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The Dangers of Sitting to Work: How Too Much Time in Front of the Computer Could Be Putting Photographers' Health at Risk

Yoga balls and standing desks may have become a stereotype of the hipster office space, but there is a legitimate reason for this alteration in traditional office paraphernalia: sitting is bad for you, and photographers should take heed before their health begins to deteriorate. Aside from the musculoskeletal dangers of spending too long sitting at the computer, like neck strain and back problems, other parts of the body may be suffering in silence, such as the heart and pancreas.

The business of photography is exactly that: a business. When all is said and done, photographers spend more time at the computer than they do taking photographs. Answering emails, making calls, scheduling shoots, typing up invoices, designing advertisements, editing photographs, tweaking SEO, and writing blog posts could comprise as much as 75 percent of a photographer’s billable hours. This means photographer bums spend a lot of time in chairs. Too much time, according to scientific studies.

Multiple studies, such as this article published in Diabetelogica, have concluded that spending too long sitting still doesn’t just put people at risk of carrying around a few extra pounds or developing chair-butt, sitting uninterrupted for extended periods actually puts people at greater risk for suffering from diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and a slew of other health problems.

Sitting means sedentary muscles, and blood doesn’t flow as well in muscles that aren’t active. This lack of movement decreases the amount of high-density lipoproteins in the blood, which can lead to a build-up of fatty acids and affect the heart. Idle muscles don’t respond well to insulin, so prolonged periods of inactivity can decrease the body’s ability to respond to insulin, increasing the risk of diabetes.

It’s not that you can never take a load off or give your feet a rest, but the consensus across multiple peer-reviewed scientific studies is clear: being sedentary — which includes sitting— too often for too long, is bad for you.

Image used with permission of Michael Thomas Ireland.

Fourteen photographers were questioned for this article, and the average amount of time spent sitting in front of a computer solely for work was 10 hours per day. When that average number is added to other time spent sitting such as commuting, watching TV, and eating, it's clear that photographers spend a staggering amount of time sedentary per day. 

Photographers might try to make up for all this sitting by hitting the gym for an hour, but that can be a difficult requirement for sole proprietors who must balance their day between responsibilities at home and work. When a work day can be 12 to 16 hours long and extend into home life, adding a rigorous workout routine to the schedule can seem overwhelming. Worse still, a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine concludes that the dangers of being sedentary — which includes death from all causes — are not mitigated merely with the addition of exercise. The only thing that can affect the negative consequences of a sedentary lifestyle is to stop being sedentary.

Image shared with permission of Justin Rosenberg.

This may not be as easy as it seems when photographers are relying on their businesses to put food on the table, so what can be done to protect the health of photographers and other creative professionals?

Stand Up and Move Every Chance You Get

If you can do a task standing and moving, do. Phone calls can be made while walking. Meetings can be taken at a standing table. If you can afford it, a standing desk converter is a great option that will let you move between sitting and standing as needed. A standing desk is not a solution in itself, however, just like taking a seat isn't the sole culprit. Standing forces muscles to be more active by doing things like maintaining balance and shifting weight, and standing also introduces the ability to move more freely, which increases circulation and muscle tone.

Check Your Posture

Poor posture damages the relationship between muscle and bone, it puts stress on tendons and ligaments, and can leave photographers with chronic neck and back pain. To make sure your sitting posture is right, check these things:

  • Sit against the backrest with a strait back.
  • Ears aligned with shoulders.
  • Relaxed shoulders.
  • Knees and elbows bent at 90 degrees.
  • Feet flat on the floor.
  • Screen positioned so that the chin is level with the floor.

If you notice yourself starting to slouch, or your head leaning too far toward the screen or tilted too far up or down, take a second to fix your posture and try to stay mindful as you work. Set a timer if it helps.

Take Breaks to Move and Stretch Every 30 Minutes

The hip flexor muscles are prone to tighten during prolonged sitting, as are the neck and back. Put a timer on your phone if you have to, but break up that stationary time with 5 to 10 minutes of brisk walking, stretching, or a quick aerobic exercise, like jumping jacks. This reintroduces HDLs (the good cholesterol) into the bloodstream, which helps protect the heart.

Image shared with permission of Mike Con Photo.

Snack Less in Your Chair

Your body responds to a decrease in activity by burning fewer calories. Snacking in your chair during the day may mean adding calories your body won’t have time to burn. Excess calories equal body fat, and increased body fat leads to additional health problems.

Invest in Exercise as Much as You Invest in Your Business

An hour of exercise a day seems like a tall order when you’re a freelancer, but having a booming business won't do you much good if your health is in the toilet. Exercise has immediate benefits for photographers, such as increased mental acuity and mood-boosting endorphins that can improve the photographer-client relationship, but even more important is the evidence studies have found that show that people who exercise daily also tend to improve in other health habits. Being sedentary doesn’t encourage healthy habits. If you can’t get around spending a lot of time in a chair, then a healthy lifestyle is the best possible defense.

Image shared with permission of Olga Tenyanin.

Every profession presents its own risks but, as the saying goes, knowledge is power. Knowing the risks of spending too much time sedentary, it's now up to each individual photographer to look at their work schedule and discover where and how they can implement reasonable countermeasures, such as the ones outlined in this article, to protect their health. The dangers of sitting too much for too long are many, but so are the options creative professionals have to combat them. Taking breaks often, keeping physically active during work hours, altering workspaces to make movement more practical, and keeping to a healthy diet are just a few things photographers can do that mitigate the negative effects of sedentary work to remain healthy for their entire careers.

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DeeLee Maley's picture

Nicole really hit the nail on the head for me with this article. Great info and eye opener. I am getting up from my chair now for a stretch or two. :-)

Nicole York's picture

I'm glad to hear it! I wrote this sucker standing up and walking around my office, haha!

Lor Wor's picture

All good info. Having been a photographer for 10+ yrs and also having used a wheelchair full time for 33 yrs Im happy to report life doesnt end for lack of vertical function

Nicole York's picture

You are absolutely correct, sir

Usman Dawood's picture

Such a useful article. It's an important issue which I don't think many of us including myself consider properly.

Nicole York's picture

Same! Up until this point, I was dealing with upper back and neck spasms and completely missing the culprit.

Nicole York's picture

That's a great point, Bob

Jonathan Ferland-Valois's picture

That's a very real danger, Bob. That's how my mom passed away. She got injured in a ski accident, didn't move for too long and got a blood cloth in her knee. Then one day, it broke apart and went everywhere.

Good thing your wife is doing better now!

Paulo Macedo's picture

I have one of those on my left leg, sitting all day on this IT job, standing up draws attention and i bet my boss won't be happy, or start thinking i'm not doing what i am supposed to.

David T's picture

Stand up, pick up a folder and pretend to sort some documents or so.

Paulo Macedo's picture

Almost zero to no paper around here, everything is digital. IBM mainframe systems analyst. But i've started getting up a bit more. Also quitted smoking, which wasn't helping either.

SixStudio Six's picture

Great article Nicole. I know all to well the importance of getting up and moving around now along with the importance of good posture especially when sitting. I'm going through physical therapy for neck problems caused by both bad posture and sitting in front of the computer too long. I would add not carrying heavy photo back pack correctly i.e.: using only one strap on one shoulder didn't help my neck problems any. That said, it's time to get up and move around.

filmkennedy's picture

I recently purchased an UpDesk soely for this reason since I spend most time of each day infront of my computer editing. And a reminder every 30 minutes-1 hour to take a break just gets annoying especially when I'm "in the zone" while editing. By standing at my desk it encourages me to naturally move around more.

The UpDesk has superb build quality (and I've tried a bunch of the others before buying one), it doesn't rock back and forth when fully extended, and I can sit down when I feel like it.

Mike Conley's picture

Great article Nicole! Thank you for writing this. I know there's a lot more information that goes into this, however you nailed the correct items. Sitting is the new smoking!

Semper Fi!