Book Review: The Healthy Programmer

Sitting in a chair for 40 or more hours a week might seem like the makings of a good life if it's combined with an impressive salary, but if you value your health and/or your career, you might rethink your priorities. This invaluable book could add years to your life and keep you feeling good well into retirement. Let me repeat that. This invaluable book ...

The Healthy Programmer: Get Fit, Feel Better, and Keep Coding by Joe Kutner

published by The Pragmatic Programmers, 2013

You really don't have to be a programmer to benefit from The Healthy Programmer. Anyone with a sedentary job in which your fingers jump around a keyboard, but the rest of you rarely moves at all needs to think about the long-term repercussions of the way they spend their days. As a 30 year veteran of the systems administration and computer security fields, I have to wonder whether having read a book like this 20 years ago and taken its advice to heart, my health and frame of mind might be dramatically better today. But I'm seriously glad that I'm reading it now. It's going to help me change the way I work and the way I live.

Sure, I'm not the first Unix sysadmin who needs to lose weight nor the first to find out that she has a vitamin D deficiency. But maybe I'm the (one of the?) first to fully grasp the extent to which my work habits and, more than that, my living habits have deprived me of fitness and the things that I can do to turn the problem around. And all this because I just read The Healthy Programmer.

The Healthy Programmer is not a frivolous book. It's not a book that describes fad diets or questionable exercise routines. On the contrary, the thing that impressed me right away about this book was how much it's based on solid scientific research. It is exceedingly well footnoted and includes a 16 page bibliography that demonstrates how much scientific research is represented in its nearly 200 pages.

Problems that sedentary workers are plagued with today include health issues such as these:

  • back pain
  • carpal tunnel
  • obesity
  • diabetes
  • headaches
  • heart problems
  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • upper limb syndromes
  • vitamin D deficiencies
  • low mood and energy disorders

When you take advantage of the science represented in this book, you will not be surprised that people who don't move much, who stare at computer screens for more than eight hours a day, who spend little time in the sunshine, who eat pizza and chips at their desks for lunch, and who likely never think about whether their work stations are ergonomic are beset with all these problems.

What surprises me is not the commonality of health issues that plague both programmers and their systems and networking colleagues, but how small changes in our daily routines can address, reverse or avoid them.

Examples:

  • frequent movement -- 5 minutes of every half an hour getting up and moving around or doing foot pumps under your desk can improve your physical condition
  • drinking water instead of soft drinks can reduce headaches and improve your immune system
  • keeping track of what you eat helps you eat less
  • walking stimulates creative thinking and problem solving

In fact, it's quite surprising to note the amount of worthwhile exercise that can be done at your desk -- exercise that matters and moves you toward fitness. Adding movement to your daily routine and paying more attention to your nutrition will, in the long run, pay back more

than learning another computer language or protocol ever could because you're like to be more productive at work and more energetic overall if you do.

Just from walking alone, you can expect aerobic improvements, an increase in your muscle strength, and a lowering of your blood pressure. Brisk walking helps even more, especially if you can work up to 10K steps per day; and the book offers tips on how to do this safely.

But even if you can't walk a mile a day or replace your desk with a stand-up desk or one with a treadmill, simple changes such as glancing away from your screen to prevent eye fatigue can improve how you feel.

The Healthy Programmer provides both insights and advice on how to change your daily routine and your diet, how to prevent problems such as eye strain and wrist injury, and how exercise improves your ability to solve problems and strengthens your memory.

The book includes these chapters and sections:

1.  Making Changes
    Unit Testing Your Health
    The Mind-Body Connection
    An Iterative Approach to Health
    The Science Behind Habits
    Reprogramming Your Habits
    Retrospective
2.  Bootstrapping Your Health
    Thinking On Your Feet
    Walking Your Way to Better Health
    The Time of Your Life
    Learning How to Walk
    Getting Out the Door
    Retrospective
3.  A Farewell to Chairs?
    Sitting Considered Harmful
    Standing Up For the Truth
    Enhancing Your Workstation
    Retrospective
4.  Agile Dieting
    An Iterative Approach to Dieting
    Balanced Nutrition Over Idiosyncratic Diets
    Eating Your Brains Out
    Counting Calories Over Following Trends
    Adjusting Your Caloric Intake
    Individual Tastes Over Predefined Menus
    Retrospective
5.  Preventing Headaches and Eye Strain
    Unit Testing Your Vision
    Avoiding Computer Vision Syndrome
    Avoiding Headache Triggers
    Treating Headache Symptoms
    Retrospective
6.  Preventing Back Pain
    Unit Testing Your Core Muscles
    Understanding the Anatomy of the Back
    Strengthening Your Powerhouse
    Developing Better Ergonomics
    Retrospective
7.  Preventing Wrist Pain
    Unit Testing your Wrists
    Understanding the Causes of Wrist Pain
    Using Exercise To Prevent Pain
    Reducing Tension with the Alexander Technique
    Restricting Movement with Braces
    Retrospective
8.  Making Exercise Pragmatic
    Exercising Your Brain
    Taking Healthy Pomodoro Breaks
    Keeping a Log
    Playing Games With Your Health
    Taking Your Fitness to the Web
    Retrospective
9.  Thinking Outside the Cube
    Dosing on Vitamin D
    Shedding Light on the Vitamin D Hype
    Boosting Your Immune System
    Dealing With the Common Cold
    Thinking Under the Trees
    Retrospective
10. Refactoring Your Fitness
    Warming Up
    Understanding the Dimensions of Fitness
    Unit Testing Your Fitness
    Upgrading Your Hardware
    Retrospective
11. Teaming Up
12. Onward, Healthy Programmer
    Continuous Improvement
    Creating Social Habits
    The Joy of Being Healthy
A1. Goals
A2. Examples
    Examples of Fruit/Vegetable Servings
    Example Day
A3. Further Reading
    Books
    Publications
A4. Bibliography

I wasn't at all surprised by the disclaimer at the front of the book that warns about how the book isn't intended to take the place of or conflict with advice from your doctor but, frankly, most of the messages in this book that have hit home for me are things my doctor has never talked to me about or even hinted at. So, as someone who had nearly given up on the idea of ever again feeling fit, this book is as encouraging as it is eye-opening. A must read for any sedentary worker who cares about himself and his career.

The health effects of leading a sedentary life are treatable, reversible and avoidable.

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