All 5 entries tagged Health

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May 26, 2011

….and wrist pain, too – by Anna

Follow-up to Back Pain 101 – by Anna from PhD Life: a blog about the PhD student experience

Alas, I have no diatribe to deliver on this topic. I don't think I really have any advice. However, I can whine!


Why do my wrists hurt? WTF? Why now? It seems directly correlated to how much time I spend at the computer. My right wrist is worse than my left, so maybe it's a mouse thing.

Over the last couple weeks I've been experimenting but I don't think I've actually hit on any definitive answers. I've been using an ergonomic mousepad I found in my office, the principal feature of which appears to be a gooey, squidgy bit of gel where your wrist goes, and that's actually helped quite a bit, although it hasn't made the problem go away completely. I've also just bought one of these:

ergonomic keyboard

But haven't had it long enough yet to offer any definitive report on its efficacy. I'm still in the stage where I'm finding it really annoying and keep missing keys because I'm not used to the layout yet.

I think one problem, for me, is the way desks are always too high (or chairs too low). My wrists hurt less when I have a very low desk, so that my forearms are sloping downwards to reach the keyboard.

Anyway, it's been so bad after a long week of writing and web editing that I've been making a conscious effort not to use my right hand for anything on my days off! I even switch my mouse to the left-hand side on Saturdays. OK, yes, I'm a nerd. Also slightly OCD.

One final word, or really more of a pre-emptive caveat: I don't want to hear any fapping jokes out of ANY of you, cough cough cough. Ahem. Not funny. No sirree.

May 11, 2011

Back Pain 101 – by Anna

Hunchback of Notre Dame

I had a housemate a couple of years back who was in the most horrific back pain. She would actually cry about it - it was that bad. But she never once, that I know of, did anything about it because she was a masochist (or something) and seemed to think that the only thing she could possibly do was to finish her thesis ASAP. Which of course led her to be ever more miserable.

My dear friends: lest ye fall into this pit of deep, deep despair and misery, I humbly offer up the following tips for becoming a back-pain-free researcher. I am no doctor (yet), but I suffered from back pain for years until I took it seriously and did ALL the following things about it:

Computer setup. Get it right. Laptops are literally THE DEVIL because you have to hunch over to look at the screen, which means evil, evil pain for your back and neck. If you have a laptop (or a desktop for that matter), get a separate keyboard and then elevate the screen to eye level. EYE LEVEL, do you hear? I don't mean 3 inches, I mean like 15 inches. Also make sure the keyboard is low enough: your forearms should be sloping downward to reach the keys.

Posture while sitting. Sit up straight, with your bum underneath your spine. Engage your abdominal muscles and keep your chest up and shoulders back. This can be hard at first because for many of us, our abdominal muscles have been weakened by years of bad posture - but you can slowly build up their strength. Also, if you try this, you will probably catch yourself slouching approximately 1.5 million times before it finally becomes habit. Don't give up though.

Get some exercise. Nothing is worse for your back than being stuck in the same posture day in and day out. It will stiffen faster than an adolescent boy's, uh, never mind. Move your body around, preferably several times per week. I personally have found swimming and walking helpful but whatever strikes your fancy really.

Do yoga. I already know that many of you will not take this advice, but you should because it is AWESOME for stretching out your back, getting it out of the old bad habits that it's got stuck in over the years and allowing you to fix your posture. Honestly, I was able to cut down my back pain by maybe like 50% doing all the other steps - until I did yoga, which brought it down to zero. I was actually SHOCKED when I realised my back wasn't hurting at all. It doesn't have to be fancy difficult yoga - I started out going to a super-easy yoga class in Leamington that was full of old ladies. It was amazing. (The website for those is here, and the Warwick Yoga Society does sessions on campus.)

Work standing up. It's really good to change positions throughout the day, and working standing up is an especially good way to do this. I nabbed the desk in my office that can be raised or lowered, so when I'm tired of sitting I just raise it up and stand for awhile. It's like a little slice of heaven for my back. I guess this may not be possible for everyone but maybe a kitchen counter would do the trick?

Take frequent breaks. Maybe you haven't got the picture yet: you need to move your back around as much as possible to keep it from stiffening up into a painful position. Don't sit all day. Do some stretches in your office or just go for a 10 minute walk.

See a doctor or chiropractor if your backpain doesn't let up. Especially a chiropractor. I once went to a doctor about it and she actually said to me: "There are two options: drugs and surgery." Not really what I was hoping to hear....especially given that I've subsequently been able to get rid of like 98% of my back pain using neither of those.

I say 98% because I still notice that when I abuse my back, it hurts. For example, I'm sitting at a laptop right now that I haven't elevated....and my back hurts.

April 08, 2011

On caffeination – by Anna

Last week I wasn't here blogging. You may have noticed. Wanna know why? Because I was in Roma!

Roman Forum

Roma Roma Roma! It was warm and sunny and full of art and history and I LOVED it. Just think, all you suckaz were here at home writing your chapter while I was strolling around in the sun and eating pizza.

ANYWAY. One of the things about Italy, of course, is that everybody drinks espresso.


Tiny, tepid and insufferably bitter, this is pretty much the closest thing you can get to a caffeine injection without using a needle. Just take all 3 sips and you'll be rolling for hours!

Now before we go any further on this topic, I need to admit that I feel a little - no, quite - morally superior on the matter. I don't drink caffeine at all, like not even decaf or tea or decaf tea or any of those supposed alternatives that actually still have a bunch of caffeine in them. Although this is for a medical reason, I still get tremendous enjoyment out of gloating over my lack of dependence on a chemical substance to stay awake. I can sit and drink my lovely, rich, thick Italian hot chocolate, my eyes fresh and dewy and full of morning sunshine

morning dew

while everyone else is glowering grumpily

victor meldrew

and taking hits on their happy juice.

Which is what made me think of all y'all postgrads. Whenever I tell another postgrad that I don't drink any caffeine EVER, they stare at me in disbelief. How can anybody write a thesis without caffeine?! A mathematician friend of mine even refers to maths PhD students as 'machines for turning caffeine into theorems'. It's like the whole academic world would stop turning if it weren't greased up with caffeine at, oh, hourly intervals.

I observe this caffeine addiction in action on a daily basis in the Research Exchange. All day, people flock to the desk to get their (free) coffee and tea, chipper chipper chipper about life. But if the hot water or the coffee runs out, I instantly have a passel of disgruntled PhD students on my hands.


March 14, 2011

Sustenance – by Anna

Oh man, academic work makes me HUNGRY. Majorly hungry. I don't know if my brain just burns a lot of calories when I'm thinking hard, or if it's some kind of an emotional issue (which would not surprise me one bit), but I can't seem to do more than 2 hours of work without fortification, usually of the sugary/chocolatey variety.

I think one aspect of doing a PhD is that we end up with some very complicated relationships with food. At the opposite end of the spectrum from me are all the people I see working in the Rex all day without apparently ingesting anything at all (besides coffee). Oh, a pang of jealousy stings my heart. How do they do it? I suspect, though, that it is just as unhealthy to be 'too busy' or 'too focused' to eat as it is to constantly snack. Both are the same kind of feast-or-famine approach to food that seems to happen in high-anxiety situations. Given that most PhD students I know have unhealthy amounts of anxiety about their thesis, it's not surprising. Plenty of people seem to gain or lose a lot of weight during the PhD.

Besides the anxiety/snacking situation, there is also the question of meals, and whether they are taken regularly. Some PhD students eat three rounded meals a day, made from whole healthy foods. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the still-an-undergrad mentality, enabled by Domino's and the Tesco freezer section. Some people who are away from home for the first time even seem to virtually stop eating entirely, or eat nothing but toast and pasta - more of an undergrad approach but I have seen a few PhD students do it too.

These two aspects of the food issue - snacking/anxiety and meals/nutrition - are not the same thing but they are related. In my observations a given person might do any combination of the two: there are people who snack but don't eat proper meals; people who eat regular meals but don't snack; those who do both; and those who do neither (by which I mean they eat very irregular, unpredictable amounts and times).

I think I basically do both. (Luckily I also do loads of exercise each week so although I could afford to lose a few pounds I don't tend to gain much.) I used to be a chef, and I love making lovely, nutritious meals from scratch using fresh vegetables, whole grains and healthy proteins. But I also have this darned sugary snack habit.

In any case, does anybody feel they have genuinely healthy food habits? Is this even possible as a PhD student? In terms of both time management and emotions, it seems so difficult to get right.

January 24, 2011

The Hobby – by Anna

Do PhD students need a Hobby?

Paula and I were discussing this the other day. It seems to make things so much easier if you have a pretty big Hobby (capital H!) to get away from your thesis and feel absorbed by something else.

We think it might need to be a pretty major hobby...I mean not just playing World of Warcraft on a school night, but attempting to smelt copper using only stone age tools (as one friend of mine is in the habit of pursuing....not quite successfully) or writing a full-length screenplay (another friend). This has to be stuff that really gets your juices going about something other than your thesis.

Personally, mine is country music. I'm a fiddler in a bluegrass band and a singer in a trad country band. This just gets me so super excited! I *love* it. I'm not serious about it, I have no ambitions to be the next Loretta Lynn, I just think it's super cool and I schedule practices into my week because a week without country is a week hardly lived!

I also try to keep up on movies in the cinema, but I'm a Film and TV student so this starts to feel dangerously close to work. Even more importantly, though, I don't think your Hobby can be something that only involves being fed through a screen. It has to be actively creative, preferably hands-on and away from a computer (although the screenplay would seem to contradict this).

And yoga is my other hobby - which is a good point really, I think one hobby (although in this case not my Hobby) has got to be some form of exercise. Yoga makes me feel all chiiiiilllled till the next episode (as Snoop Dogg would say). That sh** rocks my world, yo.

What other Hobbies do people have? Do y'all agree with me about this?


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