4 min read

PCs can kill. Here’s how to survive

We all love technology. But too much of anything isn't healthy

Working as a computer columnist is dangerous work. Living on the cutting edge of technology is fun, but it’s an edge that cuts both ways — it’s a life-threatening lifestyle, according to new research.

You see, the life of a tech pundit involves a lot of sitting and staring at screens. New studies have emerged that show a direct link between the amount of time you spend sitting and the length of your life.

Long periods of sitting “may influence things like triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein, cholesterol, fasting plasma glucose, resting blood pressure, and leptin, which are biomarkers of obesity and cardiovascular and other chronic diseases,” says scientist Alpa Patel, who led a 13-year study of more than 123,216 people that appeared in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

I don’t know exactly what that means, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want it.

I’m a big fan of exercise, but the shocking reality of the-more-you-sit-the-sooner-you-die research is that even if you exercise, the effect still applies. Yikes!

It gets worse: While I’m busy sitting there shortening my life, I’m also wrecking my eyes. Computer vision syndrome is on the rise because we’re all spending a lot more time watching displays. Some unhelpful “experts” suggest following what they call the “20/20/20 rule,” which is to spend 20 seconds looking at something 20 feet away every 20 minutes.

But come on, that’s just not going to happen. I don’t think I would remember to do that even if someone paid me $20 a day to do it.

This is all bad news for Yours Truly. In the past few months, I’ve increased the screen real estate on my desktop — two 20-in. monitors, plus an 18-in. laptop screen, plus an iPad. Since switching from a BlackBerry Pearl to an iPhone, I spend way, way more time focusing intently on its tiny screen.

Instead of reading printed books, newspapers and magazines, I’ve been reading a lot more online and on my iPad. And I also watch more TV and movies on a bigger screen than I used to. Recently, I’ve found myself totaling more than 16 hours a day of screen time on some days. (Imagine my shock when my perfectly reasonable requests for hazard pay were rejected by my editor.)

Although most people don’t put in those kinds of hours, it’s true that we’re all sitting more, and using displays more, than ever before. People strain to look at tiny netbook, tablet and smartphone screens. Video-gaming fans can spend hours in a darkish room unblinkingly gazing at the on-screen action.

Computer vision syndrome could become a pandemic — we still don’t know what happens when people watch screens all day, every day for decades.

The great thing about technology, however, is that when one corner of the industry creates problems, another one solves them. A smattering of new products can reduce the harm caused by using PCs and gadgets. They do this by replacing activities that normally require sitting at your desk with ones that set you free to walk around and look at the real world once in a while.

Amazon Kindle

Amazon launched two new Kindles this week, starting at $139. Unlike all your other electronic devices, the Kindle has an eyeball-friendly “electronic paper” screen that passively reflects light just like paper.

The new version has an improved screen that offers 50% better contrast. Also: The Kindle has amazing battery life and looks better in very bright light. It’s also super-light. That means instead of reading on a computer or iPad in your home or office in the same chair you sit in all day, you can go outside, lie down or stand comfortably while reading.

At $139, the Kindle pays for itself even faster than previous models. Subscriptions are cheaper than on the iPad, and e-books are far cheaper than paper books.

Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11

Nuance Communications this week launched an incredible new version of its voice recognition product. The software takes dictation. You talk, it responds by either obeying your commands or typing what you say. You can launch apps, surf the Web, even move the mouse and click — all by just talking. It’s like something right out of science fiction. And it works.

Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11 is now 99% accurate, the company says. Presumably, that means that for every 100 words or commands spoken, only one will be wrong. Training the software improves on that.

What does this have to do with health? Well, if you spend a lot of time blogging or writing e-mails or writing anything, Dragon lets you get out of that chair and dictate your written communication while pacing around your office. You can also just record dictation on any digital recorder, and NaturallySpeaking will transcribe it later.

Dragon offers affordable $99.99 and $199.99 Home and Premium versions, plus not-so-affordable $599.99 and $799.99 Professional and Legal versions. Upgrades for people with previous versions are a lot cheaper. Mobile versions are free, even if you don’t buy the desktop PC version.

The Treadmill Desk

Yeah, it’s just what it sounds like. The Treadmill Desk from Hammacher Schlemmer is a $399.95 desk you use while walking on a treadmill or while standing. It even has two cup holders so you don’t spill your Starbucks. (Note that the treadmill itself is not included.)

The idea sounds extreme. But the desk enables you to transform eight hours of sitting still and getting unhealthy to eight hours of marathon training. If you’re serious about fitness and have to use a computer all day, this one piece of furniture can really transform your health.

In addition to these three new products, you can also use some old-fashioned technologies and techniques. The most underappreciated of these is podcasting. By embracing podcasts, you can replace hours of eyestrain-inducing reading and TV-watching with audio entertainment, which you can enjoy while walking, running or working out. The trick is to find the quality podcasts.

For tech, you can’t go wrong with podcasts by Leo Laporte (search iTunes for “Laporte”). The BBC has all its high-quality programs for download or free subscription in podcast format. For news, I enjoy Fareed Zakaria GPS, but nearly all TV news programs are available as free podcasts. The trick: Subscribe promiscuously, try everything, and delete the duds.

And just because new technology exists, that doesn’t mean old-school approaches to content and communication aren’t better for you. If you’re overloaded with screen time, here’s a novel idea: Read a paper newspaper. Buy or borrow physical books. And instead of e-mail, try “sneakernet” — get in the habit of walking over to the desks of co-workers for some communication.

The important thing is to fight back against sedentary screen time taking over your life. Look for ways to replace sit-down screen time with physical activity that doesn’t require looking at a display of some kind.

We all love technology. But too much of anything isn’t healthy. With some new technologies and a little common sense, you can save your body — and your eyes — and enjoy both gadgets and good health.

Computerworld (US)