Let’s twist again: moving and writing at ‘crunch’ time

There are lots of stages of a research project when we need to put in sustained focussed work where our body is in essentially the same shape for hours at a time, for days in a row, for weeks or months in a row. We’ve already kind of covered this in ‘What is the best writing posture?‘ and ‘The 5 stretches that kept me going during my recent final book edit‘, and even ‘A few wrist stretches for editing‘.

In other words, I write a version of this blog post every time I edit a book. And yes, I’m currently finishing up a book, so this is influenced by my experiences of editing. But I’ve also had these experiences while doing archival research, and others tell me about feeling like this at the bench with a pipette, or while coding or attending back-to-back online teaching and online meetings. And I’m sure you can think of experiences in your research that are similar.

I find, and this is a common experience, that stillness and repetitive movements lead to discomfort. I feel tired in a bad way, and everything hurts in a bad way, and I don’t even sleep well. Whereas if I’ve been active in lots of varied ways, I tend to feel tired in a good way, I tend to feel energised, but also calmer and find it easier to sleep. So here’s how I deal.

1. In times of confinement to the desk, incidental movement is limited.

I sit in a particular place, not moving much. I might slightly move my hands or fingers, maybe my head… typically in quite small and repetitive ways. The rest of my body is mostly motionless.

Other kinds of tasks do encourage incidental movement: like teaching, meetings in the office, or field work. Those research tasks encourage you to gesture wildly, take the stairs to get to the conference room for your next meeting, carry heavy items across a site, etc.

So I use the incidental movement structured into these more active kinds of tasks to inject incidental movement back into confined task times. Instead of scheduling online meetings back-to-back, I put in a five minute walk to simulate getting to the next meeting venue. I set up my online classroom so I can teach standing up.

I guess you could get even more creative here. Every time you download a new ebook from your university library, stand up and do some dumbbell complex movements to simulate getting heavy books down from a shelf and carrying them back to your desk, for example.

2. Movement is likely to be in the frontal plane—facing forward and reaching forward.

My screen is correctly placed an arm’s length in front of me, the keyboard a forearm’s length in front of me. Therefore movement to the sides (lateral) or while twisting (rotation) are likely to be reduced.

When I am out-and-about doing out-and-about research tasks, though, they can involve lots of full spectrum movements. I will turn, twist, scan and reach out. I am looking to see who or what is behind me, what is in my peripheral vision, and interacting with a three-dimensional world. So again I can think about how to bring that into my desk-bound experiences.

If I only have time for a quick break, I stretch my arms out wide to the side, and bend side to side; and then twist around. I find it helps to lead with your eyes: so look up and around, moving your eyes and even your head. These give me lateral and rotational stretches for my arms, shoulders, back, neck and eyes.

3. Similarly movement is likely to reach forward or downwards, and upward reaching is likely to be limited.

Do we reach overhead when we are out-and-about? I find I do quite a bit: writing on a whiteboard, standing on public transport, getting equipment down from a high shelf, or putting your luggage in an overhead locker.

I start by simply by stretching both hands above my head. I keep my arms long and straight, stretching towards the ceiling. Can you bring your arms a little bit closer together, maybe even get your palms to touch? I count to 20 seconds, and then shake my shoulders and arms out. You can add this overhead stretch to the lateral and rotational twists as well.

4. Whether I have been standing or sitting all day, my body has been in one posture.

It’s easy to sit at a desk all day, and then sit at a dining table for lunch, and then sit in the car to commute and then sit on the sofa after work… spending the whole day in pretty much the same position. Change it up (if I’ve been sitting, stand up! if I’ve been standing, sit down!). Maybe I’ll get more creative (especially if I am at home) and lie down, or squat, or sit cross-legged on the floor. I’ve started commuting by ebike, and I like to run local errands on foot to change things up.

If it’s time for a proper break, you can get outside—with a dog or a ball or a kid or a friend—and just play around to naturally make you move in more directions.

Obviously a structured and efficient way to get your body into some varied movement is to do that thing called exercise. If you are dancing, playing a team sport, going to the gym or running through some yoga movements, you are going to be moving all of your body in all kinds of varied ways.

Even some chores can be helpful. Probably going from working at your desk to washing the dishes won’t give you a lot of varied movement. But reaching up to dust those cobwebby corners, or digging potato trenches, or hanging the laundry out in the sun to dry will all use lots of different movements.

In other words, it’s approaching another Australian summer, so it’s time to edit another book, so it’s time to remind myself that I need to twist again. Maybe this reminder was useful to you too!

The book I am editing is called Writing Well and Being Well for Your PhD and Beyond: How to Cultivate a Strong and Sustainable Writing Practice for Life part of the Wellbeing and Self-care in Higher Education: Embracing Positive Solutions series. If you are interested to hear more about the book, I previewed three sections from the book in this conversation with the series editor Associate Professor Narelle Lemon: you can watch again on YouTube or listen to the podcast.

Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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