Our Bodies Just Aren’t Designed for Constant Tech Use—Here’s How to Keep Yours Safe and Strong
Until then, we'd be wise to protect our bodies agains the negative effects of technology, because we're not physically evolved to accommodate the activities we continually do in excess. (As in, all the forms of technology with which we interact on an ongoing basis). Fortunately, a few, simple counteractive measures can go a long way in mitigating injuries we may sustain to the neck, shoulders, back, wrists, hands, eyes, ears, and more.
Here's how to keep the negative effects of technology from causing physical damage.
1. The habit: sitting too much
By now, you've likely heard that "sitting is the new smoking" (read: sitting isn't great for your health for a number of reasons), a sentiment with which Lauren Roxburgh, a body alignment specialist who's worked with celebrities including Gwyneth Paltrow, agrees. The human body, she says, is designed to expand, and when it doesn't, there are consequences. "When you sit too much, your fascia, your body's interwoven system of connective tissue, just becomes stuck in these positions," she says. "This causes a lack of circulation and blood flow."
The result is brittleness in the tissue, which Roxburgh likens to an effect similar to dehydration. "Connective tissue needs compression and stretching and breathing and expansion in order to stay hydrated and supple and youthful," she says. "Picture a dried-up sponge—that's what happens to your tissue. It turns into this hard, thick piece of plastic-esque kind of tissue, and then you put 'water' in it by breathing or stretching and create 'hydration' that turns the tissue back into a cling wrap-type of flexible tissue." Problems related to a "dehydrated" fascia extend beyond the physical, too: "Emotions live in the fascia as well, so trapped emotions can get stuck," she says. "I like to say trauma lives in the tissues." (And research even backs her up.)
"Our body is so malleable, especially our connective tissue, and so resilient that you just need to do a few things a day [to counteract sitting]," Roxburgh says, adding that she's a fan of foam-roller-based exercises, using a body sphere, and practicing inverted or twisted yoga poses. "Those kinds of things really help to hydrate your tissue," she says.
When you're in a situation that requires a lot of sitting—whether it's your office job or a long road trip or even a binge-watching marathon— orthopedic surgeon Jennifer J. Beck MD suggests taking breaks to engage in these types of stretches, and changing your position every 30 minutes or so. Switching up your surface of choice is also helpful, says Roxburgh, who recommends cycling through sitting at your desk, on the couch, and on the floor (which she notes may result in a more natural position for the body than a desk chair). And if you can get your hands on a standing desk, you might be able to seriously cut down your sitting time, says Dr. Beck.
2. The habit: hunching over your screen
Next time you're truly anywhere public, take a look around and notice all the people who are hunched and poring over their phone screen. Dr. Beck says this posture causes a lot of upper-neck and upper-back pain. "The muscles on the back part of your neck get stretched and fatigued from staying in one position too long and then similarly what can happen is the muscles on the front part of your chest—your pectoral muscles—get too tight because they've actually been contracted for too long," she says.
Why should you care? This stretch-contraction posture can lead to a compressed diaphragm muscle, which is responsible for regulating oxygen and carbon dioxide flow. "This will influence how much breath you can take in and out and how you handle stressful situations (if you can't take a deep breath, in stressful situations you're not going to be as resilient)," Roxburgh says, noting deep-breathing as a strategy for self-soothing. Diaphragm compression creates its own bad-posture cycle, too. "You can't sit up straight because your diaphragm is so tight, so that tightness in the front is actually pulling you forward," she says. Plus, she says, your digestive tract is crippled in this position, which can potentially lead to constipation.
Call me vain but what Roxburgh tells me next is what really shakes me to my core: Hunching over a screen can cause your jowls to sag over time. "The back of the neck gets 'short-tight', which means the muscles attach from the neck to the skull, then the jaw locks up, and then you also have the forward head." The last part, she says, can lead the muscles in the front of the neck to become weak, and, yep, jowly, allowing skin to sag. "Orthopedic surgeons are doing surgery on people in their twenties that they would have done in their eighties because of this."
"As your neck muscles constrict and the skin folds from looking downward at your phone, lines can become etched in—a phenomenon known as tech neck." —dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD
Dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, confirms the negative effects of technology overuse include some wrinkly risks. "Just as repeated muscle movement in the face can cause wrinkles, the same can happen to your neck," he says. "As your neck muscles constrict and the skin folds from looking downward at your phone, lines can become etched in—a phenomenon known as tech neck."
First and foremost, says Dr. Beck, make sure you have an ergonomic setup wherever you work. Your chair should have a height-adjustable seat, armrests, and a back that provides lumbar support; your computer screen should be positioned at eye level; your feet should rest comfortably on the floor and your knees should be level or slightly lower than your hips. While these steps are a great baseline for counteracting a tech-led hunch, Dr. Beck says additional measures, like posture trainers, can help to keep you vigilant. (Hey, it's easy to fall into old habits—especially when that habit is shoulder slumping.) And since some hunching is all but inevitable, Roxburgh recommends trying daily mini inversions—like lifting your hips onto a foam roller or putting your legs up again the wall—for self-correction.
With respect to mitigating tech neck, work to minimize the time you spend looking downward. Healthy ergonomics in your workspace can help with this, as can Bluetooth use and holding your phone in front of your face rather than down at your torso. Many of us aren't likely to do the latter, however, and Dr. Zeichner says other solutions are available. "Topical retinoids and antioxidants help keep the skin foundation strong, and treatments like Botox or Dysport help relax the muscles under the skin to minimize folding," he says. Of course, discussion with your health-care provider is crucial before turning to any medical interventions.
Oh, and by the way, you're not growing a "horn," or bone spur at the base of your neck despite concerning headlines that recently circulated suggesting otherwise. For one thing, the integrity of that research has since been called into question, and for another, Dr. Beck reassures me that only very young children would be at risk for this type of bone growth. So, developing and instituting a routine for combatting the negative effects of technology on the body early is nonetheless crucial.
3. The excessive texting and typing
When at rest, my hands now default to the claw position used for typing at a computer or clutching a cell phone. Roxburgh tells me this is something she sees in her practice, and it's a result of the fascia gluing into a position. "The finger tendons are connected from your hand up to your elbow, so when those get glued and dense, that coils everything in," she says.
"When you're using your thumb in a very small motion to text, you can get tendonitis in some of those tendons." —orthopedic surgeon Jennifer J. Beck, MD
Overuse of this position can cause carpal tunnel symptoms and nerve damage that can result in potentially permanent hand weakness. "When we're using phones and tablets, our wrist is usually bent down in the flexed position, and there's actually a nerve on the inside part of your wrist that can get carpal tunnel symptoms from the compression of this nerve when the wrist has been in that position for too long," Dr. Beck says.
Furthermore, constant texting can cause issues in your thumb health (yes, really), since your thumb features tiny muscles that extend to both your palm and also forearm. "When you're using your thumb in a very small motion to text, you can get tendonitis in some of those tendons," Dr. Beck adds.
If you're noticing text claw, or pain in the wrist or hand, adjust your habits to lessen the impact, e.g. buying a larger phone or accessories like a PopSocket. Also, stretch. Roxburgh recommends the following regimen: yoga stretches, such as a reverse-wrist hand stretch; rolling out your hand with a golf ball; using spiked domes to promote circulation; and using a peanut roller to stretch out the forearms.
With respect to texter's thumb, Dr. Beck suggests minimizing text frequency by using voice dictation software when possible—and also getting creative: "Sometimes I'll take my thumbs when I'm driving and put them on the steering wheel and just stretch out the thumb area."
4. The habit: all earbuds, all the time
Unfortunately, research supports that exposure to high-intensity noise can permanently and irreversibly damage your hearing. “Cells in the inner ear are physically damaged and do not regenerate,” says audiologist Alison Grimes, AuD. There's no way of knowing how much noise is too much for your ears, either, until the damage has been done—and even if you're not listening to music through your earbuds at top volume, prolonged use can still wreak havoc on your hearing. “The ear can tolerate a loud sound for a shorter period of time, or a less-loud sound for a longer period of time,” she says.
Plus, Grimes adds, exposure to noise can cause tinnitus, an uncomfortable or even debilitating condition wherein you experience a ringing, buzzing, hissing, swooshing, or clicking in the ears when no external noise is present.
Since there's no way of knowing how much damage you're doing every time you pop in your earbuds, Grimes recommends turning down the sound and taking regular breaks lasting at least a few minutes every hour.
5. The habit: existing among EMFs
Hard truth: You're constantly exposed to electromagnetic fields (EMFs), aka radiation from power lines, Wi-Fi towers, and electronic devices. Though some research and experts have connected exposure to health concerns spanning the likes of headaches and cancer, the overarching consensus is that we don't have enough information on the still-new phenomenon to make a judgment call.
Public health physician David Carpenter, MD, recommends using a wired earpiece when talking on the phone and cautions against storing your cell on your body, like in your pocket. He also suggests using a landline if possible, and keeping your Wi-Fi router far from areas where you spend the most time, like your bed and couch. To lower your exposure, you can also turn Wi-Fi off when you're not using it, e.g. at night.
6. The habit: staring at screens all day and all night
First, the good news: There's no scientific evidence that you'll permanently damage your eyes from screen use. "However, many people experience eye strain, dry eye, or headaches while using these devices," says Rahul Khurana, MD, clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. "This is because we tend to blink less while staring at a screen."
Exposure to blue light from screens is also a potential problem that may be disrupting your sleep cycle. "Since blue light wakes us up and stimulates us, too much blue light exposure late at night from phones, tablets, or computer screens can disrupt our ability to fall asleep," he adds.
Dr. Khurana recommends adhering to the “20-20-20” rule: Every 20 minutes, shift your eyes to look at an object at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. He also says that keeping an arm's length distance between yourself and your screen is helpful, as the eyes actually have to work harder to see close up than they do far away. A glare-reducing screen filter may also help, as can adjusting the lighting in your room so that the screen is not brighter than its surroundings, and keeping your eyes moist via artificial tears and/or a desktop humidifier.
Regarding blue light exposure, he recommends limiting screen time before bed and using nighttime screen settings, which help to decrease the negative effects of technology on sleep. Such measures are critical, because even as most of what our bodies have evolved to do becomes obsolete thanks to electronics, we—as in us and our gadgets—still need to turn off and recharge on the regular.
Asking for a friend: Will a couple of hours of exercise a week offset all the days spent sitting? Science has the answer. And if you're bored of your daily stretch routine, try one created (and W+G-tested) by an actual clown.
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