The Perils of the Sedentary Indie

A week before I fly to San Francisco for my first GDC, I visited my family back in Chicago for the weekend. My plan was to go back to Des Moines Sunday evening so I can spend the next week preparing for the conference.

It’s now Day 6 of that weekend due to a pulled back muscle, and I blame my niece.

More accurately, I blame myself for not taking care of my body better. I’ve been super focused on making progress on Stop That Hero! end game victory and defeat conditions, especially in the last few weeks. In terms of my health, though, I felt under the weather in the previous week, and sitting at my desk for many, many hours on end is punishing on your posture.

Driving for 7 hours to Chicago last Friday didn’t help.

Then I saw my niece, and while playing with her, I discovered that jumping up and down makes her giggle. If you have a niece, you know that her laugh is one of the best sounds in the world, and so you keep doing whatever it is that makes her laugh. So I kept jumping up and down for much longer than I’ve ever done in what is probably years.

And throughout the rest of that day, I went from feeling perfectly fine to feeling a light twinge in my back to being unable to move my arms, legs, and head easily.

I was in a lot of pain, and driving for another 7 hours was not going to happen until I could sit for longer than 5 minutes without feeling like I was being tortured.

The Difference Between Having a Job and Owning Your Business

Now, if I was still working at a Day Job, I’d most likely get paid time off, and here would be an excuse to actually take advantage of it! One of the benefits of a good job is that they pay you if you can’t work, bizarrely enough.

But since I’m an indie developer who isn’t finished creating his first game yet, let alone earning income from sales of said game, every day I’m unable to work equates to money lost. I’m burning through savings as it is, and the productivity hit from being sick or injured isn’t helpful.

When you’re sick, you feel miserable and unmotivated. Maybe you can do only half of a day’s work today? When you’re injured, it can either be no problem (I don’t need my ankle to type code), or it can be debilitating (if you’re in extreme pain when you lift your arm, you probably shouldn’t be mousing with it).

But either way, if you run your own business and are unable to be productive, it’s frustrating. It’s especially damaging if you don’t have an automatic selling system in place. Ideally, if I had games to sell, I could make money while I sleep, or while I’m on vacation, or even while I’m unable to work. Until then, it’s almost as if you are carrying the entire business on a tightrope, and you’re just trying to make it across to the other side before you fall. My savings are providing me with a safety net, but I’d rather the money go towards more productive uses.

While I haven’t been able to work on code this last week, I did take advantage of the downtime to catch up on an Internet business marketing audio course I’ve been meaning to finish. I brought my game development notebook with me, so I spent some time going through it and remembering how Stop That Hero! has progressed, as well as thinking about the future direction of the project.

In the end, I tried to make the most of my situation, so this last week wasn’t a total productivity loss, but it’s still frustrating that I couldn’t get back to work.

Taking Care of Your Indie Self

Days before I pulled my back muscle, I recall thinking, “Self, it’s been some time since you last did a good stretching session or even went for a walk. You should probably start getting your body moving again before you regret it.”

And I said, “Ok, Self, sure. I’ll get moving as soon as I finish working on the combat mechanics.”

There’s lots of excuses for not taking care of yourself. Gym memberships are too expensive to justify when you have no income. It’s too cold to go outside. Driving downtown to the excellent Des Moines skywalk system to walk indoors is too inconvenient. You woke up too late (again), blowing past your scheduled exercise time.

But in the end, they’re excuses, and eventually your body pays for your health debt.

If I was more strict about taking an hour every morning to do stretches and exercises, maybe my back muscles wouldn’t have been so shocked by all the sudden jumping and movement, and I wouldn’t have lost a week of productivity. Maybe if I didn’t care about feeling silly, I could have at least walked up and down the stairs within the building I live in.

And if nothing else, the mental clarity that exercise brings should be enough of an incentive if I insist on having workaholic tendencies.

Cliff Harris of Positech Games advocates archery as some fun physical exercise. David Michael, author of The Indie Game Development Survival Guide, lifts weights. A colleague of mine makes an effort to walk periodically throughout the week (and I should really take up his offer to join him once I recover).

Even with daily exercise, it might not be enough. Noel Llopis writes about his standing desk experiment and the news that sitting for prolonged periods of time can be deadly. I’ve been wanting a standing desk myself, if only for the change in posture.

How do you take care of your physical health as an indie game developer? How much of a priority do you give to exercise in your life?

9 comments to The Perils of the Sedentary Indie

  • I’ve been a self employed programmer for 16 years and definitely spend the vast majority of my time sitting at the computer. I’ve noticed that over the years my back and shoulders and arms got really weak – and I deserved it! To combat this sedentary out-of-shape-ness, I’ve taken to going for a 30 minute brisk walk every single day, rain or shine, for over five years.

    I almost never have any backaches anymore, and I’m not fat! =D More importantly, a little walk in the early afternoon is the perfect break from coding – enough to clear my mind, put me in a better mood, and often times I come up with fresh new solutions to problems that I’d been stumped on.

    Not only is physical activity good for your body, it is amazing for your mind! It staves off boredom, squashes depression, and makes you appreciate the analog real world beauty all around you a little bit more. A little fresh air and vitiman D can really make a big difference. I’ve been doing this daily walk ritual for such a long time that I’m miserable if I miss it for even one day. It has become a really positive part of my life!

    Grab your ipod and headphones and set out for a hike this afternoon and you’ll find that when you return to work you are twice as productive.

  • Thanks for the tip, McFunkypants!

  • Daniel Hanson

    Why not play an exercise game? I’ve been playing Dance Dance Revolution and In the Groove for years, and it keeps me healthy despite spending hours in front of a computer. Dance Central on the Kinect is also lots of fun; I’d imagine similar games for the other platforms (e.g. Just Dance on the Wii) would be just as fun.

  • hope you get better soon! :S

    I personally like to ride my bike as much as i can.

    But, maybe the important thing is to get the habit of doing it, and keep doing it, no matter if its, walking, going up and donwnstairs, or playing DDR.

    And yes, your body will be happy of being less time in front of the desk.

  • So sorry to hear about your health misfortunes. Wow this is uncanny how close to something that happened in the fall for me. I had about a 10 hour car ride after a weekend where I too spent way too much time jumping around with my two brothers and two nephews in one of those silly inflatable “moon bounces” you can rent for parties. That pounding on my lower back combined with a years of sitting at a desk that was adding up finally did my lower back in. I had to do two months of physical therapy as well as completely change up my entire routine. I used to run a 5k almost daily but I could no longer do that without too much pain and stress on my back. I also encountered the horrible frustration of not knowing how I could work on my games without being in really bad pain while at the same time knowing that since I’m self employed I wasn’t making any money if I wasn’t working on games. This combined to add more stress to my back as well!

    In fact months later I am still not 100% unfortunately. In case it helps here is what I’ve had to work into my schedule:

    I set a 1 hr timer that reminds me to at least stretch for 5 minutes every hour.

    I bought a “comfy lap” laptop table that allows me to work from a back friendly posture in my bed to mix up the time I spend sitting at my desk.

    I walk for at least one hour every day rain/snow/shine to help replace my 5k runs I can no longer do and make sure I don’t completely go crazy. I recently moved to the country again and am withing walking distance of 3 state parks so I have plenty of beautiful trails to explore. Plus I find the walks help break the day up and help me go over any problems I’m coding or designing.

    I got a whole ton of good stretches and light strengthening exercises from my physical therapist to help recover and maintain good support and posture.

    I wish you the best of luck! I’m still dealing with a decent amount of discomfort on car rides and sitting. I hear it can be an incredibly slow process recovering from back ailments and sitting at a desk is absolutely horrible long term for our bodies. Basically I’ve reached an OK holding pattern where I can still get a lot of work done though you can’t slack off on the physical exercise or the back issues mount I find.

    Get well man!

  • Thanks, HybridMind! My biggest concern is that I’ll be driving back to Des Moines, just in time for two flights to get to San Francisco, and then I have a week of GDC, and then two flights again, then a few days before I get on another flight to Europe! The timing of this injury couldn’t be worse. B-(

    And that’s without the pressure of preparing for my trips, which I can’t do until I get back to Des Moines. It’s a lot of stress, especially coupled with the lack of income, as you say.

    But I’m confident I can get back in shape. But daily 5k runs? Really? B-)

  • Hey I said “almost daily” :D and yeah I’ve never been good with moderation. I’m one of those people that actually really enjoy running. After doing it for so many years it became something I really feared missing a day off. Probably the natural endorphin withdrawal… hehe. But seriously if you’re into running a lot a 5k isn’t really all that far and you can moderate your pace to determine the level of workout. It got so that on my “day off” I would often feel so jittery I’d go for a 2.5k run or maybe a 10k walk.

    Back on the topic of backs. I doubt you’d have a chance to see a doc but what I was able to get from one of those “stop in and see a random doc” places was some generic prednisone which was able to reduce the muscle swelling in my back and give me some pretty great relief from the pain. I lucked out in that it was an orthopedic surgeon on call the day I stopped by.

    I wish you luck man back issues suck so bad.

  • Yeah, on Sunday I went to the only open “office”: the emergency room, and the doctor there said he thought it was pulled muscles and prescribed heat and painkillers.

    I went to see a chiropractor on Monday, and while all he could provide was some minor relief therapy that helped, the car ride to and from was killer. I was in so much pain that standing, the one thing I was mostly fine doing, was no longer pain-free.

    For the rest of the week, I’ve been trying to relax, and I’m hopeful that today will be the day I can drive again. I might need to make frequent stops, though. I hope by Sunday I’m fine enough to fly in a couple of planes to GDC without a problem.

  • [...] wrote about an experience I had with a pulled back muscle in The Perils of the Sedentary Indie. Shortly before I was scheduled to go to GDC in 2011, I was visiting family in Chicago. I have a [...]

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