Most Americans spend an average of ten hours a day in a car, at a desk or in front of a screen. The other sad truth is that your body wasn’t designed to sit for long periods of time, and doing so can lower your life expectancy and put you at an 80% greater risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. You’ve heard it until you might be sick of it, but the fact is that moving and stretching are powerful medicines against stress. But as many as 40% of Americans—who prefer sitting on their duff —follow the advice of the late comedian Joan Rivers, who said, “I don’t exercise. If God had wanted me to bend over, He would’ve put diamonds on the floor.”
In 2007, Linda Stone said once she started to work on email, she was either shallow breathing or holding her breath. As she became mindful over the next few days, she realized it continued. But when she would get up and walk around, her breathing was completely different than it was when she was working on her computer.
Over a seven-month period of observing and talking with others, Stone tested friends at her dining room table, using a simple device that tracked pulse and heart rate variability. She also spoke with researchers, clinicians, psychologists and neuroscientists to get a sense of what happens to our physiology on cumulative shallow breathing and breath holding. Her sleuthing paid off, and she gave it a name: email apnea or screen apnea—temporary cessation of breath or shallow breathing while working (or playing) in front of screens.
Stone estimated that 80% of the people she tested had screen apnea, so she wanted to know more about why the 20% didn’t show the same symptoms. As she continued her investigation into the mystery, she discovered the 20% were people who had learned breathing techniques to manage their craft or career: musicians, dancers, a test pilot and high performance athletes.
Chronic breath holding can harm your health, lead to exhaustion and compromise your work performance. Prolonged sitting in front of your screen has been described as “the new smoking.” Research also has shown that chronic sitting in the same position can create other problems such as back and neck pain. Withhold breath throws the nervous system into flight-or-flight mode, contributing to stress-related illnesses like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer. Some studies have found that it is equal or worse than smoking cigarettes. Screen apnea also could explain a related phenomenon known as Zoom fatigue for the legions of people spending hours on end remote working, practicing telemedicine or taking online classes. And with the worsening of the pandemic, more people are forced to resort to funerals, hospital room visits and holiday celebrations—all virtually.
There are a number of actions you can take to prevent screen apnea, keep your natural breathing cycle and maintain your energy and job production.
Chances are screen apnea causes you to use your shoulders instead of your diaphragm to move air in and out of your lungs. You might even stop breathing or hold your breath and not even realize it. Natural abdominal breathing from your abdomen sends additional oxygen to your brain and activates your parasympathetic system (your rest-and-digest response which offsets your stress response). Notice your breathing right now. Do your breaths come from high in your chest or deep in your abdomen? Are they fast or slow? If you’re aware of shallow breathing higher up in your chest, practice abdominal breathing. Take several deep breaths so that your diaphragm flattens downward, pushing the muscles in the abdominal cavity upward, creating more space in the chest so your lungs can fill up. You can’t get as worked up if you force yourself to breathe deeply. Your body can’t maintain the same level of stress with the extra oxygen you get in your bloodstream when you breathe from your abdomen.
Statistics show that just moving around can cut your risk of sudden cardiac arrest by 92%, so don’t park it for too long. When you get moving, physical tension and mental stress melt away, and the solution to a mulled-over problem becomes crystal clear. Experts say being on your feet at your desk instead of sitting can help. Simply not sitting gives you the benefits of exercise.
Stand up, breathe deeply, shake, twist, and stretch out the built-up tension. Take a few seconds to reach high. Let yourself feel the stretch as you elongate your body and notice where you hold tension then release it. Shake the part of your body where you sense tension. As you continue to stretch, bring your attention to each part of your body that has remained tight. Bend over and touch your toes and feel that stretch letting the tension in your body evaporate.
You can improve your breathing and posture right at your desk in the very chair you’re in as long as it has a back. Sitting in your chair, inhale and raise your arms toward the ceiling. Let your shoulder blades slide down your back as you reach upward with your fingertips. Anchor your sit bones in your seat and reach up from there. Place your left hand over on your right knee. Place your right arm on the back of the chair. Stretch lightly for sixty seconds with eyes open or closed. Notice the stretch and what happens inside. After sixty seconds, bring your body back to center. Then reverse the stretch. Place your right hand over your left knee. Put your left arm on the back of the chair for another sixty seconds. Stretch lightly again with eyes open or closed. Pay attention to the stretch, and notice what happens inside. After three to five minutes of repeating this exercise, you will notice better breathing, a renewed energy and improved mental clarity.
Take An ‘Awe Walk’
An “Awe walk”—a stroll in nature where you intentionally shift your attention outward to the natural environment instead of inward—is a great remedy for screen apnea. Not only does it get you up and moving and improve your breathing, it also and clears your mind and gives you a sense of awe from the natural surroundings. So, you’re not thinking about the tight deadline, the unfinished project or the strain in your relationship with your boss. A new study published in the journal Emotion found that a regular dose of awe reduces your stress and boosts your mental health. An awe walk gets your blood circulating and restores your breathing to its natural rhythm.
Screen Glow And Blue-Light Glasses
Most of the technology we commonly use—such as computer screens, smartphones and tablets—emits blue light, which past research has found can disrupt sleep. Workers have become more dependent on these devices, especially as we navigate remote work and school during the coronavirus pandemic. The media have recently reported on the benefits of blue-light glasses for those spending a lot of time in front of a computer screen. This new research extends understanding of the circadian rhythm, a natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours. New research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that wearing blue-light glasses just before sleeping can lead to a better night’s sleep, better career decision-making and contribute to a better day’s work productivity.
The 20-20-20 Rule
Using the 20-20-20 rule can help you prevent screen apnea. The rule says that for every 20 minutes spent looking at a screen, you take a 20 second break, move around and look at something 20 feet away, which relaxes the eye muscles for 20 seconds and gives your brain a much-needed respite. Here’s how the rule works: Set an alarm or time popup for every 20 minutes when you’re working in front of a screen as a reminder to get up from your workstation, deep breathe and stretch. It takes 20 seconds for your eyes to fully relax. Every 20 minutes for 20 seconds walk around the room, hydrate yourself, close your eyes or look out a window—perhaps at a tree, squirrel or some aspect of nature. Take off your shoes and dig your toes into the carpet for 20 seconds. And you’re ready to get back to your screen for another 20 minutes.