Working at a computer all day is bad for you. Sitting in a chair all day, staring at a bright screen, contorting your wrists around a mouse and keyboard, and hunching your shoulders forward for hours will take a toll on your health eventually. It doesn’t help that for the rest of the day we’re sitting down driving, slouched over our phones, and loafing in front of the TV. If you want a long career in animation, it’s absolutely essential that you learn how to take care of yourself and fight the effects of sedentary life. Gravity punishes laziness, and you can see examples all around you.
I consider it mandatory for myself to exercise every day. I love getting in the gym and moving heavy stuff, showing gravity that I won’t go down so easily. This doesn’t mean I’m always pushing myself to the limit, but every day I need to do something. Some days I’m just going for a couple quick strolls around the building or making it a point to stretch once in a while at my desk. You don’t need to train like an athlete to stave off RSI and back pain, but the more fit you are, the less susceptible you’ll be. A great place to start is FoundationTraining.com, which has been a mainstay of my routine for years, and can be done easily and safely by just about anyone. Start slow, find a trainer, coworker, or good article online that can point you in the right direction, and get out of that damn chair once in a while.
Another element that’s been crucial to my health is a good ergonomic setup at work. Step one is a standing desk. The single best thing you can do to relieve the stress of sitting is to stand up! It takes a while to get used to, but it makes a world of difference once you’re conditioned to it. If your employer won’t provide one, I have made due in the past by building a large box out of plywood and putting it on top of my existing desk. If you need one at home, I’ve had one for years that I made on the cheap from IKEA parts. It should be set to elbow-height so that your forearms are around a 90-degree angle with your shoulders relaxed. Get a stool to sit on when you’re tired and you’re well on your way to living healthier.
Second priority is switching from a mouse to a pen stylus. Twisting your wrist over a mouse is terrible for your joint and tendons, and if you blow out your wrist, it becomes very hard to do your job. Like a standing desk, computing with a stylus takes a while to get used to, but after a few days it will feel completely natural and pain-free.
Setting up your monitors at eye-level will prevent neck pain from looking up or down for long periods, and putting them at arm’s length will save strain on your eyes. Consider lowering the brightness, wearing tinted computer glasses or using a software like f.lux to tint the screen.
Hotkeys are another crucial component of fending off RSI. Setting all of your most-used commands to easily-reached keys reduces repetitive arm motion and contortion of the fingers. Years ago I was introduced to programmable key pads (X-Keys and Genovation work great) and I literally can’t work without them anymore. If I take mine home for some reason and forget it, I’m headed back home. The benefits to speed, productivity, and comfort are undeniable in my experience.
Other “nice to haves” include desk-mounted elbow rests (I use Ergo Rests), a soft lamp if your room is dimly lit, and good shoe insoles or an anti-fatigue mat.
Finally, here’s the thing that no one likes to hear: eat better. Literally nothing you can do will counteract the negative effects of a poor diet in the long term. I won’t go into a long lecture about what to eat and which diet is healthiest, since I’m no expert and that can be different for everyone. That said, you know what you shouldn’t be eating! You know that the chips in the vending machine don’t do you any favors. You know that the office donuts don’t “fuel” your animation. You know that soda … ah hell, you get the point. If you’re really honest with yourself, you know these things already. Take responsibility for your health, and figure out the specifics as you go along. A healthy animator takes less sick days, has more energy to put into their work, and has a more adventurous life outside the studio.
I hope that this helps someone out there turn their health around, or prevents bad things from ever happening. Going through life in self-inflicted pain is unnecessary. I should say, however, that I am no medical professional. I highly recommend consulting your doctor about diet and exercise, having your workspace reviewed by an ergonomic professional, and getting started in the gym with a qualified trainer. Use common sense and go at your own pace. Just remember that something is better than nothing!
Now stand up!