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Tech Habits that can Change Your Health

Our lives, our careers, our homes are now dependent on technology, and all the time we spend using it can have a negative impact on our health. When a system goes down, we wonder what we’d do without it. Our continual reliance on computers, smartphones and other devices means that we are often staring at a screen for at least eight hours a day. The overuse of digital technology can hurt your eyes, your posture and your ability to get a good night’s sleep.

Alleviating Eye Strain

The majority of what we understand in this world is processed through our eyesight. This sense allows us to gather information about details great and small with extreme accuracy. Staring at a digital screen can strain your eyes, which can lead to headaches and muscle fatigue.

As the years go on and our vision declines, we can improve or correct it with glasses, contacts, eye exercises or laser surgery. But before we take appropriate measures to correct it, we continue to exhaust our eyes by trying to get a clear picture to our brain about the surrounding environment.

“Eye strain can lead to many issues in the body including headaches, neck and muscle tension or soreness, upper back pain, and a deteriorating posture,” said John Gose, PT, MS, OCS, director of Physical Therapy, Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine at Chester County Hospital. “In extreme scenarios, eye strain can be the root cause of pinched nerves in the neck or upper chest due to poor posture, resulting in a feeling of pins and needles or numbness in the arms, hands and fingers, and even muscle weakness in those areas.”

To alleviate eye strain, Gose suggests trying the following:

  • Increase the font size on your computer screen or smart device.
  • If you use bifocals, invest in a pair of glasses for computer-use only, so you don’t have to arch your neck to get the right line of sight into the reading bifocal. Arching can lead to headaches and muscle soreness.
  • Look up and around at least once an hour. Look out the window or down a hallway. This will maintain flexibility in your eyes.

Exercises like these can strengthen the muscles of the eyes and have been shown to improve vision clarity. Gose says these suggestions can help you protect your eyes while at work and help you enjoy more of your time outside of work as well.

Improve You Snooze

As far back as the early 1950s, researchers like J. Woodland Hastings, PhD, Beatrice M. Sweeney, PhD, and later in the 1980s, Charles Cziesler, MD, PhD, FRCP, demonstrated the impact that light simulating daytime and nighttime has on the body. They proved that light emitting a blue hue could efficiently reset the body’s circadian rhythm, its natural clock.

Fast forward several decades… technology constantly emanates that stimulating blue-white light, and “office hours” often extend well past the traditional workday.

Physiologically, bright lights boosts serotonin, making us more alert; whereas dim lights increase melatonin, making it easier to fall and stay asleep. Unfortunately, the body reacts to light, no matter the time of day. Similar to the noonday sun, the bright blue-white lights from computers, tablets, video games and phones can throw off the body’s circadian rhythm resulting in a poor night’s sleep.

Chester County Hospital’s Director of Wellness and Community Outreach Julie Funk, MS, RD, CDE, LDN, said, “From a health perspective, not getting enough sleep can trigger effects in your body such as your immune response.” A decade ago, she noted, a study tracked 153 men and women's sleep patterns for two weeks before exposing them to a cold virus. Those with appropriate levels of sleep, around eight hours a night, were more likely to stay healthy than those who slept an average seven hours or less.

Not getting enough sleep can also lead to weight gain. Lack of sleep makes you tired and fatigued, making it less likely that you will be active and get enough exercise. Lack of sleep ultimately can increase appetite by altering our hunger/fullness hormones (leptin and ghrelin), making it more likely that we choose less healthy foods. “When you don't exercise and you eat more, you gain weight. When you gain weight, you are susceptible to a whole other slew of health problems -- among them, diabetes,” Funk added.

Those who sleep less than five hours a night, on average, are three times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. “If left unresolved, weight gain and diabetes,” Funk explained, “put you at greater risk for heart disease – and that is where we start the slippery slope.”

Here are a few tips for giving yourself … and your tech … some rest:

  • Set rules for yourself and your family about when, where and for how long devices can be used.
  • Turn off the phone, TV or computer at least one hour before bedtime.
  • Change your device’s settings to use a warmer light-emitting hue, if that option exists.

Preserving Your Posture

When you use your phone or computer, the angle at which you hold your head has a huge effect on the muscle strain in your neck and back. When you tilt your head down your neck moves forward, your shoulders round forward, and your neck and shoulder muscles contract.

 “Neck pain and back pain are among the most common reasons for doctor visits. They are major causes of disability, lost work days, and high health care costs,” Gose added. “The pain can run the spectrum from mild and annoying pain to severe and debilitating pain that can interfere with work, recreational, or household activities and have a major impact on a person's quality of life.”

To improve your posture and avoid neck pain, Gose suggests trying the following:

  • Hold your phone up at least at shoulder level.
  • Don’t slouch. Sit straight up so that your ears are directly over your shoulders.
  • Place your computer monitor squarely in front of you at eye level, so you don’t have to twist, tilt or strain to see the screen.
  • Move the monitor so that it is about an arms-length away from your eyes.

Finally, he recommends, get away from your desk for five minutes every hour to reduce muscle soreness. During this time, re-align your posture by sitting or standing upright, perform some simple neck stretching, and relax your eyes for a few minutes. Intentionally powering yourself down throughout the day can help re-boot important aspects of your health.

Chester County Hospital’s Trish King, Certified Diabetes Educator, contributed content to this article as part of her role on the Employee Wellness committee.

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Views expressed are those of the author or other attributed individual and do not necessarily represent the official opinion of the related Department(s), University of Pennsylvania Health System (Penn Medicine), or the University of Pennsylvania, unless explicitly stated with the authority to do so.

Health information is provided for educational purposes and should not be used as a source of personal medical advice.

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