Taking care of your most important tool – part 2

Welcome back! Last time we talked about posture as a way to take care of your most important tool: your body. This week I want to talk about muscles again, and mention another thing that you can do to prevent pain and other problems related to our work: maintenance!

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Your body runs on a system

When it comes to the maintenance of the muscle system specifically, our body works best when we have a regular diet of moving it around and relaxing it. Work and relaxation is a rhythm that is natural to more parts of our bodies but it’s very apparent in the muscles and it quickly becomes clear when we don’t give them what they need.
Ever since our tasks, over the years, developed into more and more fine, detailed or repetitive work, some of our muscles are used a lot. And others are not.

My body, for example, naturally wants to hunch forward. My elbows want to clutch to my sides and my shoulders want to move to the front.
The muscles at the front of my shoulders are shortened because they are not used a lot and actually compressed by my posture, this makes that I feel very uncomfortable when I actually stretch them by pulling my shoulders back in a better position.
I’m looking down on my phone, drawings and writings a lot, so I’m pulling at all the muscles at the back of my neck and back of my shoulders that way. They are constantly at work and rarely relax. It’s no wonder I got problems. Those muscles get stiff and strained and send the symptoms down my arms and hands. My arms get very tired very soon, and combined with typing a lot on an iPad and pressing on pencils, pens and styluses I have developed some strain in my hands and wrists.

And I am not the only one. Illustrator Lois van Baarle (Loish) even had a period when she drew so much that she developed a horrible pain which made her not being able to draw at all for a while. And illustrator Charlie Bowater recently posted a helpful video with some practises to train your hands since she, too, had problems. I will share that video down below.

So, how can we prevent these kind of injuries?

Maintenance and prevention

Your body has it’s own user manual, it needs certain things to keep running, and like a very well run machine, it needs regular upkeep too. Basic maintenance is something your body does by itself. It transports millions of molecules and impulses through your body every second to the right places. At night it shuts down to do bigger tasks. It’s complicated processes run in the backgrounds of our lives, 24/7. But there is only so much my body can do to prevent an overload when I’m using my muscles in the way I described above.

Here are some basic things you can do to keep tension from turning your muscles into hard iron cables. It follows the principle I talked about earlier: work and relax.

Basics

Your food provides the building blocks from which your body regenerates itself. Nutrient food and enough water will have a positive effect on your body as a whole. I want to specifically mention water here because dehydration is a very common problem, and I don’t know about you but I often forget to drink when I’m creating.

Drinking

Your muscles need a lot of water. It’s their main component and it’s used for building muscle tissue, keeping it flexible and for repairing it. Your muscles consist for 70% out of water and when you’re dehydrated your body pulls water from the muscles back into the blood again. This is why you should drink enough water during workouts too because you’re already putting some heavy duty on those biceps and triceps.

Getting enough exercise
This can be really helpful to keep the muscles you don’t use a lot in good shape. Like I said: muscles like to be moved around to stay flexible. You can get your exercise in multiple ways, from doing sports, walking, cycling, dancing, cleaning to specific practises that train the muscles. It all helps to keep you loose and fit. Pick something that you like to do, it might not be comfortable in the beginning, but I noticed after a few weeks that my body is actually asking for exercise now. I do dancing at home (I can’t dance to save my life but I like doing it anyway) and I train certain areas in my arms, shoulders, back and wrists with eights, as advised by my physiotherapist. The desired outcome is that these muscles handle more and, combined with better posture and stretches, it helps heal from the strain injuries.

When you are doing actual workouts, be careful to let your body heal in between. You are actually pushing the cells in your muscles to the limit and they need to repair themselves again in between. The subject of rest (remember: working and relaxing) also brings me to the next thing that is essential for a healthy body:

Sleeping
Your body does lots of repairing during the night, it relaxes so it can do that work for you while you’re not using those muscles. When you’re rested it’s easier to keep up a good posture too. You’re more active and less inclined to slouch. (And I’m only talking about the physical benefits here) Be sure to drink and eat well during the day and get enough sleep so your body can do it’s thing at night. Then, when you’re awake, you can help your muscle system by doing these things before and after work:

Before and after work
Warm and flexible muscles can take more and are less inclined to damage. A good practise is to warm them up before you get to work, and do stretches in between and after creating. My physiotherapist gave me specific stretches I can do during the day to keep my muscles flexible and to relieve some of the tension. They are super easy and only take a minute each.
As an example, here is the video that Charlie Bowater posted on her social media:

To warm up your muscles you can walk around (you could even do a morning walk outside if that’s your thing) really swing those arms and legs around. Loosen your shoulders and rotate your upper body from side to side. Just make sure you’re not cold and that your muscles feel loose. Try to keep that relaxed feeling up during work.

While working

I already talked about posture. Changing your position regularly is helpful. I can put my small Cintiq on an easel or put my desk higher so I can work standing. What is really important too (and humans in general are so bad at this) is taking breaks. There are two kinds of breaks: macro breaks and micro breaks.

Micro breaks
This is a tiny change of your current posture, position and release of tension. When you are not using your hands you can let them hang beside you for a bit. You can look away from the screen for a bit when you need to think and turn your head and relax your eyes. You can move your legs under your desk every once in awhile. Relax your shoulders, bring your head back and bing up your chest, straightening your back. Those kind of things.

It can be tricky to remember this because you’re so engrossed in your work but your body will thank you for making it a habit. Speaking of being engrossed in your work: do you recognize sore muscles in your hand after drawing for a while, or feeling like the muscles in your fingers are locked in place and have trouble relaxing? It might be that you are pressing too hard on your tools. I do this a lot, and with some easy adjustments, I don’t even have to. The Wacom settings on your tablet has options to adjust the pressure of your stylus. You can use a darker pencil or pen so you don’t have to press too hard. I know we often unconsiously do this when we are in our bubble of creating, so it might be good to think of ways to help yourself a little.

Macro breaks
These are longer breaks in which you actually stand up, walk around, do some stretches, get a drink of water and relax. Do this regularly, every half hour to 45 minutes for example, it doesn’t have to take very long either. You can spare those five minutes to give your body the rest it needs from your hard work.

I hope you got some useful info out of this post. Feel free to share it with anyone who might benefit from it. My goal with these posts is to remind people of the risks that involve being glued to our desks and our tools for hours on end. I hope you feel more empowered to try and prevent the kinds of injuries that steal away our productivity, our time and, ultimately, our joy.

Action: in the comments, mention one tip from this post that you can implement right now that can help you take care of your most important tool. Then start implementing it!

In the next and last post in this series I will talk about why we don’t notice these kinds of risks until it’s too late, and about what to do if you already have problems with strain, fatigue and pain.

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4 comments

  1. Excellent post, and I loved part 1 as well! I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic lately. I used to have a really solid daily yoga routine, and took lots of walks and I felt so much better. With more work I’ve let that lapse, but its time to get back into taking care of myself! I did some simple stretches yesterday in the middle of a painting session, and I felt so much better.

    The tip from your post I need to focus on most is taking macro breaks! I am the worst with taking breaks, but whenever I do my body is so grateful for it.

    • You’re on the right track Veronica! It’s good to be aware of it, that is the first step. I’m very horrible with taking breaks myself but I’m trying to find natural moments to take breaks like when I finished drawing something or after one comic panel. Alarms and such only annoy me haha and then I’ll “just finish this” and remember I wanted to take a break an hour later. 🙂

  2. This is a very needed series for me right now! I have been sensing the need lately to get my body in shape more… Especially my hands/wrists. I’ve been doing better about taking breaks (in fact, Sarah Dahlinger’s recent post on productivity helped me on this point!), but I know I need to take better care of my hands. Due to my HUUGE workload over the last three months, I’ve been experiencing a lot more pain (and it doesn’t help that I already have hyper-mobile joints), so I’ve had to wear wrist braces a lot more than usual.

    The exercises in the video should help me a LOT! It’s funny because just yesterday I was searching for good wrist exercises. Now I’ve got some to try! I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

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