Being an entrepreneur means working, if not quite 24/7, darn close most days. I spend a good part of my day (and night) on my computers, writing, researching, reading, and Tweeting. As a result, I have occasional wrist pain and an almost constant neck ache.
Brian Bentow, founder and owner of Computer Athlete Media, based in Newport Beach, Calif., and author of The Computer Athlete’s Handbook: Your Guide to a Healthier, Happier Techy Lifestyle says that I — along with millions of other Americans — am suffering needlessly. Bentow preaches his mission “to help people live happier and healthier techy lifestyles” via his Web site Computer Athlete Central. Intrigued by his message, I contacted Bentow to talk to him about how we can all feel better and be more productive.
Rieva Lesonsky: As technology advances and gets more portable, we entrepreneurs tend to rely on it more and more. We’re using computers for many more hours. How big a problem is this?
Brian Bentow: The problem — that people are suffering from cumulative trauma disorders, serious health issues, and other side effects from their techy lifestyles — is enormous and pervasive. According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), 60 percent of people who use a computer for work experience some physical discomfort. This problem also destroys lives and careers, decreases productivity, increases workers compensation costs, and is going to get worse unless we take steps to prevent it.
Lesonsky: Any estimate on the dollar amount of health injuries directly related to computer usage?
Bentow: OSHA reports that the direct costs of repetitive strain injuries (RSI) in the U.S. are between $15 and $20 billion annually.
Lesonsky: What does it cost companies in lost productivity?
Bentow: Any way you look at it, the cost is significant to enormous. An unhappy employee who is in pain is less likely to work hard for your company. In the worst case, you can lose any one of your top employees due to a computer-related injury, on a temporary or permanent basis. It can literally push a company from viability over the edge to a black hole.
Lesonsky: What are most common computer-related injuries? How do most people get hurt?
Bentow: The most common computer-related injuries are carpal tunnel, tenosynovitis (trigger finger), wrist pain, tennis elbow, thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS), and computer back. People get these injuries by slouching, overusing their hands and fingers, stress, and by not keeping their body in neutral positions while using the computer.
Lesonsky: Brian, you say “put your body in a neutral position.” Can you explain what this means?
Bentow: In general, the neutral position for a joint is the most natural position for that joint. It also requires the least amount of effort and is typically the midpoint in the range of that joint. For your wrists the neutral position is straight, in line, and roughly parallel to the floor. For your elbows and knees, it is at a 90-degree angle. When all your individual body parts (head, shoulders, knees, hands, wrists, forearms, back, hips, etc.) are in a neutral position, then you have reached the goal of having your body in a neutral position.
Lesonsky: Let’s talk about a “cure.” What can we do to alleviate these injuries?
Bentow: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In more extreme cases, there could be permanent nerve damage. Treatment depends on the type and severity of your injury. [This can range from] rest, physical therapy, massage, and time to medical intervention.
It is much simpler and less expensive to avoid and prevent injury than it is to treat it once you, or one of your employees, are injured. One of my favorite tips is to use your larger appendages to do more of the work. For example, use a foot pedal to push “Shift” and “Control” with your feet [rather than on the keyboard] which increases blood flow and offloads some work [from your hands] to your legs. You can also push “Shift” and “Control” with your middle and index fingers instead of using your pinky. Also, make sure you buy the right equipment and learn to use it properly.
Lesonsky: What can I do to help my employees in their workspace or cubicles?
Bentow: There is a lot you can do to help your employees compute in comfort. For example, you can provide adjustable height desks, monitor stands, adjustable keyboard trays, adjustable split keyboards, and a vertical computer mouse. All of this can be done on a reasonable budget. You can also provide ergonomic training seminars, ergonomist evaluations, and software to monitor how users spend their time on their computers.
Lesonsky: Chairs are so crucial to ergonomic comfort. What do you recommend?
Bentow: You need a comfortable chair with lumbar support that you can sit in for 5+ hours at a time. Also, because armrests tend to create more problems than they solve — they can get in the way of keeping your elbows at a neutral 90 degree angle and often support bad habits like using your mouse and keyboard on a surface that is too high — buy a chair that allows you to remove them. I use a Raynor Executive Leather Chair with lumbar support with no armrests.
Lesonsky: What about laptops? They seem to inevitably cause pain. What’s the best way to use a laptop?
Bentow: The healthiest way to use a laptop is in combination with an external mouse and keyboard so that you can keep your shoulders, wrists, arms, elbows, and neck at neutral positions while you work. The most common way to do this is to attach an adjustable keyboard and mouse tray to your desk. Then you can place your laptop on a stand or simply a stack of books to get it to the right height for your neck.
If you are on a tight budget or [traveling], put your laptop on a stack of books, place your keyboard on your lap and your mouse on top of a stack of books on a chair next to you so that it is at the right height. When I travel for business, I bring my external vertical mouse and split Kinesis Freestyle keyboard, which easily fit in my carry-on luggage.
Lesonsky: Lots of products claim they’re ergonomic. How do you know they really are and it’s not just marketing hype?
Bentow: For keyboards make sure they allow you to keep your wrists, elbows, and shoulders in neutral positions. [You’ll want one] with low key pressure and a smooth keystroke. Adjustable split keyboards like the Kinesis Freestyle or the Goldtouch Go! help keep your body in a neutral position.
Check the specs to compare the key pressure of different keyboards. Finally, try different keyboards [to determine] whether they have a smooth stroke. Look for a mouse that fits in your hand and hopefully doesn’t require you to twist your arm.
Lesonsky: What bad habits should we stop practicing?
One of the worst things to do is take anti-inflammatories or pain medication when you’re in pain from using the computer. Taking medication may let you work past your normal pain threshold but that can lead to serious injury or even permanent nerve damage.
Other common bad habits to avoid: slouching, excessive switching between applications, twisting your wrists in order to press two keys at the same time like Shift A, sitting on your leg, and lying in bed with your laptop.
Lesonsky: What must we do to stay healthier and more productive?
Bentow: Let’s face it — our lives are incredibly stressful. We have monetary concerns, deadlines, relationship problems, nonstop news, and are constantly bombarded with an almost infinite amount of information. It is not uncommon for our brains to get overstimulated and our bodies to atrophy, so we must learn to eat healthfully, stay hydrated, and manage our stress.
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