I suspect that there’s a certain personality type that is drawn to programming. The type of person that must be solving problems and learning new things, because without this drive, it’s hard to get ahead. But this career drive can be a double-edged sword, making it difficult to maintain a balance in life and prevent long-term damage to one’s health.
When I got my first real coding job at a Rails consultancy, there were a few lifestyle changes that came along with the new job that I didn’t pay much attention to at first, but over time had insidious consequences. For one thing, I now had a decent paycheck. I also didn’t have much free time anymore. So I started getting my meals from nearby restaurants rather than cooking, stopping off most evenings on my way home to polish off half a pizza.
At the time I didn’t even realize I was gaining weight. And I didn’t know enough about nutrition to predict that eating half a pizza would have this effect. Sure, my parents raised me to eat healthy, but I was never a fat kid — or a very athletic kid — so I never gave nutrition much thought. It just dawned on me at some point that I had some serious back flab.
Well I was alarmed. I was in bad physical shape and my mood was all over the place. Years later I would also realize that the intense tiredness that I felt every evening was a result of eating so much carbohydrate at once. Somehow it had escaped me that what I ate would have such a strong effect on how I felt.
As a reflexive instinct, I began reading up as much as I could on nutrition. I learned what macro and micronutrients were, looked into the causes of weight gain, and began to understand how to eat in a way that would minimize my susceptibility to disease. I found that reducing my carbohydrate intake had a strong stabilizing effect on my mood and also kept me less hungry throughout the day, so I ended up adopting this way of eating. It took a few sluggish weeks to adapt, but I found the benefits worthwhile.
Fast forward a few years, and my diet is in check. I now have the energy to do more activities, and I start wanting to look better as well. So I discover the joys of exercise. I get into salsa dancing and bodyweight fitness takes a prominent place in my life (unpaid shoutout to GMB, which has really opened my eyes on the subject of calisthenics, bodyweight training, and flexibility.) Things start getting better health-wise.
But programming doesn’t get any easier and I’m still investing a ton of time into my career. I sit slouching at my desk for hours on end and when I start experiencing constant arm pain as a result of a bad ergonomic setup, I don’t worry too much since the pain usually goes away when I step away from the computer and head home. (Sound familiar?)
So the cycle continues. I tolerate the slouchiness and lack of movement during the day, assuming that a little pain doesn’t actually harm you — it’s just uncomfortable. But this time the effects of bad posture did a number on me, one that can’t be remedied as easily as losing a few pounds.
A couple months ago I attempted a type of handstand that I was not prepared for and ended up with a bulging spinal disc in my neck. Very painful indeed. However, the radiologist who read my CT scan also broke the news that I had spinal degeneration that wouldn’t be atypical for someone twice my age.
My years of slouching had caused permanent damage. It wasn’t a death sentence and most of the time it wouldn’t affect my life, but to me it was shocking that I had already built up years of damage to my body. In my mind, I was just starting to workout and learn how to use it.
Some people may not have the luxury of working while taking proper care of their health. But if you live in a decent economy, ask yourself what you actually gain by living in that economy, if not the ability to maintain your health? After all, jobs come and go — but you only have one body in this life.
The fact is, it can be hard to make the changes necessary for taking care of your health. Most programmers can’t really choose their office chair, or the height of their desk. Nor is it simple to get up and move a whole lot during the day when there is so much work to get done. And remote work can be difficult to find and perhaps lonely for some people.
The reality is that prioritizing your health can sometimes require a complete overhaul, rather than just a micro change. It could take a lifestyle change to do what you need to do in order to live life the way you believe is best for you.
A good method for making these changes is to think about what your own priorities are in a job. This can be scary because it can require you to go against the grain and say no to a job that others want, but which goes against your personal priority list. But choosing a job that matches your own personal priority list ultimately leads to greater job satisfaction as well as happiness in all areas of your life.
Things like healthy food, exercise, and movement, are critical to all animals — not only humans. If it’s clear that dogs require daily exercise, why would a human, with its relatively enormous brain, be able to manage without it? And if we’re careful about the fuel that we put into our cars, why are we so lackadaisical about what we put into our bodies, a machine that has far more complex biochemical demands?
I think the answer is that the human machine appears on the surface to be a forgiving one. It can temporarily compensate for shoddy fuel and shoddy treatment. These mechanisms are so clever, in fact, that we just continue feeding ourselves garbage and treating our bodies like garbage, not noticing that underneath the surface we are causing ourselves real damage.
The good news is that prioritizing your health will give you benefits in all areas of your life. You’ll feel better, your future self will feel better, and all those around you will thank you for being less moody, more forgiving, and generally humbled by the work required to stay healthy.