We love them and need them, at least we think we do – but do computers have the power to negatively impact our health? In many ways, computers make our lives easier but that convenience comes with a price – computer health risks. Sometimes it’s a good idea to give your hands and eyes a break and get away from that expensive machine.
Yet it seems like people have a hard time prying themselves away from technology. When Dr. A and I go out to eat, we see couples so engrossed in their handheld devices that they barely say two words to each other. Ever noticed that? The only exchange of thoughts is via texting. Will we become a nation where most of our friends are virtual ones?
Too much computer time not only takes time away from a meaningful conversation, but it could harm your health in other ways as well. Not that we’re planning on giving up our computers, but we’d still like to make you aware of some computer health risks that could impact your health and precautions you can take to avoid these issues.
Oh, My Aching Back
Yes, sitting hunched over in front of a computer for too long is bad for your posture. Next time you’re sitting in your computer, ask someone to evaluate your posture. Better yet, ask them to take a picture of you from the side. Are you slumped over when you’re at your desk? If so, you’re a perfect set-up for neck, back, and shoulder pain.
Take precautions to avoid that aching back and neck. First, make sure you’ve got a good set-up for working, whether you’re at home or at the office. Here some tips for making your computer experience more ergonomically friendly:
- Adjust the height of your chair so your feet lie flat on the floor and your knees and hips are in line with each other.
- Make sure your back is supported by the chair you’re sitting in. If not, place a pillow on the back of your chair for more support.
- Keep your keyboard directly in front of your body. Your elbows should be relaxed and at about a 90-degree angle.
Just as importantly, GET UP every 20 to 30 minutes to stretch or walk around. Sitting too long is bad from an orthopedically but it’s also harmful to your overall health. Remind yourself every day, “Sitting is bad for my health.”
Offset the effects of too much sitting by doing shoulder, neck, and back stretches twice an hour to lengthen your tight muscles. Make it a habit! You can also develop buttock pain from too much sitting because prolonged sitting tightens your hip flexors and places strain on the opposing muscles, your glutes or buttock muscles.
Help! I Can’t Sleep
If you’re suffering from insomnia, get off the computer earlier. Your body naturally wants to shut down after dark, and exposing your eyes to the bright light of a computer screen keeps that from happening. When your eyes are confronted with light at night, it blocks the release of melatonin, a hormone you need for sleep.
Just as importantly, when the light hits the back of your eyes late at night, it disrupts your biological clock and alters the secretion of hormones that control factors like your blood sugar. Research shows this increases the risk for health problems, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
It’s healthiest if you turn off the computer (and other sources of bright light) after 8:00 P.M. to preserve your body’s natural rhythms. Yes, it can be hard! We struggle with this all the time.
Computer Health Risks: My Head Hurts
If you’re prone towards headaches, particularly migraines, spending hours in front of a computer monitor can make them worse. Eyestrain from trying to focus on the screen to bright lights and glare that emanate from your monitor can trigger migraines.
Another relatively common problem linked with using a computer is computer vision syndrome. If you’re having visual blurring, feeling like you have sand in your eyes, neck pain, headaches and shoulder pain, you may have this condition.
Computer vision syndrome can be a sign you need corrective lenses or need to have your current eyewear prescription checked.
Another approach to correcting computer vision syndrome is visual retraining. This is a type of therapy consisting of exercises that train your brain and eyes to work together more effectively.
If you’re not ready to undergo visual training, at least visit your eye doctor for a check-up and take more breaks from your monitor to look out the window and shift your gaze away from the computer. Look at something far away instead.
Amazon sells snazzy-looking glasses that block glare. We haven’t tried them ourselves, but they have good reviews.
Computer work can also worsen dry eyes. Keep a bottle of lubricant eye drops by your computer station and place a drop or two in your eyes every hour or two. These have made a big difference for me.
There’s an App for That
There’s an app for almost everything these days and they’re supposed to make life easier, but that’s not always the case. Every time you download a new one you have to learn how to use it – and think about it.
How many do you REALLY end up using? Instead, they clutter up your computer and create added stress and confusion. The same is true of subscribing to too many Facebook groups, newsletters etc.
You’ll experience less computer-related health problems and stress if you think about everything you download or join BEFORE doing it. Make sure you really need it and it won’t end up cluttering up your computer and create more stress.
What about social media channels and email? It used to be we only had to worry about email – and how many of us have only one email account? You also have to check out Facebook and other social media sites you participate in. It can be overwhelming and a real time suck. Life has gotten easier in some ways and hard as heck in others.
On the other hand, we do like having you around, so, hopefully, you’ll still read OUR emails. lol!
Weight Gain and a Gradual Decline in Fitness
Simply put, sitting too long doing ANYTHING is bad for your health. Computers DO make our lives easier some of the time, sometimes too easy. You don’t even have to get out of your chair to go shopping these days. Just head over to Amazon and order what you need. In the future grocery shopping may become a task you do in your easy chair as online grocery shopping becomes more popular.
Why is this bad? Staying physically active is one of the most important things, if not THE most important thing you can do to stay healthy. When you sit too long, your body goes into “hibernation mode.” This negatively affects how insulin functions, increasing your risk for metabolic problems like type 2 diabetes, and it adversely affects your lipid levels.
I was reading an article on Lifehacker.com that describes what happens when you sit. The rate at which your body burns calories drops by two-thirds compared to when you’re walking and insulin sensitivity drops too. This places you at higher risk for type 2 diabetes.
Even if you hop up every morning and exercise for 30 minutes or do a workout when you come home from work, it doesn’t make up for sitting 9 or 10 hours a day. Wearable technology, like the FitBit, can help you track how much you’re moving each day, but, again, you’re adding MORE technology to your life – something to think about.
At the very least, set an alarm to go off every 20 minutes on your computer as a reminder to stretch and walk around. Every bit of movement counts in terms of your health!
Here’s a scary statistic based on a study. According to research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, people who watch 6 hours of television a day, and the same would apply to sitting in front of a computer, can expect to live almost 5 fewer years than someone who watches no television. That’s a serious computer health risk!
You may love your computer and iPhone, but don’t let it turn you into a couch potato who dies early.
Computers and Radiation
Desktop monitors release low-frequency radiation. Because the waves are of low frequency, they don’t directly damage cells in the way high-frequency radiation like x-rays since they’re lower in energy.
Still, there are concerns that exposure to even less energetic waves might cause cellular damage, although, at this point, there’s no definitive evidence nor is there a mechanism to explain how low-frequency waves would do this. One unproven theory is that the low-frequency waves emitted from cell phones heat up cells and causes oxidative stress.
Also concerning are the microwaves and radio-frequency waves released by cell phones. Some studies link cell phone use with a higher risk for certain types of brain tumors. Fortunately, many desktop monitors come with a radiation screen. If not, you can buy one and place it over your monitor.
As far as a cell phone or iPhone use, use the speaker setting and hold the phone away from your body to reduce exposure to radio-frequency waves. If there is a higher risk of tumors associated with cell phone use, it’s probably not an enormous increase. Otherwise, we’d have an epidemic of brain tumors the way people talk on their cell phone so much.
Still, there enough concern that California instituted the Right to Know law. This law requires retailers to tell customers about the risks of cell phone radiation. There are reasons to be concerned or at least aware.
A study published on Medscape.com found a three-times increased risk of a type of brain tumor called a glioma in people who had used a cell phone or mobile phone for more than 25 years.
We urge caution when using your cell phone. Don’t overuse it or hold it next to your head. Use the speaker so you can keep the phone away from your head and body.
The Bottom Line
We’re sure you’re not planning on giving away your computer or iPhone anytime soon – nor should you. But make sure you’re taking a stretch and walk break every 20 minutes or so and aren’t constantly holding a mobile phone up to your head.
It’s easy to forget, I know, and make sure you’re not stressing your back and neck by changing how your workstation is set up.
I prefer a standing desk. You can buy one or make one by placing your computer on a stack of books. Dr. A set up his laptop on the kitchen counter so he’s forced to stand. He says he feels better and gets more done as a result.
We want you to feel better too! If you’re tired at the end of the day, it may be because you SAT too much rather than because you DID too much. Sitting can be more energy sucking than moving around.
The take-home message: Embrace technology but take time away from it too. Don’t sit in front of your computer without taking breaks and make sure you’re sitting in your chair in a manner that won’t give you back or neck pain.
Just as importantly, be aware that mobile phones release radio-frequency waves that are linked in some studies with brain tumors. It’s something to think about. Limit your exposure. Put some distance between you and your computer, especially at night. to mitigate these computer health risks.
WebMD. “Nighttime Computer Users May Lose Sleep”
American Optometric Association. “Computer Vision Syndrome”
Br J Sports Med 2012;46:1144.
LifeHacker.com. “How Sitting All Day Is Damaging Your Body and How You Can Counteract It”
CNN “Cell phones and risk of brain tumors: What’s the real science?”
Medscape Multispecialty. “Long-term Cell Phone Use Linked to Brain Tumor Risk”