Today’s article is written by Suzannah Windsor Freeman, founding editor.
Butt-in-chair: we writers have come to equate that phrase with dedication, sometimes to the detriment of everything else in our lives.
Earlier this week, my husband and older boys were watching the Olympic women’s marathon on television. I was about to pull out my laptop to do some writing, but something about the event made me pause.
There they were, some of the most elite female athletes in the world, running like tomorrow might never come. The one thing that kept echoing through my head was, “Wouldn’t it be nice to get up and run. You know—just run.”
I suddenly felt so…stagnant. It had been a long time since I’d gotten out of the house by myself to get some fresh air and exercise. Nursing twins, toilet training a toddler, and chauffeuring my eldest to extra-curricular activities were taking up most of my time; what was left over was devoted to writing.
Butt-in-chair had become my life.
In that moment seeing those women just run—all I wanted to do was throw on some shoes and bolt out the door.
Could Your Writing Be a Health Risk?
Rarely do we think of writing as a risky pastime, barring the possibility of falling off your chair or stabbing yourself with a pencil.
But what about our physical health? Have you been ditching your daily exercise to squeeze in a longer writing session? Could you, in fact, be risking your life?
Maybe that sounds a little dramatic, but consider the following:
Think you’re okay because you’re not overweight? Maybe not. Telegraph.co.uk writes, “Lack of exercise ‘worse for health than being obese’:
[A recent study suggests] “cardiorespiratory fitness, which is developed and maintained by regular physical activity, is a better predictor of mortality than obesity,” Dr Weiler, from Imperial College Healthcare Trust, in London, writes.
Right. So, should we be worrying less about how our bums look in jeans, and focusing more on increasing exercise and regular movement throughout our day?
If that’s not enough, here’s an even more direct statement from Mail Online’s article, “Poor diet and lack of exercise blamed for bad health“:
“A ‘couch-potato lifestyle’ which leaves a man or woman idle, overweight and eating the wrong foods is more likely to put them in hospital than smoking-related diseases […]”
I’ll remember that quotation next time I pass someone smoking in the street and am tempted to pass judgement. Maybe what I’m doing to my body is just as detrimental.
Taking Time to Exercise Can Make You More Productive
Forget about the detrimental effects of a stagnant lifestyle for a moment, and think about the positive aspects of engaging in regular exercise. Did you know that taking time out of your busy schedule to be active can actually make you more productive?
Medical News Today writes that according to research presented at an American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting, “Workers’ quality of work, mental performance and time management were better on days when they exercised.”
Science Daily reports that research on the effects of exercise at work suggest that “it is possible to use work time for exercise or other health-promoting measures and still attain the same or higher production levels.”
So, no need to feel like you’re missing out by scheduling a daily workout; it might even help you write more (and better) in the long run.
Writing Success Is Irrelevant if You Flunk Out of Life
My philosophy is, “You can’t take it [your writing] with you.” What good is being a successful writer if you flunk out of life?
I’ve always been accustomed to taking several brisk walks throughout the week, but carrying twins to 37 weeks hasn’t exactly helped my silhouette or my fitness level, recently. I’m still struggling to recover, but I know I could be doing more to help myself.
Watching that marathon made me realize a few truths:
- Sometimes we sacrifice our health in pursuit of another personal goal
- Being published means nothing if you lose your health
- As much as family and friends want you to be successful, they need you to be healthy
If, like me, you’ve been putting your health on hold lately, in favour of another personal goal (whether that be writing or something else), will you join me in making a commitment today?
Making a Change for the Better
It’s not enough to simply say, “Exercise more!” The main question is, “How are you going to exercise regularly?
Start by identifying the best time of day for you to get 30 minutes of exercise, then decide what form of exercise is most sustainable for you. Do you love to walk or jog? Swim? Cycle? Play sports? Throw on an exercise DVD?
Because taking all three of my youngest out at the same time is extremely difficult, I’m pretty much housebound during the day. So, I’ve made a deal with my husband: I get dinner started, and as soon as he gets home from work, I go for a half-hour walk (and listen to short stories on my mp3 player). He keeps an eye on whatever’s cooking while I’m out, and we all eat together when I get home.
It’s only been a few days, but so far this system has worked wonders for my mental health. I suspect physical benefits will soon follow.
Aside from getting regular exercise, here are some other things to keep in mind:
- Move more during the day. Cleaning the house, washing dishes, hanging laundry, playing with the kids—these are all opportunities to add more movement to your day. You might try wearing a pedometer to keep track of how many steps you take.
- Eat healthy. At the very least, this is one area of my life I’m happy with at the moment. It’s easy to create quick, healthy, and inexpensive meals for your family. Have a look at my post, 7 Cheap and Healthy Meals for Starving Writers, and follow my Quick Recipes board on Pinterest for more simple ideas.
- Drink plenty of water. One strategy I’ve used for several months is to fill a 2-litre jug in the morning and drink it all before bed. Watching the water level in the jug is a great visual reminder of whether or not I’m keeping hydrated throughout the day.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m no athlete, and I don’t plan to run a marathon any time in the near future. Neither do I intend to give up all my favourite foods or join an expensive gym.
All I’m asking is for us writers to take a good, hard look at what we’re doing to our health with butt-in-chair mentality. Yes, there are times we have to buckle down and just do it, but there needs to be overall balance in our lives.
Do you think butt-in-chair mentality helps writers achieve their goals, or does dedication to our craft sometimes cause us to risk our health? What are your personal goals for balancing writing and health?
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- Free Online Weight Loss Course. Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center provides this sensible approach to slow and steady weight loss. Videos, podcasts and free printable worksheets are included.
- The Busy Mom’s Guide to Writing. This digital eBook package I created includes tons of time savers and strategies for streamlining your day so you can make more time for writing, spending time with your family, and looking after your personal health. It also includes a recipe booklet with 30 quick, healthy and simple meals, and a menu planner. Learn more and see the free preview here.
Join the discussion
Marylin Warner says
Thanks for a terrific post!
It must be in the air; I was watching the US/Canadian women’s soccer match with my husband, feeling guilty that I had a deadline and needed to get back to the computer. I stayed put and enjoyed every minute!
Your post reminded me that last year, when I was swamped with editing work and chomping on Advil because of sore shoulders and back, I made a decision: for every 2 hours at the computer I had to get up, go out of the house and take a 20 min. walk. I felt better, our dog loved it, and my husband joined me. Then gradually, in the Colorado winter, I did less and less.
Now I’m going back to it. Thank you for the reminder!
I’d love to get out for a 20 minute walk every couple of hours, but at the moment that’s just not possible for me. Of course, I rarely get two solid hours of work in at any given time, these days! Great strategy 🙂
Kody Wynters says
Thanks for the wonderful post! And it’s so true when you said “writing success is irrelevant if you flunk out of life.” It’s always a drag (at least for me) when I have to actually get up from my chair, change into a pair of gym shorts, and find my sneakers, but once I actually get moving, it’s really exhilarating!
I also really like Marylin’s resolve (for every 2 hours at the computer, go for a 20 minute walk). I’ll probably do the same thing, except change walking to biking.
Again, great post!
I feel the same way about going for a walk when dinner is almost ready and I’m exhausted from a long day with the kids! The thought of it makes me want to crawl into bed, but once I get out in the fresh air, I love it.
I have to take a break now and then. Sometimes I’m able to read/write/edit for a pretty good stretch, but then my brain gets overloaded and turns to mush. Then I spend a few days watching movies and playing video games and cleaning house. I enjoy my BICT, but I know I need more than that to keep my ADHD brain happy.
Nothing wrong with taking a few days to do not much. Sometimes we just need that mental break!
Miss Peg says
Many years ago I mastered the art of walk and texting, it’s a little harder with touch screen phones but with the modern age comes a new challenge. Why sit and write when you can do it on your way to the shops or something similar? I like to think I’ve got some of my best work done on the go. It’s naturally not going to be perfect and sometimes I stick to dialogue (when writing fiction) and then filling in the blanks. But it’s a perfect way around the issue. It also allowed me to make use of that ‘wasted’ time.
That’s an interesting strategy! I’m actually the only person I know who doesn’t own a cell phone, and has never had one. I’m sure this trick will work for those who have their phone on them most of the time. Kind of makes me wish I had one!
Claudia Cruttwell says
Great post. I have COMPLETELY put all exercise on hold this past year in order to complete my dissertation, which is the first third of a novel. I am fatter than I’ve ever been and have lost all my fitness. All I’ve managed each day is to walk the dog. Enough! My novel may never get published, and what good is an A grade if I don’t stay fit for my family. I already knew all this, but your post has voiced it for me. Thank you.
Ah, school will definitely keep you on your bum, if you let it! Glad this post came at the right time 🙂
Joanna Penn says
Hi Suzannah, great post and something I think about a lot as the back pain has just begun for me. Back pain is one of those nebulous things that could have many different kinds of causes – including sedentary writing behavior 🙂 So I have started walking for 40 mins every morning before writing and also in the evening. I have also bought Nuance Dragons speech to text and have started training myself to use it. It’s quite hard at the moment but I know of several authors who “write” while walking which is clearly best for health. I want to continue writing for a very long time!
Hi Joanna! First, let me say congrats on signing with an agent. I loved your recent podcast with Iain Broome, as well. Very interesting.
I’ve suffered from back pain and sciatica for years, so I know your struggles there. Funny you mentioned speech-to-text software; I looked into it a while back when my wrists were giving me trouble. Never thought of using it for writing while walking, though, and that sounds right up my alley!
If you do manage to master the technique of ‘writing’ while walking, please write an article about it!
Hi Suzannah, First let me say I salute you and all those other writers who have young families and still find time to write. You are all wonder women.
It is so hard to find time to get up and get going. My better time is morning and I have been trying to walk after putting daughter on school bus. Some mornings I carry a notebook and recently managed to write a full synopsis on the hour walk. Hopefully, I am able to decipher the scrawl when needed. Some times it just good to take in the fresh air. Thanks for great post
Thank you, Marie, for your ‘hats off’ to writer-moms! Notebooks are so handy and portable for taking along on a walk.
Arun Debnath says
Thanks a million and one for the very real life-saver advice. I’m not a writer of your or your subscribers’ calibre but even I sometimes neglect my health issues. Modern writers are lonely souls and no wonder many of them die early as they, I like me, neglect their health at the cost of one more line. Is it worth it? Your posting should be a gentle reminder – at least we won’t die of ignorance. And Marilyn’s idea of a regular break is a fantastic for a writer’s physical and mental health. Best wishes to you all.
Arun Debnath, London, UK
Thanks so much, Arun! I just can’t imagine wanting to be a successful writer who is too unhealthy and busy to exercise or spend quality time with her family.
Great post. And yes, I do think that the “butt in chair mentality” we have been imposing on ourselves is risking our health.
kathryn Magendie says
I use “butt in chair” when I’m trying to avoid writing the new novel for some reason – maybe I’m stuck, or maybe I’m afraid the new book will suck, or maybe I worry I’ll disappoint readers, etc etc etc.
I’m a firm believer in exercise and eating healthfully (I used to be a personal trainer) — but I had to learn the hard way to stop pushing myself so hard. Now, I take some time off, and when I go on vacation, I really do “unplug” — it helps my writing rather than “hurting it.” People read advice from writers who say they write 24 hours a day, never watch tv, eat sleep and dream their writing every minute of every day, have been writing since they were in the womb, etc – but guess what? for most of us, we just do the best we can! We’re human, no really? 😀
Love this post.
We writers do tend to push ourselves into ‘burnout’ mode, don’t we? You’re right about needing to unplug now and then, to rest both body and mind.
Suzannah, you’re so right–as always. There’s a writer in my critique group who’s always sending us reminders to get up and walk, at least a few steps. Thing is, it’s not just about health–although that’s a HUGE consideration; I mean, what do you have if you don’t have your health, right? But it’s also about writing better. It’s so easy to become a couch potato (or chair potato, haha) when we’re deep into a first draft and the words are *flowing*, or we’re on a revision binge, whatever. But a large part of what we writers do takes place in our heads, not on the page. A walk around the block, a run through the park with the dogs, a quick repotting of a plant… It doesn’t just kick-start our sluggish cardiovascular system, it also kick-starts our brain. Just keep a pen and notepad in a pocket somewhere 🙂 Thanks for this post, Suzannah!
You’re so right about a large part of what we do taking place in our head. That’s why exercise is so important!
Dianna Zaragoza says
This is one of my more passionate topics 🙂
I went from 180 to 150, mostly from cutting sugar and the amounts I was eating, and just walking. Never even broke a sweat.
I did the pedometer and the folding-one-piece-of-clothing-and putting-it-away workout. Worked great. Getting up for a short walk before or after writing can help get the mental juices going as well. ANY walking helps – don’t think you have to strap on spandex and go to a gym for it to count – EVERYTHING counts. Aim for 10,000 steps a day. I’m no athlete, but I’m fit and it’s a great way to clear the mind, or get it working again. Sometimes I take a recorder with me while I walk, and record ideas for later.
Totally agree with you on this one.
I used to use a pedometer, and found it to be a good reminder of how much I was active or slacking off during the day!
Darcy Flynn says
Boy, do I so get this! When I started writing three years ago, I sat and sat until I had major hip flexor problems. Debilitating and painful! For a solid year, I saw chiropractors and medical doctors and went through a combination of physical therapy, cortisone shots and targeted stretches. It has been a year and a half and I still haven’t fully recovered. Now, I get up every hour I’m writing and walk and stretch. I make sure I take breaks, listen to music, run a quick errand, something, so I don’t relapse.
Thank you for this post. Great reminder for keeping the balance. 🙂
Thanks for sharing your experience with us, painful as it must’ve been! Glad things are starting to look up for you.
Diana Douglas says
This is so important! Last Jan. I started working out 5 days a week and it has literally changed my life. It’s like brushing your teeth, it’s not an option–you just have to do it to stay healthy. Look at this way. You can’t write if you’re sick, or dead.
I agree that starting to exercise regularly has a huge impact on your life! So glad to hear you’ve gotten yourself on track.
Theresa Milstein says
Excellent points, Suzannah. And to be better writers, we need to recharge–to live. If anything, it gives us new material.
Definitely gives us new material! I always think of my best ideas when I’m walking.
Excellent post! It took me about 11 years to realize that I was using my kids, house, etc. as excuses to not regularly exercise. So it’s great that you’ve caught yourself so soon after having twins. It would be so easy for you to excuse yourself from exercise with all that you have on your plate. For me it was about always putting myself last after my kids, house, and part-time business.
Now I’ve been regularly exercising for over a year, aiming for every other day as a manageable goal. If I miss a day, I don’t give myself guilt, I just try for the next day. I plan to expand my exercise beyond my treadmill (I’ve mastered reading at a fast walking pace), stationary bike, and yoga to include one weekly swimming session. The Olympics may have triggered this, but I realized that I missed swimming laps like I did when I was a kid on my swim team. I also am more mindful of standing while doing some computer work. My kitchen island is the perfect height for checking email. The recent reports about the detrimental health effects of sitting for long hours have scared me!
Thanks, Cat! I used to walk every day when I had only had two children, but it’s much more difficult with four! I’d been excusing myself long enough; time to get back on track 🙂
Ileandra Young says
You are so right. The twins have been my excuse too, but I can feel myself getting flabbier and slowly because every free second is giving to catching up on sleep or writing.
I’ve been talking about going back to Zumba classes and think this really is the time to do it… Since I’m passed that all important 12 week mark.
Wish me luck!
I remember you were expecting twins, too, Ileandra!Hope all is going well with them, and that they’re healthy and happy. I share your concern about that extra twin-flab, though! It isn’t pretty 🙂
Pat Wooldridge says
Suzannah, I really like this post! Though the Butt does need to be in the Chair, I haven’t seen anything that says that has to continue throughout an entire day. We do need to get our writing/art/other creative processes well underway during our day. Balance, though, is a great thing too. A good walk—and it doesn’t need to be a long one—will energize us even if we may not think it will. Really, with all that brainwork, our brains are becoming a bit mushy, so aren’t apt to give us the impetus we need. So, I just DO it. Get up, go out, walk a bit, or hang the laundery OR bring it in, deadhead a few roses, enjoy the birdsongs in my yard, vacuum a room or two, and while enjoying that change of scene and activity, I can still mull over where my story, or my current art-in-progress is going next. Back in my chair I’m often surprised by the energy I feel, that turns into more words on the page, strokes on the paper. It’s all good.
Nothing better than a good walk, I say. It’s something almost everyone can do, not too strenuous on the joints, but excellent for both body and mind!
Kevin Day says
Nice article Suzannah. My wife and I both struggle to find the time to exercise but I will share yours words of wisdom with her and try to get us both motivated into taking that extra time to exercise during our days.
It’s well worth the effort, Kevin! Good luck 🙂
Maggie Bolitho says
“When health is absent, wisdom cannot reveal itself, art cannot manifest, strength cannot fight, wealth becomes useless and intelligence cannot be applied” said the ancient Greek, Herophilus. As writers, we forget this at our peril.
I think the stereotype of the writer in a dark room, cigarette smouldering in the ashtray, whiskey bottle in the bottom drawer is still fun but it predicts a very short career span.
Thanks for a great article!
Sonia G Medeiros says
Definitely think we need to move our bodies if we want to be healthier and more creative. It’s so stimulating to get out, get moving and breath some fresh air (if we can). Even just getting up every 20 min or so and doing 5 min of exercise would probably make a big difference.
That’s a good point! Sometimes I come up with my best ideas while walking the dog.. and then I have to hurry home to write them down before I forget. x)
Actually, the butt in chair mentality has affected me physically. I work at a desk in marketing while writing part time, so I’m in a chair a lot. While I’m not overweight (though who couldn’t lose a few pounds, really?) I have been visiting the chiropractor for nearly a year now after having problems with my hip and finally being unable to deal with the discomfort anymore. The reason for those problems: sitting too much in a chair. What has helped? Regular (every month or so) to make sure my hip and spine are aligned, and a regular exercise routine. Regular exercise and vitamins have helped me to have more energy, too, so I feel like I’m able to concentrate and be more productive when I do sit down to right, as well.
Awesome post. This is a dilemma for me. I’ve always been passionate about working about and physical fitness. Currently, I’m in the final stretch of my WIP—can probably get it publishable in 6 months. I’m very excited about that. At the same time, I’d really like to run the marathon this year as well as get into MMA (a 6 month gym membership). Truly, there’s not enough time or energy in the day to do all of this. I know if I took the time to train for a marathon, it would eat up a lot of my writing time.
It really depends on your priorities. For me, writing edges out a win. I know that physical fitness and working out will always be there for me. But the writing world is under heavy fire. 10 years from bookstores probably won’t exist and royalties will be even lower than they are now. But 10 years from now, as long as I eat healthy, I can still start running again and pursue learning MMA. I also consider Stephen King’s writing advice: do it 4-5 hours a day.
Now in the micro, I admit I like to alternate my days. Yesterday I did a good workout. Today I’m doing no physical activity, just going to read/write.
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