Realizing that I’m not Super Human: Part 1

Most of the content on this blog is technical in nature, as is my twitter feed. I wanted to step to one side, and talk a bit about one of the little things I’ve learned about my body: I’m not super human any more.

I’m one of those people that have been really lucky with my general physical and mental health over the years. I used to play a lot of rugby and got the odd injury, but nothing a long hot bath couldn’t fix. Modulo catching the flu a few years ago I don’t really get ill very much.

About this time last year I began to get a small amount of back pain when sitting for a long time, or when walking around for over an hour or so. This was the first warning. Over the next few months this got worse to the point it was now an electrical tingling all down one leg whenever I did “too much” walking or playing with the kids. I self-diagnosed this as some kind of sciatica and didn’t pay too much attention to it. This was the second warning sign. After my back finally “went pop” a couple of times in one week leaving me unable to walk properly at all, I finally went to a private physiotherapist and asked for some advice. Luckily for me this was all covered as part of my Red Hat compensation package and I didn’t have to pay a thing, which I know really isn’t the case if you’re paying for healthcare yourself.

The Physio did quite a lot of tests and then announced that my posture was, put bluntly, total crap. There was no magic pill nor any special sports massage to make it better, but everything could be fixed with a little bit of hard work. I had to make some immediate changes: my comfy armchair was out, a standing desk was in. 10 hours sitting in a chair coding was bad, hourly breaks were enforced. I was given some exercises to do every day (which I did) and after about 6 weeks of visits I was discharged as the tingling had gone and the back pain was much less. The physio suggested I do a weekly Pilates class to further improve my posture and to keep everything where it should be.

This was waaaay outside my comfort zone, as I’d never done any kind of exercise or group class before. I went to a group class and immediately realized I was at least two orders of magnitude less capable than everyone else. I could barely touch my knees when they could all touch the floor. The instructor was really kind and showed me all the positions and things to do and not do, but I still felt a bit weird in a class of mostly middle aged women dragging them all down to my level. I asked the instructor if he did 1:1 classes and he said yes; Since then I’ve been doing a 1 hour Pilates class every other week and, against all odds, I’m actually quite enjoying it now. My posture is much better; when I run I feel less like I’m flopping about and now have a stable “core” of muscle holding me all together. I can throw my children around in the park, and not worry about discs in my back bulging to the point of rupture. My breathing and concentration has improved, and if anything I guess I’m slightly more productive with hourly breaks.

Talking to other men, it seems quite a few people also do Pilates, but for some reason are a bit embarrassed to admit it to other people. I suppose I was initially too, but not now. My wife does Yoga, and I guess to me Pilates feels like a more physical Yoga without all the spiritual stuff mixed in. I’m not quite a card-carrying evangelist, but I really would recommend you try Pilates if you sit at a desk all day hunched over an editor all day, like I used to. Doing 1:1 classes is expensive (about £80/month) but it is 100% worth it with the results I’ve had so far.

So, the conclusion: I’m not Super Human any more, but that’s okay. If you’ve read this far – shoulders back, chin up, and get back to coding. If you’re interested, want an awesome instructor and you live in West London, give Ash a call.

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Richard has over 10 years of experience developing open source software. He is the maintainer of GNOME Software, PackageKit, GNOME Packagekit, GNOME Power Manager, GNOME Color Manager, colord, and UPower and also contributes to many other projects and opensource standards. Richard has three main areas of interest on the free desktop, color management, package management, and power management. Richard graduated a few years ago from the University of Surrey with a Masters in Electronics Engineering. He now works for Red Hat in the desktop group, and also manages a company selling open source calibration equipment. Richard's outside interests include taking photos and eating good food.

8 thoughts on “Realizing that I’m not Super Human: Part 1”

  1. Thanks for sharing Richard! I’d like to add that it really helps to have a laptop on a stand so the screen is much higher. While it’s no substitute for excercising, it will help keeping a much better upright posture. Any chair that feels very comfy is probably bad (sorry). Get one with proper lower back support (pushing back, forcing you to sit upright) and make sure your knees and arms are bent 90 degrees when sitting (lower arms on the arm rests). Your desk should be level with your arm rests. So first adjust your chair, then adjust your desk to be level with your chair’s arm rests. You can train your back with a saddle chair which are fairly cheap. Or get one of those big balloons you (and your kids) can sit on. And don’t forget to step away every hour or so. Stay healthy folks!

  2. Nice read, I’ve had something similar, but in the neck and went to some local physiotherapist. After several visits where he prepared some fixes, he gave me several exercises to do over the day, which I did plus some strength training especially for the neck.
    After 3 months it started to get better and now after about 9 months the pain is gone. The Pilates class wasn’t offered to me, but I think I will try this as well as my general posture is terrible too.

    See you, Raoul

  3. Welcome to the broken backs club :-/ I wish the problem doesn’t repeat for you, because the conditions worsen with repetitions or when not treated properly. Thanks for sharing the story, hopefully this convinces at least some people to not neglect their back and do some exercises regularly.

  4. Hey, welcome to the club! My pilates class is pretty much either the elderly, people in rehab, or a couple of people who are as tall as me. It’s great though; super glad I started doing it a couple of years back.

  5. Welcome to the club.
    I used to do something similar to Pilates in Brazil, then did pilates
    Now i need to look for Pilates or something similar here.
    But yes, not 20′ s anymore

  6. You once told me every time you had to look at the Yum source code you were losing a few minutes of your life.

    I’m pretty sure that’s the reason your body and mind aren’t those of a perfectly healthy young man any more. :o]

    More seriously, I probably should follow your example and make a few changes as well…

  7. I’ll happily tell everyone that Pilates is great for otherwise sedentary desk workers. I’m lucky enough to be in a weekly group session of just five people, which is great.

  8. We use standing desks at work, and I bought one for home (it goes up and down). Not cheap, but better for posture and overall health. We weren’t meant to be sedentary all day.

    At nearly 60, still get up every day at 4:30 AM and walk, best thing for the health to get up and do some exercise to get the body moving. My back problems were not so lucky as I had a kidney stone after flying to and back from India. No joy when you can’t find a comfortable way to sit, stand, lie down or even be still.

    Yoga is on offer here and many men partake as well. We also have Pilates and a gym in office, so it is there as needed. Keep on moving and you’ll be better for it.

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