Things are looking pretty bleak for those of us who spend each day hacking away at a keyboard. America’s office workers are furiously typing their way toward an early grave.
“Yes Your Desk Job is Killing You, New Study Confirms,” reads the headline of a 2017 Newsweek article.
“I always wondered what dying felt like, but then I got a full-time office job,” comments Elite Daily.
Though they seem dramatic, these headlines are actually backed by epidemiological evidence. Sitting for hours per day is linked to heart disease, diabetes, all-cause mortality; blue light has shown effects on sleep; and working extra hours has demonstrated mental health risks. The evidence all points toward the health issues of a screen-based economy.
As bad as America’s deskbound workers have it, their screen time pales in comparison to a whole population of people for whom the clicking, typing, and screen time is everything. It’s their passion and their job.
This week in Los Angeles, the E3 video games convention is in full swing, and if there’s one thing pro-gamers and weeknight warriors alike can share with people who have computer jobs, it’s how to keep your carpals, ligaments, joints, and phalanges in good shape.
If computer work is destined to kill us, then esports gamers should be the first in the ground, right? Maybe not, gamers and doctors tell Inverse.
At this point, esports athletes and office workers are well aware of the health risks that emerge from 12-hour days in front of a screen. But we’re just starting to come up with ways to combat them.
Dr. Levi Harrison, an orthopedic surgeon in Glendale, California, has a YouTube channel with over 67,000 subscribers and is a self-branded “esports doctor.” He has treated professional gamers, and you’ll find his videos lurking on gamer subreddits from r/Global Offensive, to r/osugame. Harrison also diagnosed Kim Kardashian with “selfie wrist” when he appeared on Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
Basically, if you’ve got an injury that you think came from using your phone or computer, Harrison is your doctor.
A wellness culture of gaming has been born, says Harrison. And while it flies in the face of the traditional stereotypes of Mountain Dew-chugging gamers, wellness culture fits snugly with the prevailing attitude of millennials who are focused more on self-improvement than earlier hard-drinking, heavy-smoking generations. The amount of people googling for self-care help has steadily increased in the past five years, and alongside it the self-care industry has closed in on the $11 billion mark, notes Harvard Business Review.
“I think it’s definitely evolving,” Harrison tells Inverse. “Gamers really are athletes. They should be treated and respected as such. It’s an evolution of the sport with respect to fitness, health, and spiritual well-being.”
Harrison explains that it’s not outlandish that we could learn a thing or two from these intense athletes, for whom thousands of dollars rides on the movement of a thumb or forefinger.
Maybe it’s worth treating our computer jobs like a sport. To do that, you have to train accordingly. Here’s how.
Why We Can All Benefit From a Little Warmup
Pro esports players have to approach the sport and their health far differently than someone who sneaks in all-night Fortnite sessions at the end of the workday. And no one knows this better than 19-year-old Austin “Morgausse” Etue.
Almost overnight, Etue went from an unsigned amateur with something like 300 Twitter followers to a signed professional after he won *Fortnite’s 2018 Summer Skirmish event in Seattle and walked away with the $225,000 prize.
Etue now has over 38,000 Twitter followers and 32,803 subscribers on Twitch. He distinguishes himself as a professional through his speed and accuracy, and trains for sometimes 10 to 14 hours per day.
Before a major event, Etue plays games like osu! before an event starts to get his hands feeling “warm and smooth.”
“I will start my warm-up earlier, when a big event is on the line such as World Cup qualifiers, around two to three hours before the event starts,” he tells Inverse.
Harrison says warming up before playing a high-speed game is incredibly important. The idea is to help increase blood flow to the tiny muscles and tendons in the hands and fingers, which theoretically should help increase a player’s actions per minute — a metric that has been likened to pitching speed in baseball.
The top StarCraft gamers can perform 500 to 600 actions per minute, which works out to around 10 movements each second.
Meanwhile, professionals who sit at a computer all day likely come nowhere close to that threshold. Anyone can benefit from a warm-up that makes fingers more nimble, Harrison says.
How to Prevent 2 Common Keyboard Injuries
Harrison says warming up for a day at the keyboard begins with basic stretches to prevent two common injuries: lateral epicondylitis, also known as tennis elbow, and the notorious carpal tunnel syndrome.
To help keep tendons around the wrist, hand, and forearm loose, Harrison recommends a series of stretches called gliding exercises, which are useful for osu! players — he notes. Osu! is a rhythm-based game where players have to react to different visuals on the screen that are set to music — kind of like Guitar Hero. Players can use a mouse, a touchscreen, or a stylus, but the idea is that you have to be able to use your hands really quickly.
But even people with desk jobs can benefit from gliding exercises. He recommends that gamers do some of these exercises for about five minutes, ideally once every hour.
To start, he begins with some basic stretches, which involve pointing your arms out straight, flexing the wrist either upward or downward, and pulling back gently on the hand, holding for 30 seconds. Harrison has a series of videos that go through things step by step, but Inverse tried them out, too. (Disclaimer: They’re pretty challenging if you’ve never done them before. I did my best.)
From there, Harrison recommends a series of movements, but a few that he highlights, particularly on the osu! subreddit, are called middle flappers, bottom flappers, and, finally, the “queen’s wave.” The motion for each is the same, a side-to-side movement of the wrist.
But wrist orientation makes things feel a lot different. To do the “queen’s wave,” for example, you keep your arms extended, fingers pointed upwards, and shake the wrist back and forth 10 times.
For fuller motion, you can also rotate your hands in a circle, 10 times in each direction, with a fist or an open hand.
For carpal tunnel, he’s developed another series of exercises that target both nerves and tendons in the hand. One of these is a deconstructed fist with four parts: a claw, a “tabletop position,” a half-fist, and a full fist, which can be done slowly and in combination with some basic warm-ups.
He encourages people to run some warm water over their hands or wrists just to keep things loose. There’s also nothing wrong with taking a break every once and awhile — for at least five minutes every hour to shake out your wrists and hands (and maybe make some time for flappers). Ideally, you would stand up during this break and walk around, but he adds that pedaling feet back and forth under the table works fine in a pinch.
Stretching and warming up is a good starting point. But it’s only one aspect of injury prevention. There’s a bit more to combating screen fatigue that requires a little more effort each day.
An “Algorithm of Wellness”
When Inverse spoke to Harrison, he was fresh off of a consultation with a Beat Saber player — a VR game where the player has to slice through flying objects (beats) set to a rhythm. This athlete had crushing tendonitis in his elbows and forearms, but Harrison diagnosed a more pressing problem that stems from general fitness. Together, they developed a nutrition plan and an exercise regimen.
“We have to have what I call an ‘algorithm of health and wellness’ for gamers or for people who do a lot of desk work. It’s not even just gamers,” he says.
There’s an emerging industry now dedicated to esports fitness and wellness. In 2018, consumer insights publication LS:N Global referred to nutrition in esports as a microtrend. Now, there are massage balls and low-calorie specialized drinks marketed as an alternative to energy drinks that were once a staple of gaming culture to help them recover from training and competition. And brands are starting to make an appearance at the college levels, too — the University of California Irvine’s esports team has recently partnered with Hyperice, a sports medicine and wellness company, and will sponsor two more “health and wellness esports scholarships” for athletes with “a background in sports medicine and passion for esports.”
“It’s really cool to see where it is now and where it’s going in the health and wellness aspect. This is kind of like the next chapter right now; you’re going to see a lot more about that,” Middleton tells Inverse.
Middleton was once a competitive Halo player — the last tournament he competed in was MLG Dallas in 2012, a Halo 4 tournament. He has spent years on the forefront of emergent esports fitness culture. Largely, players are turning to exercise to stay cognitively sharp, as they sit at the computer for hours on end, he says.
“With esports, the most important thing is going to be endurance and stamina. If you’re going to play for long periods of time, especially during multi-day tournaments, which are usually the format for most games,” he tells Inverse.
Cardio is trendy for gamers right now, especially in light of research suggesting that exercise can improve cognitive function. But Middleton also adds that players tend to mix things up, incorporating push-ups and other upper-body exercises with bodyweight squats, followed up by calf raises.
“Especially if you’re sitting for a long period of time, those are the two that are very important to do just for your day-to-day,” Middleton says of the squats and calf raises.
Perhaps the biggest idea that esports trainers, athletes, and gamers are now embracing is this: To perform your best at the computer, you have to step away from it.
Middleton says there’s a real importance of a nightly ritual that can help one unwind from the cognitive stimulation of the screen — whether that’s Halo or an Excel spreadsheet:
“It can be highly personal — reading a paperback book or listening to relaxing music and drinking hot tea,” he says. “You can also take a hot shower, too, that will actually cool your body temperature down, because that’s something that your body will naturally do during the first sleep stages.”
What We Can Learn from Esports Athletes
Naturally, office workers and competitive esports athletes face different levels of stress that rides upon their physical performance. Like traditional athletes, those of the esports variety are making a living with their bodies, which takes a toll at the professional level.
The stresses of any office job can be large, but they pale in comparison to players who travel, compete, and live, all while tied to a screen.
“[Teams] really put an emphasis on the health and wellness of their players because they are dealing with a lot of problems, things like repetitive stress injuries, burnout, and other mental health issues. As of now, there’s still a huge gap even at the professional level,” says Middleton.
As the sport grows, so do the support networks needed to keep athletes competing at tournaments where thousands are on the line. Meanwhile, it’s unlikely that office workers will soon have their own support staff to help manage the physical requirements of a computer job.
We’ll have to do it ourselves, and, fortunately, the increasing number of esports athletes focused on stretching and wellness give us plenty of people to emulate.
If pro-gamers aren’t willing to succumb to the ills of digital life, we shouldn’t be either.