Fitness for Software Developers (and Other IT Professionals)

Exercises

A software developer these days is almost certain to engage in some kind of activity to maintain their fitness. Well, I may be stretching things a little :), but there are certainly more than a few developers who exercise pretty regularly; fitness is the “in” thing to do after all. I however found that many developers are either doing the “wrong” kind of exercise or focusing too much on some muscle groups to the neglect of others.

Every profession puts different kinds of stress on different parts of the body, this means that some exercise is very beneficial in some occupations while being almost harmful in others. Here, I will attempt to give some pointers on the types of exercises and muscle groups it would be best to focus on if you’re a software developer (or indeed any other IT professional).

Focus On The Core

For the uninitiated, by “core”, I mean your stomach, or more precisely, your stomach (abs), side (obliques) and lower back muscles. Your core muscles are arguably the most important muscles in the body. As software developers we sit at the computer all day, this puts a lot of strain on our lower back muscles, especially when we slouch (I know that I can slouch even on ergonomic chairs :)). This puts us at high risk of damaging our lower back in some way, so it certainly behoves us to strengthen our lower back muscles. However – with core muscles – balance is key. If you work your lower back, you need to pay equal attention to the abs and obliques. An imbalance in your core muscles puts you in very high risk of injury and since the core supports your whole body, it can make you a very unhappy developer. And by unhappy, I mean you’ll be in some possibly significant pain.

So, how do you work your core muscles? Well, despite what TV would have you believe, the machines of the AB* variety (e.g. ab roller, ab doer etc.) are not necessarily better than plain old crunches and leg raises. In fact I have found them to be worse in many situations. Not to mention the fact that you need the machine with you if you want to use it, where as for crunches and leg raises all you need is an even surface (floor, bench etc.). So I favour crunches and leg raises for your abs and obliques. For lower back, try doing some back extensions, they are surprisingly hard and also surprisingly effective. If you don’t know what back extensions are, then Google is your friend :). Oh, alright, it looks like this:

Back extension

No matter which exercise you do to strengthen your core muscles, make sure you do it regularly. As a developer who sits at the computer all day, the worst thing you can do for yourself is ignore these muscles. Do not ignore your core!

Engage Many Muscle Groups At Once

We are all busy people and only have so much time to devote to our exercise program. It is therefore surprising how much time people spend doing exercises that engage at most one muscle group (wrist curls anyone?), while ignoring exercises that can potentially work almost your whole body.

There are two exercises that should be part of just about every work-out you do, I am talking about chin-ups and push-ups. Yes, I know that these are very hard and you usually can’t instantly crank out ten reps like you can with a light dumbbell, which is precisely why most people ignore these great exercises. I would however recommend that you give these a good try and don’t give up. You will slowly find yourself doing better and better and the benefits are tremendous.

Push-ups focus on your chest but will also work your arms, back, abs and to a lesser extent your legs. Chin-ups not only give your whole body a good stretch, but will work your arms, shoulders, latissimus dorsi :), abs, and are also good for your spine. But wait – there is still more – these exercises are great for building lean, strong muscle mass (i.e. you’ll be much stronger without looking bulky).

Your time is valuable, there are games to be played, books to be read, code to be written (that is, complained about how badly it was written in the first place and then re-written to be better :)). So, do yourself a favour and use the exercises that give you the most bang for your buck.

Stretch Or Else

One of the most accurate definitions of old age that I’ve heard has to do with your muscles loosing flexibility and suppleness. I wholeheartedly buy into this theory. Work on your flexibility, if you have time to do only one exercise, make sure it is a stretch. This is not just advice for software developers; this is good advice for everyone.

Always stretch, your arms legs and torso before a work-out (and preferably after as well). And don’t just do those half-hearted stretches to “loosen up”. Push your muscles a little bit, but within reason, you can injure yourself even while stretching. Your aim should be to become a little bit more flexible every week, there is no such thing as too much flexibility. I am not going to go into the kind of stretches you should be doing, there is plenty of info around. My job is to remind you of the importance of stretching. If you can’t touch the ground with your fingertips while standing up, no matter how old you are, you’re not flexible enough (touching it with your palms would be even better).

If you subscribe to this theory you will find that as you get older you will be able to easily maintain your lifestyle no matter what you love doing and you will feel good while doing it. Ignore this advice and you will feel old by the time you’re 40 if not before!

The Good Cardio

Aerobic exercise is a tricky one. As developers we spend the vast majority of our time sitting down. Therefore all of us are aware that we should be doing some kind of cardio activity to balance this out, it is simply common sense. Many people join some sort of local sporting team which is great, have fun with your friends while getting a cardio work out. However, team sports can be prone to injury especially if everyone is very competitive (injury is not good for your body no matter how minor). The other problem is that you usually can’t maintain your heart rate at a consistent level when playing a team sport and this is the whole point of a cardio workout.

Running is therefore the perennial favourite to get a good quick aerobic workout. I agree that it is an exercise that makes you feel like you’re accomplishing something, but a word of warning. Running is terrible for your joints, it is very high impact and your bones and joints take the brunt of it. You probably won’t notice it while you’re young, but there is a very good chance that you will pay a high price for it when you get older.

Therefore I favour either walking or cycling as a cardio workout. Both of these are nowhere near as high impact as running, they can still burn some decent calories, especially cycling. They will still give your legs a nice workout (which is a good side benefit). There are other kinds of cardio exercises, but I do recommend doing one that uses primarily your legs, such as the ones I mentioned. This is so that your legs get a workout along with the aerobic exercises you are doing for your body.

“Executive” Summary

Most of the things I talked about above don’t need to be done at the gym (although they certainly can be). With a bit of ingenuity you can do most of these exercises anywhere (e.g. any likely tree branch is your chin-up bar). So, to recap, I am going to keep this short and sweet:

Stretch, Walk/Cycle, Chin-ups, Push-ups, Crunches, Leg raises, Stretch

Then rinse and repeat. It is in your hands from here on in. All your bases are belong to you!

  • tri-chick

    I couldn’t agree more! As a triathlete, I can attest to the benefits of being fit, not that everyone needs to be a triathlete to attain a reasonable level of fitness.

    A few tips for the office that I find work:
    1 – at least once every half hour or so, get up from your seat and walk around just to loosen up the legs/back. Good for resting the eyes too – can’t count how many times I’ve come back to find an obvious problem in my code ;-)
    2 – use a glass for your water – gives you an excuse to exercise #1, and it will encourage you to drink more. As a side effect you’ll end up getting up more often to use the bathroom
    3 – Do some chair exercises, I won’t go into detail, but there are loads of websites out there that will provide some guidance (http://exercise.about.com/cs/exerciseworkouts/l/blofficeworkout.htm and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEYvmHg3Pw0)

  • http://www.trainerlisting.com.au Personal Trainer

    I find that a good physical workout will not just improve physical fitness but also mental fitness. Often physical exercise will give your mind something else to focus on give it time to “nut” out problems. (There are quite a few studies in this space; I won’t dive into them as I’m not an expert.)

  • http://www.travelunravelled.com dave

    this is all bullshit! what qualifications do you have to give fitness advice?!? Have you don’t any study on this subject at all or have you only re-spouted something you heard in a gym?
    I could pick holes in just about every one of your suggestions, but I won’t do it here. see me in person.

  • http://www.skorks.com Alan Skorkin

    Well most of this stuff comes from personal experience, from 7 or so years of fitness/gym training (some of it pretty hardcore), from a lifetime of trying things out and seeing what works and what doesn’t. As well as that it is wisdom gleaned from many other people, some with decades of experience in the fitness industry. End of the day of course it is my opinion and you’re welcome to “pick holes” :), i am entitled to my opinion and you’re entitled to yours.

  • http://www.travelunravelled.com dave

    Sorry, was too aggressive on my last comment.

    I get pissed off at this stuff sometimes.

    There are postural muscles of your body that keep you upright and balanced, and there are big muscles that you can strengthen (eg. abs, pecs etc). You can’t actually do much to strengthen your postural muscles, and you don’t need to. They’re strong enough to do their job just from every day use. What you do need to learn to do, however, is to control them.

    What people don’t realise is that sitting upright is the position that requires the least energy. People think it takes a lot of effort to sit up straight. The people who think this are generally not sitting up straight when they think they are. They are usually over-concaving their lower back, pulling their shoulders back and contracting their neck.

    I like to think about my body as a pile of boxes on top of each other. If they’re stacked directly on top of each other, it’s a fairly stable structure that you can move around easily. If the boxes are more skewed and out of alignment, it takes a lot more effort to keep them from falling over.

    I suppose a lot of my dispute with the main article is that it’s showing only half of the picture. Push ups are only beneficial if you do them properly (which is surprisingly difficult to do!). Stretching, also, is only beneficial if you do it properly. Without proper guidance you can do a lot of damage.

    An article, such as the one above, can be very very dangerous, because it only tells half the story and leaves itself open to interpretation. I’m sure your friends with decades of experience in the fitness industry will agree that personal supervision and instruction is vital in doing exercises.

    ps, google tensegrity structures.. the human body is a complicated form of a tensegrity structure.

  • http://koheen.com Santosh

    @Dave, yes i agree with you. but i think @Alan is suggesting just the name of exercises that we can get most benefit from his personal experience, now it’s upto to research and go in depth about these exercises on how to do it properly.

    Thanks Alan for this great suggestions.

  • JonTurner

    THIS:
    http://www.mensjournal.com/everything-you-know-about-fitness-is-a-lie

    Go! Read it now, I beg you.

    It is a super-concentrated distillation of fitness and strength training knowledge; the best summary I’ve ever seen. In particular, two brief illustrations IMO are key — the “Formula for Getting Fit” and “It’s All About Timing”, both on page 4.

    If there is such a thing as a “secret” to getting fit, you will find it there.

    Kind regards.

  • Gary Wheeler

    I agree with most of your suggestions, except for your comments about running: “Running is terrible for your joints, it is very high impact and your bones and joints take the brunt of it. You probably won’t notice it while you’re young, but there is a very good chance that you will pay a high price for it when you get older.” This is a common misconception, promulgated by non-runners. Running, like almost all aerobic exercises, helps maintain joint health through activity and continual motion.

    I am 50 years old, and have been running for the last 20. According to my orthopedist (who treats me for osteoarthritis), my pelvis, knees, ankles, and so on are in excellent health. I have significantly better bone density than most adult men my age. He attributes those qualities to my running. Before you think I’m one of those little guys with no body fat, I’m 6’1″ and I weigh 210 pounds. Running is one of the principle reasons that’s not 275 pounds. I’m slow; I recently finished a half-marathon 19th out of 20 in my age group.

    The reason people have bone and joint problems from running is the same as if they played basketball, bicycled, or did some other sport. They played beyond their ability and developed an injury because of it. It’s not the fault of the sport. Running in worn-out shoes, adding 6 miles a week when you’re a 15 mile-a-week runner, doing a marathon on a whim, all of those are stupid things to do that beg for an injury. It would be no different if I played a pickup game with a bunch of 25 year-olds, and then complained my knees hurt. It’s my own damned fault, not basketball.

  • http://www.etherealbits.com Tyson Trautmann

    Just stumbled on this post as I was writing my own brief blog post on the importance of fitness for software developers: http://www.etherealbits.com/?p=68. Really great stuff in your post. Much of what I wrote was based on my own experience as well, and like you I’ve found emphasis on core and prioritizing exercises that engage multiple muscle groups to be extremely beneficial.