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The Embodied Writer: How to get physically healthy in a sedentary desk job

I have decided to start inviting guest posts when someone has something to share that will help you become better, happier writers.

The first such post is by Sarah Boak, who is a health and wellness writer at Whole Health Thriving. Sarah has kindly shared a post about how listen to your body and keep physically fit despite all your hours at the keyboard.

The Embodied Writer, by Sarah Boak

As writers, we can often feel like heads on sticks. Our focus is on the mental world, where the cognitive tussles of structure, logic, and creativity take priority, and the body is easily forgotten. Yet as writing is such a desk-based, sedentary pursuit, it’s vital that to stay healthy we become more embodied in our writing practice. But how to do this, when it seems that the very conditions of our occupation limit our opportunities for physical movement?

I’m now a health and wellness writer, but previously was a part-time PhD candidate (for almost a decade), and an academic for some years during and following. As such, I had spent a significant amount of time chained to my desk before I became interested in exercise and wellbeing. As I approached middle-age, I started to realise how unhealthy I had become, and how my body felt creaky, inflexible, and sore. Coming to this realisation, I needed to find something that would motivate me to do something about it. But how to undo many years of unhealthy habits, when sedentary work is your bread and butter?

There are different ways we can think about our health and wellbeing, and some have more benefit than others. There’s the objective route of looking at what the scientists tell us. Sitting at a desk for long hours has been clearly proven to increase health risks for conditions including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. An expert statement published in June 2015 by the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM)[i] collated the research to provide some guidelines for employers to help ‘curb health risks of too much sitting at work [in] the public health context of rising chronic diseases.’ Whilst we may know this objective reality, this doesn’t easily translate into action. We know drinking too much alcohol is bad for us. We know that fast food and takeaways don’t help our bodies. We are aware we are supposed to exercise to stay in good condition. Yet many of us don’t follow this advice, and bad habits become ingrained, subtly permeating our lives until we are not even aware of them.

I would suggest that there is another approach which is more motivating than following the scientific advice. It is the most practical way to boost our health and keep us investing in our physical wellbeing. It’s an awareness-based approach, often linked to mindfulness and meditation practices. It’s called ‘embodiment’. Mark Walsh, Director and Co-lead Trainer of the Embodied Facilitator Course explains embodiment as ‘the subjective, felt sense of the body inside out through awareness’.[ii] He outlines that we can become aware of our bodies, not as a separate entity but through understanding ourselves being a body, through practices of ‘awareness, attention, intention, posture, movement [and] breathing’. In this way we connect with a sense of our whole selves. Here, ‘Sarah Boak’ as a writer exists not only in the mental realm, where I fashion these words, or just through my fingers that are tapping on this keyboard, but as a whole-body experience. It is possible for me to notice my feet on the floor and the sensations therein, whilst writing. I can bring attention to the speed and regularity of my breathing. I can notice that other parts of my body move a little whilst typing – shoulders up and down, arms and elbows out a little, through the mechanics of keying in words. This kind of attention to our bodies in daily life gives us a huge amount of information about ourselves. It encourages us to be in relationship with our whole being. This perhaps sounds a little woo woo and ‘New Age’, but it’s fundamental in order to be a full, healthy and happy human.

Bringing attention to ourselves holistically is the springboard to change. I feel a twinge in my back, and so I adjust my posture. I notice that I get out of breath more easily going upstairs, so I factor in more exercise to attend to that. I take time in my day to just be with my breathing and to relax my muscles. I use embodied yoga postures to have a sense of how I’m feeling emotionally, through my physical practice. As Mark Walsh says, embodiment ‘brings choice’. Having deeper knowledge of ourselves, we can make wiser choices to support our full health – body, mind, and emotions.

To bring a more embodied approach to your life takes only some simple beginning steps, and you need little or no equipment to do so. Here are some tips for beginning:

Befriend your breath
Paying attention to your breath is helpful because it is an anchor that is always with you. An easy way to begin is to start when you first sit down to write. Give yourself ‘breathing space’ to notice the in breath and notice the out breath, without trying to change them. Close your eyes for an extra sense of how your internal world is. Once you’ve connected to your breath, and spent a little time with it, you might notice a natural sense of calm. It’s easy then to take your attention to the rest of your body, scanning through with awareness to any points of tension or pain, and trying to bring some relaxation there. This process only needs to take a few minutes, but it will set up your writing period with a sense of body awareness.

Regular movement at your desk
Yoga teacher Adriene – whose videos have been watched millions of times on YouTube – encourages her students to ‘find what feels good’. Through your day, whilst you’re writing, build in little pockets of movement to explore this maxim. By setting a timer – I use the ‘Stand Up!’ app on iPhone, but you can use anything, including the one on your cooker – we can make sure to stand up and move about regularly. Find what your body likes. Do you want to move your hips in a figure of eight? Does bending down to touch your toes feel good? Stretching the arms overhead like a morning stretch? Move in a way that feels good and necessary, to really begin the process of bringing greater awareness to your body.

Standing desks are another way to combat the sedentary writer’s life. Although research has shown that just standing by itself isn’t enough to combat the issues with a sedentary life,[iii] it’s certainly important to keep standing regularly. Shift the height of your desk if you can – move from sitting to standing where possible. Use devices like an Apple Watch, which will nudge you each hour if you haven’t stood up.

If you’re concerned about the impact that regular movement will have on the flow of your writing, then leave your sentence unfinished to give you an easy route back into your flow.

Walking and other exercise pursuits
Factor in short periods of exercise into your day and aim for increased frequency rather than longer sessions. Three ten-minute brisk walks through the day – one in the morning, one at lunch, and one post-work – are much more beneficial than a lazy 30-minute post-work amble. The writer’s mind benefits from time alone to ponder, and walking is an excellent pursuit for the development of creative ideas, as Merlin Coverly’s 2012 book The Art of Wandering: The writer as walker suggests. On a walk, there is time for our ideas to percolate and co-mingle. Not only does our mental world benefit, but in walking, we connect our mental awareness with our body awareness. It’s the perfect holistic embodied pursuit for writers, and it’s of great cardiovascular value.

In terms of other kinds of exercise, one of the approaches I have taken is to have a stationary exercise bike just behind my chair. If I have a video to watch, as part of my research for a piece, I’ll hop onto the bike whilst I watch it. If it’s a short video I’ll up my cycling pace and do a sprint, a longer one and I’ll alternate sprinting and a more regular pace. Again, here I notice my overall embodied experience – where is my limit and do I want to challenge myself? How am I breathing, and what is my heart rate like? I use exercise as a way to better know myself. I also understand my tendencies of procrastination and physical sedentariness – my preference for sitting – but try to think more broadly about what my body needs.

Stretching for writers
The body loves to move, and once we bring more embodied awareness, we realise just how many ways the body can move. Yoga stretches can be very beneficial to writers. The upper body often feels like it needs particular attention – the wrists, arms, and shoulders – but in actuality the whole body can benefit. Simple exercises like rolling the shoulders up and back (then reverse), rotating the wrists in both directions, and standing and circling the hips first clockwise and then anticlockwise, could be a simple part of each writing session. This limbers us up before we sit to write, and can also be done at the end of our work period.

Yoga poses to try are a seated twist, where you sit cross-legged with an upright spine and place the left hand on the right knee, the right hand behind you on the floor. The standing pose Tadasana – or mountain pose – is both grounding and elongating, with a sense of energy lifting the body upwards at the same time as the feet are firmly connected to the floor. From here – with the arms down by our sides – we may enjoy sweeping the arms upwards in a wide arc, palms meeting in the middle above the head. We can gaze up at our hands, and perhaps if it feels comfortable lift the chin so there is a small back bend. Then bring the palms down in front of our heart in a pose of prayer. In this posture we can connect with a sense of intention both for our embodied practice, and for our writing. Other more advanced poses include bridge pose, which opens the chest, shoulders and hip flexors and feels great after a session in front of a laptop, and any of the lunge or warrior poses which stretch the legs and hips out. Websites such as Yoga Journal[iv] provide easy to understand pose libraries for even the beginner yogi.

The embodied writer is one who really understands that this wonderful occupation is richer and more enjoyable when we include our full selves – our physicality, our emotions and our mental capacity all come together to support our craft. Paying attention to our body will only heighten our wellbeing and our ability to bring ourselves more deeply into our present experience.

Sarah Boak  Sarah Boak is a health and wellness writer, Buddhist meditation teacher, vegan yogi and a mum, who lives with her family in the beautiful English countryside in Hampshire.
www.wholehealththriving.com
facebook.com/wholehealththriving
Instagram.com/wholehealththriving

[i] http://www.getbritainstanding.org/expert_statement.php

[ii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYacDPOWsmE

[iii] https://www.vox.com/2018/11/20/18102913/standing-desk-health-exercise

[iv] https://www.yogajournal.com/

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