Fitness as a Software Engineer and Homeschooling Mom

I have always been passionate about fitness. I grew up riding horses, then became a collegiate runner. After my college years, I have dabbled with triathlons, Pilates, CrossFit… the list goes on and on. My point is, fitness is really important to me. I enjoy movement and being physically fit.

In the winter of 2019, I decided to make a HUGE career shift. I enrolled in Lambda School and this summer finished their full-stack developer certification program. After completing the Lambda School program, I was fortunate to find a full-time position as a software engineer. I absolutely love my new job and new profession! I am challenged to learn something new everyday, and feel very passionate about the problems I get to solve. I can spend hours coding and completely forget how much time has elapsed. Unfortunately, this can be a double-edged sword. I end up sitting for prolonged periods of time as I work on coding problems. If I am not careful, I can end up sitting for several hours without moving anything other than my fingers that tap on the keyboard. When I fall into the “sit and plow” trap, I have been known to not move my position for several hours on end!

Houston we have a problem 🚀

Keenly aware of how unhealthy this sedentary work lifestyle is, I tried various techniques. My first thought was to use a stand-up desk (which in my case is the kitchen counter or bedroom dresser depending on what room I am working in). While I still use this technique during my first few hours of morning work (i.e. before my children wake up), standing up all day resulted in swollen ankles and legs that felt like tree trunks🌳. While some people do just fine with standing desks, it isn’t an option for me for eight or more hours of work.

Scientific method applied to fitness 🔎

We are taught the scientific method in school: make an observation, ask a question, form a hypothesis, make a prediction based on the hypothesis, test the prediction, and iterate (use the results to make new hypotheses or predictions). Khan Academy has a wonderful article on the scientific method. I decided to use this method in my search for optimizing my fitness while excelling in my work.

I made an observation — I was sedentary in my new work compared to my previous work (homeschooling and translating). The funny thing is I was more active as a translator because I couldn’t work for over 50 minutes without a break. My brain just wouldn’t let me. The problem with programming is I can easily work for hours before realizing I haven’t taken a break.

I asked a question — how can I be more active as a software engineer? This is a rather broad question that I can keep reusing as I iterate over different tests of maximizing my physical activity AND work productivity.

I formed a hypothesis — I made the hypothesis that working out an hour in the morning each day would produce the following desired results: good level of energy, overall positive mood, feeling physically fatigued by the end of the day, sleeping well at night, and maintaining my weight (which I measure by how my clothes fit me since I currently don’t have a scale).

I made predictions — I predicted that an hour of power walking a day combined with stretching and then stretch breaks sprinkled throughout the day (as I feel needed) would be sufficient to obtain my desired results.

I tested my predictions — I walked an hour a day for two weeks straight and stretched intermittently throughout the day. After two weeks I noticed the following: I was still sitting for sometimes three hours in one working session without moving, after which my back was screaming for mercy and my legs were starting to feel crampy. While I was fatigued at the end of the day, it was more mental than physical. I was sleeping okay at night. My weight was creeping up slowly but surely (jeans never lie — stretchy leggings do so beware!).

I iterated — I have changed my workout regimen in various ways. The rule of thumb when testing a hypothesis is trying to change only one independent variable (variable changed by the experimenter) per iteration to verify that variable resulted in changes in dependent variables. I tried to follow this rule of thumb — these were some of my iterations:

  1. Hour of power walking in morning followed by:

a) 50 burpees every hour during work (400 burpees total)

b) 30 burpees every 30 minutes during work (480 burpees total)

c) 50 minutes of work with 5 minutes of movement (jumping jacks, stairs, etc)

d) 30 minutes of work with 3 minutes of movement (jumping jacks, stairs, etc)

e) 30 minutes walking in park during lunch

2. Thirty minutes power walking in morning followed by: (see list a-e above)

These are just some of the many iterations I tried. I tried them usually over a week each to test effectiveness.

My findings 💡

I found that the more I moved during the day with shorter cycles, the better. I felt better and less sleepy during the day when I got up and did brief spurts of activity every 30 minutes. Three minutes was more than enough to get my body warmed up and the blood flowing freely to my brain again. I noticed my back was no longer sore, and my legs were not swelling.

What was interesting was that walking for 30 minutes in the morning helped improve my work productivity AND yielded the same results as an hour power walking (maintaining weight, improving mood, and good sleep at night). When I walked for an hour a day I noticed I was more prone to feel fatigued in the afternoon, and on some days had overall lower energy. 30 minutes of brisk walking (don’t forget to pump those arms!) however had the same results but with less fatigue during the day.

After tweaking things a bit, I have finally come up with a regime that works well for me. I currently stand up and work for three hours in the morning, go for a 30-minute walk, stretch, play with my kids while homeschooling, then move for 3 minutes every 30 minutes. I alternate how I will move each day and stick to that movement for the day (examples are jumping jacks, squats, stairs, bouncing on the trampoline, etc.) Of course, I am eternally curious as to how I can improve my activity and work productivity. I will continue to, hypothesize, test, observe, rinse and repeat.The question (how can I optimize my fitness and productivity) will stay the same for the meantime 🙂.

My conclusions 🌟

Our bodies are not meant to stay in one position for prolonged periods. This excellent article by CNN states that sitting for long periods of time is a risk factor for early death, and recommends taking a movement break every 30 minutes. I have seen this through my own testing. I do not own a wearable device that tracks my health (for which my husband criticizes me), but I listen to what my body is telling me. Surprisingly, our bodies are pretty good at communicating to us, if we actually listen. It’s when we turn a blind eye or ear to the warning signals our bodies give us that we run into problems. For example, if I am chronically tired, my body is telling me something. If I am getting swollen legs and sore back problems, I need to make changes. It’s time for us to start listening more to our bodies and stop just bulldozing through our work days as if everything is fine.

Moving every 30 minutes sounds wonderful, you might be thinking, but what about all of those meetings? Who says you can’t move during meetings? Due to the pandemic, many of us are working from home now. So if you have a long company meeting, download the Zoom (or whatever) app on your phone and walk during the meeting. Pace through your house. Jump on your stationary bike or treadmill. Go up and down your stairs. The options are endless.

If you are in a meeting where you can mute for a minute or so, keep the 30 minute rule and throw in some jumping jacks. You could even start a trend for team meetings for everyone to get up and “shake it out” for three minutes every 30 minutes. Why not? Your teammates will be healthier because of those little bursts of activity sprinkled into what can be an otherwise very sedentary day.

I love my new profession, and look forward to contributing in this field for many years to come. That is why I choose to be kind to my body and take care of it, while also being the best at my job that I can be. For each person reading this article, that is my wish for you as well. Find what activity regimen works for you. Explore, test, observe. Be curious. Most of all, be kind to your body, because you aren’t going to get very far without it.

Programmer | homeschooling mom | Japanese translator.