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Ten hours a day. After a month of data, that is how many hours the Mac application RescueTime told me I was spending on my laptop a day — not counting time spent looking at other people’s computers, or on my phone. And almost every single one of those hours was spent sitting. Ouch.

Humans evolved to move, not sit. The fact that most of us now sit for eight to ten hours a day is inevitably problematic. One can question the fundamental digital premise of Minerva or the 21st century, but Minerva’s enrollment stands at 500 students and 70 million personal computers were sold in 2017.

Aside from contemplating a fast exit by moving to the forest, what can we do do stay healthy? My first un-biased suggestion: bookmark this article, and read on.

WHILE WORKING

Eye Strain

Screen Filter

If you do not have a screen filter on your computer, please stop reading this article and install one right now. Electronic screens give off more blue light than humans have evolved to take in, and this leads to eye strain, increased headaches, and reduces before bedtime melatonin production, which harms sleep. A basic software option is f.lux (for Mac, Windows), which you can set to automatically decrease blue light with sunrise and sundown or better yet, set on manual mode to around 3000K rating. An even better program in my opinion is Iris, which not only reduces blue light but also controls screen brightness and flickering, further reducing eye strain and headaches. The paid version (Iris Mini) costs $5 and allows more extensive reduction and customization of flicker and blue light, which have been lifesavers for me.

It is also worth using a screen filter on your phone that reduces blue light permanently or based on sunrise and sunset, like Twilight for Android, or f.lux for OS. You can also turn your iPhone on Night Mode, similar to f.lux, although that does not allow daytime reduction.

Take Breaks

If your eyes get dry or you notice you have started to squint, or you feel a pressure behind your eyes, take a break from the screen (No, looking at your phone does not count as a break). Install the Blinkk chrome extension on all your Chrome users. Set it to 10 or 20 minute intervals, with a one-minute duration, and every time a reminder pops up, take a break to get up, stretch, look away from your screen, and drink water (If the reminder annoys you during class, change the reminder interval setting to one hour beforehand – just don’t forget to change it back. Or take this as another reason to *cough* download the ALF app).

Get your eyes checked

When was the last time you got your eyesight checked, either for a basic sight test or an eye health exam? As a college student, your eyes are under a lot of strain and could deteriorate quickly; get your eyes tested annually to see if you need reading or computer glasses.

Posture

This is key to maintaining back and neck health. If you need to, copy this memo into your notes app.

  1. Sit up straight while working on the computer.
  2. Roll your shoulders back and down — think about your shoulder blades reaching towards each other and creating an open chest.
  3. Head lined up over neck. Chin in. Resist leaning and scrunching forwards over your computer as this will strain your upper back.
  4. Sit with your legs uncrossed and knees pointed straight ahead.
  5. Watch this two minute sitting posture video, and this six minute sitting and standing posture video. Practice in front of a mirror.

It may seem rigid, and require a slight workout of the abs to hold this position, but the long-term benefits far outweigh the short-term work.

Elevate Your Screen

You should always be looking ahead at eye level, not down. The definition of “laptop” defies this. Tilting your neck down constantly causes muscle strain which triggers pain, spasms, and chronic headaches. To elevate your screen to eye level, get a small, lightweight portable laptop stand for $25 which you can carry to libraries, cafes, and from city to city. From personal research and testing, the Minerva Quest team recommends the Vogek (alternative in India: Techzere or TIZUM). Yes, it adds luggage weight, but it will save your neck and wrists.

Alternatively, use a stack of books, box, or chair.

Make a Standing Desk

Ten hours a day on a laptop, five days a week, 15 weeks in a semester equals 750 hours of sitting. Proper sitting posture is good, but standing is much better, and will encourage you to move and walk around more. Again, you can use a chair or box to make a DIY laptop stand. Alternatively, buy a lightweight laptop stand whose height you can adjust to standing level or turn into a raised lapdesk when sitting at table, bed, or couch, raising your laptop to eye level. (Options: USA, India). I personally find it annoying to adjust them all the time, so just keep mine as a standing desk.

Unfortunately, these are not quite as packable in a backpack (hence our earlier recommendation), but a good solution for at home or if you are going straight to a cafe, library, or office. Again, taking one from city to city requires some weight and space sacrifices, but if you divide the extra cost by the number of hours you spend working on your laptop, the the cost becomes more marginal and the utility higher than most other items you will likely pack.  

Move

Go for walking meetings. Walk around while on calls. If sitting or standing in place, walk around every twenty minutes and stretch for one minute.  

Short Stretches

Bookmark links for easy reference.

  • In the morning: Five-minute yoga or full-body stretch.
  • While in class
  • While at your desk (if you insist on not getting up)
  • While standing or during breaks
  • Working Out
  • In the shower: 30 repetitions of wall angels as well as any other neck and shoulder stretches. Of course you can do them other times as well, but assuming you shower several times a week, this is an easy cue to build the habit. Put a sticky note on the outside of the door or mirror to remind yourself.

Food

You have been working for five hours straight but you want to write just one more email. Then you finally look up, and suddenly it is two hours later and you still haven’t eaten lunch or moved from your chair. Bad. Very bad. Food is essential to keep your blood sugar stable and preventing your mood, productivity, and decision-making from crashing.

  1. Make meal plans for specific times with others, even if just with roommates eating in residence, so you are held to a deadline for eating.
  2. Set recurring meal alarms on your phone.
  3. Keep healthy snacks prepared in in your fridge and backpack to grab and munch on. Easy examples: bananas, apples, cherry tomatoes, nuts, grapes, cucumbers — anything you can easily “pop” and munch on. This is especially great for when you are bored and fidgeting in class. (What, bored in class, I mean, actively learning.)
  4. Turn it into a habit that every time you come home from the grocery store, you immediately wash all your fruits and vegetables, slice them, and put them in containers for the week so they are ready when you need them. Otherwise, you will default to other easily openable containers, and suddenly all the chips and chocolate and ice cream in your house will be gone.
  5. If in Hyderabad, you can pre-order fresh fruits and vegetables every week from the Minerva Community Supported Agriculture initiative.

Water

Tote a water bottle around with you like it is your infant child you cannot leave alone for a second. You will inevitably drink more water this way, especially when you are bored or fidgeting.

OUTSIDE OF WORK TIME

In the time not spent on your computer, there are many other healthy things you can do for your body to counteract time spent on it, such as:

Mindfulness and Meditation

If you are being unproductive, staring at your screen for long periods of time, and needing to focus, bookmark these <10 minute mindfulness practices at Stop, Think, and Breathe or download their app, or try guided meditations via Simple Habit or Insight Timer. Some Minervans also like Calm, which has more tailored meditations for a $5 subscription / month.

Exercise

If you don’t keep moving, you lose mobility. It’s a no brainer. Put exercise in your calendar at the beginning of the week so you have made dedicated space for it. If you can afford it, a fitness band can be very motivating as a tracker and reminder.  

Yoga

Yoga is good for the mind, body, and soul generally, but it is especially good for those who sit in front of a computer screen for hours. The stretches and movements release tensions from areas of the body that are likely to build up stress from extensive screen time. Yoga is not everyone’s thing, but there are many different styles and types to try out in finding which might work for you. Tip: Good San Francisco pay-what-you-can drop-in options are Grace Cathedral (Nob Hill, Tuesday) and Yoga to the People (Mission, Daily).

THE LAST WORD: Reminders and Habit Building

If I had a penny, or even a rupee, for the number of times I have been told things like “drink water” or “get up and move every twenty minutes,” I would have a fair chunk of money. If I had a penny for the number of times I independently remembered to do them, I would have approximately the college student budget I have now, which is minimal. You will not independently remember to execute all the healthy habits you want to because you are not a superhuman.

Instead, use your technology to tell you to stop using it. Download a timer on your computer (for Mac, I use Allinof), and use the stopwatch and alarm on your phone.

Then:

  1. Set the timer on your computer for 20-minute slots, and use every twenty minutes to look away from your screen, walk around, stretch, and drink water.
  2. Set recurring alarms on your phone and calendar for meals, meditation, exercise, bedtimes, and any other daily habits you might miss.
  3. Good old-fashioned post-it notes on mirrors, desks, and laptops are also useful.

You don’t have to do everything. Just pick one thing you know you could do this semester and make a plan to do it, even if that simply means a habit of carrying a water bottle with you or stretching in the shower. Self-care isn’t about being perfect, it’s about starting to be conscious about how you can learn more about your body and yourself, and build from there. And hopefully, have a bit of a better experience living life, with or without your laptop.

Many thanks to Fiona Lyer and Gabriella Grahek for their contributions to this article.

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