to your V.I.Q., here are some of the things I do to ensure my health and wellbeing, while remaining as productive as possible, and meeting deadlines! 

Footnote: these recommendations are taken at your own risk. They may just make you feel amazing! but do consult a professional if you are trying any of this for the first time.
  • I invested in a stand-up desk two years ago (a VariDesk) which means I can go from sitting to standing in seconds. It's yet another balancing act, though, as standing all day can be hard on the legs and back. I try to stand at least half the day, then sit for the remainder. I have a little step stool to put one foot on, to help relieve strain on the lower back, and I stand on a mat (as opposed to the hard floor).
  • I've long had back-pain, so I see a chiro (a.k.a. miracle worker) regularly, but a physio or masseuse can also help iron out kinks. If sitting for long periods becomes mandatory, I think this kind of regular investment will save you a lot of physical hell (and money) down the track.
  • Yoga--I can't recommend it highly enough for flexibility and strength, especially of the hips and spine. I use a very cheap yoga app--Yoga Studio. It's brilliant, and has several levels, with classes as short as 10 mins. You don't have to be a guru, but even a few minutes of daily practice will change your life. If you're new to yoga, take it slow and easy, especially if your body is stiff.
  • I get up and move every hour, on the hour, even for a few minutes. My problem is that I become very driven and focused, and some days find it near impossible to take an hour or even half an hour off. So, forcing myself to get up, even for a few minutes, clears my brain and stretches my spine (and works those thighs!). I take a 5 or 10 minute walk outside (get that heart pumping!), do a quick yoga session or even just a few minutes of squats or sun salutations. This will keep both stiffness and weight from creeping in/on. My chiro was the one who said that five or six batches of 5- or 10-minute movement, is far more effective at keeping the spine healthy and the metabolism firing, than an hour of exercise in one block.
  • Keep a timer near your computer to remind you to get up. 
  • The spine is everything--it's absolutely central to your overall health, especially in regard to flexibility and your central nervous system and immunity. The author and illustrator is absolutely prone to spine issues, given their physical inertia and sitting posture, which has a flow-on effect to ill health. Learn how to sit 'properly' for spine health, frequently stretch and twist the spine (gently! look online for tips on how to do this effectively) and know where your problem spots are. Both writers and illustrators have particular issues in the upper and thoracic spine, and shoulders (and I also have lower back problems--yay!). Typing causes hunching in the shoulders and, depending on which hand you use to draw, a displacement of the first rib and the shoulder blade from repetitively reaching forward, can cause major health issues. I so highly recommend a good chiro, but a great exercise to help bring the shoulder blades back down flat against the back (where they belong!) is to take a stretchy band and wrap it around a door handle. Stand with your back straight and one foot in front. Bracing your spine, pull the band back towards you. Do this at least 20 times, a few times a day (during your break!). You can also do a higher pull, looping your band around a higher obstacle, to further work those back muscles, pulling your shoulder blades back down.
  • If you're a runner or otherwise highly-active person, just make sure you do it every single day, even if only for 10 minutes. And take care of your spine! (Can you tell I'm spine-obsessed? It really is everything!)
  • I drink lots of water, take some great supplements and try to limit tea and coffee (though I tend to have at least two coffees a day--I know, I know, it's my one vice, along with picture books).
  • I try not to eat at the computer. I'll stop and go eat something for lunch or have a snack away from my work (in one of my mini-breaks!). This is important, otherwise you'll just eat mindlessly. I avoid sugar and processed foods. Don't be afraid of fruit! It's had such bad press and I'm always at my leanest with I eat heaps of fruit and veg.
  • I start the day with two huge glasses of green smoothie--this fills me till lunch time and it's a mega, super food power boost that fires up your metabolism and gets the brain pumping. It also alkalises the body, which helps prevent stiffness and illness. If you add a super anti-inflammatory like turmeric, your metabolism will go nuts. Other metabolism boosters include cinnamon, ginger and lecithin, all of which go into my smoothies. You can learn more about metabolism-boosting foods here. *my smoothie ingredients, below
  • If I'm feeling mentally sluggish, I do handstands against the wall or headstands. They are like a plug-unblock--when you come down, your brain is really firing, trust me!
  • I listen to my body. If I don't feel like working (rare), I just don't. But here's the key--I don't feel guilty about it, and I don't panic, even if I have a deadline looming. I know that taking time out, when I absolutely need it, will mean I work faster and better later. (My axe has been sharpened!) Sometimes, I might even take several days in a row without working. But I haven't missed a deadline yet!
  • I know you were expecting this, so here it is, let's just do it. Get off social media. It's a time-sapper, energy-sapper, positivity/happiness-depleter. It can cause negative mood, despair, frustration, anger, creative block, envy, confusion and even vicarious trauma. It dulls your focus, crushes your creative mojo and drops your productivity levels drastically. Just stay away. (And if you absolutely can't, for work reasons, set your timer for 10 minutes and stick to it!)
  • Run your own race. Watching what others do/achieve/rave about, is a sure-fire way to intensify stress levels that quickly sap health. Don't worry about anyone else. Put your head down and operate from your own centre, your own unique voice and passion.
  • Lastly, and so importantly, I don't let anyone guilt me into doing something I don't want to. It's okay to say no, and it's also okay to give no explanation as to why. Most people are sane enough not to question a 'no'. Those who do question it--you wouldn't want to work with them, anyway. Honour yourself, and say no when something doesn't feel right--even if you don't quite know why. Doing this has freed me from a lot of stress and strain that was absolutely having a negative effect on my health--AND my weight.

I hope this helps you on your quest to create as much as you can, without compromising your health and sanity.

Readers, comment on this post and give us your tips.

See all the questions so far ...

* my smoothie ingredients
purified water
pear, apple or berries
stem ginger
sunflower seeds
chia seeds
flax seeds
supergreens powder (available at supermarkets)
maca powder
lemon juice
apple cider vinegar
softened goji berries (I soak mine in water and keep them in the fridge)
I plan to find some lucuma powder online to add to my daily smoothies

Sometimes I add:
cacao powder
other fruits
mint, parsley
honey (rarely)

This is a general guide, but just experiment, to taste, and what you feel your body might need. If you dislike sour or bitter flavours, just add a little more fruit or a touch of honey
A whole fruit
Half a large cucumber
Ginger--a huge chunk, 3 to 4cm, depending on width
1 heaped tsp of the powders/spices and chia seeds
1 tbsp lecithin
2 heaped tbsp of the seeds and goji berries
juice of one lemon
a good splosh of vinegar - again, to taste, preferably organic and with the 'mother' in it

1 comment:

suzi poland said...

What a wonderful post Tania! I really enjoyed reading and whilst I do many of these things, I have learnt a few new tricks to look out for. I really believe that the vitality in our own health as creative people and our attitude to life shines through to our work, so yes healthy artist/writer = healthy vibrant work and this flows on to our viewers/readers. Many thanks :)Suzi

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