How to Have a Healthier Relationship with Your Phone

Photo by Anete Lūsiņa
Photo by Anete Lūsiņa
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The Challenge: We love our digital devices, but using them in an unsafe way can have repercussions for our physical health.

The Science: Research suggests there are some big ways that our digital device use is having a negative impact on our physical health.

The Solution: Avoid certain bad digital habits and you can use your devices without fear of damaging your health and productivity.

Has your smartphone become a permanent part of your hand? Is your tablet or laptop your constant companion? We’re all guilty of overdoing it on the digital devices. And most of us regularly feel the result of our behavior in our necks, shoulders, hands, etc. Fortunately, science shows that our digitally-induced aches and pains are avoidable if we follow some simple advice.

The Cost of Keeping Still

Our bodies were made for movement, and they need to do so to be healthy. Unfortunately, our digital addiction is worsening our already sedentary lifestyles. And even for those people who do exercise regularly, it’s not enough to offset the long hours of sitting still that our digital devices encourage according to research by Dr. David Alter, associate professor of medicine, University of Toronto.

Normalizing movement during your work day can help. For example, introducing standing or walking meetings, lunch-time stretching or exercise groups, or software that reminds employees to take breaks are all great ways to make movement at work a routine part of the day. Don’t make skipping lunch or sitting at your desk surfing the net through lunch the norm. Instead, set an example by getting out and moving during your lunch break. Even fidgeting helps according to new research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Head Up for Health

Your head weighs approximately 10 lbs. But when you look down, the strain your head puts on your spine increases significantly according to research by Kenneth Hansraj, chief of spine surgery, New York Spine Surgery and Rehabilitation Medicine. And the more you bend your neck, the more strain you put on your spine. When you look down all the time, your spine is under constant pressure. It’s time to be aware of where your head is and look up every chance you get.

This is an easy fix with good workstation set up, including using laptop stands and tablet risers, detachable keyboards and mice. And when you’re on the go, bring your smartphone up to look at the screen rather than taking your neck down.

Keep Your Blood Moving

When you use effort to hold a body part still (e.g, your arm while scrolling through your Twitter feed) the blood flow in that body part is impeded. Blood flow is how your body heals your muscles from the wear and tear of activity. When your blood flow is restricted, your body has trouble repairing itself.

To make matters worse, muscles purposefully held still become tired faster than they would if they were moving through an activity. Research published in Applied Ergonomics found that tablet users typically keep fingers poised over their device as they work, which means the muscles of the arm and back are being held in a static position. Prolonged and excessive static work can lead to weakness and pain according to Vern Putz-Anderson, public health advisor for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, in his book Cumulative Trauma Disorders: A Manual for Musculoskeletal Diseases of the Upper Limbs.

It’s important to give muscles a chance to move frequently; switching smartphone hands can help as can putting arms down in between bouts of tapping on your tablet. And always take regular breaks from all devices.

The Role of Your Digits in Digital Device Use

Tapping, swiping and scrolling have opened up a whole new world for our fingers and thumbs. And in a lot of cases, it’s a world of pain as our digits are being overused for tasks they weren’t designed to do. According to one study, frequent repetitive actions lasting for long hours could lead to excessive strains in the finger joints and the tendons.

For example, the action of constantly moving your thumb around the whole surface of your touchscreen can cause a repetitive strain injury known as De Quervain’s tenosynovitis. Or consider how you use your pinky finger if you regularly hold and operate your smartphone with one hand. In this scenario, your little finger is constantly bearing the weight of your phone. This can lead to pain and numbness caused by inflammation in your ulnar nerve which runs along your arm, through your elbow and down into your pinky finger.

Cutting down on digital device use will help prevent many of these problems. Rather than being signed into everything all day long, designate certain times that you will check social media and email. Log out when it’s not that specific time. Unsubscribe from any email lists or social media that you can live without; this way you won’t be subject to the temptation. And choose one weekend day when you will give your body a rest from all devices for the whole day.

Don’t Let Tech Disrupt Your Sleep

Sleep is necessary for the body to heal itself from the wear and tear of sitting hunched over our screens all day. In this great blog post by Emma Seppälä, she notes new research that shows that for every 10 minutes people fool around online, they spend 1.2 fewer minutes on personal care, including sleep. The blue light our devices emit is adding to the problem by making sleep more difficult, according to research from the Mayo Clinic.

Putting devices away one hour before bedtime will help. And so too will being aware of how tired you are while you are using your devices. When your body is tired, you are less able to maintain a good neutral posture while you’re working. Too many days of slumping shoulders and lounging in your office chair can lead to aches and pains and a drop in productivity.

Bring Awareness to Everything You Do

It’s easy to get caught up in what’s happening on our screens. But living in a constant state of distraction is not only unhealthy, it can be downright dangerous. According to the National Safety Council, texting was involved in 341,000 car crashes in 2013. And worldwide deaths by selfie are now so commonplace that they have their own Wikipedia page.

Whether you are walking down the street, driving your car or sitting at your desk, bringing awareness to what you are doing and knowing when to put the smartphone (or other digital device) down can be critical for your health and productivity.

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Raquel Baetz

Raquel Baetz

Raquel Baetz is a freelance writer, qualified display screen equipment risk assessor and founder of Safe Hands DSE, helping organizations increase productivity by keeping their employees safe from the ill effects of prolonged, excessive digital device use. Raquel writes about digital health for The Huffington Post, SHP Online, New Worker Magazine and on her blog at safehandsdse.com. After suffering a debilitating repetitive strain injury herself, Raquel had to give up computer work for several years. Now she teaches good computer workstation set up and safe use of digital devices in any setting, including traditional offices, home offices, co-working spaces, and everywhere else digital devices are used.
Raquel Baetz

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