How can I learn to be comfortable and not so antsy, stiff, and tired while I work at my desk?
September 15, 2011 10:08 AM   Subscribe

What can I do about this stiff/antsy/tired feeling I get when I'm at work?

I don't know if I can describe my situation well enough to make sense, and I don't know if my question is one that can be easily answered, but I figure it's worth a shot....

When I'm at work, I gradually get this uncomfortable sensation in my body that builds throughout the day. How does it feel? It's kind of hard to describe, but it feels like being sleepy and yet very stiff and antsy at the same time. I start to blink more often, I feel tired, I have a hard time concentrating. My eyes seem to focus more lazily. At the same time, my muscles start to feel kind of tense and stiff and a bit achey, and I develop a strong desire to move. At times I feel I want to go sprint around the block, or do 10,000 jumping jacks, or lots of stretches or something. Staying in one place feels really uncomfortable. By the time I go home, I'm not sure if I want to take a nap or hit the treadmill. Possibly both.

I don't feel this way every single day, but I often do. Probably 3 days out of 5. The odd thing is though, the sensation usually fades within a couple hours of leaving work, or at least the physical part of it does. After going home and relaxing for a bit, or exercising, or whatever, I often feel a lot better.

I work as a computer programmer, so I'm at a desk most of the time I'm in the office. Is this sort of experience normal for desk jockeys? I don't know. It could be something specific to my office environment, but I changed jobs just over 2 years ago and I felt the same way in both my new job and my old one. My job is not especially stressful and the office environment is not a tense one. One thing that occurred to me is that it might just be a physical response to boredom.

Much of my work can be boring and tedious, at least at times. And I have noticed that some days I feel I'm really "in the zone" and I don't feel the stiff/tired sensation. I'm not sure which is the cause and which is the effect though. Did being "in the zone" and engrossed in my work prevent the stiff/tired feeling? Or is it because I don't feel stiff and tired that I was able to get "in the zone"? I'm not sure.

Some things I've tried to alleviate the issue:
  • Getting up and walking around at work - I'm not afraid to get up and go for a stroll. I feel I do this pretty much as often as I can without people thinking that I'm avoiding work. I think it helps a little, but it doesn't really solve the problem.
  • Getting a new monitor - I've switched my monitor and the lighting in the office to try to reduce eyestrain. This has helped alleviate headaches, but hasn't made much difference in the issue I'm asking about here.
  • Improving the ergonomics of my office furniture - I sprung for a comfortable chair, and I've adjusted the height of my keyboard/monitor/desk numerous times. It hasn't helped with this particular issue.
  • Trying to get more sleep - On days where I've slept really well and perhaps right after I come back from vacation, the stiff/tired feeling seems to take longer to take hold, but it still shows up sooner or later.
  • Listening to music while I work - No discernable difference
  • Caffeine, ibuprofin, allergy meds - Drinking more caffeine doesn't help. I haven't tried completely eliminating it, I pretty much always have at least 1 cup of coffee every day. Ibuprofin doesn't make the achey stiffness in my muscles go away. When I've taken alergy meds on the days when allergies make my eyes water and burn, it's helped with the allergies but not with the other issue.
Some things I'm considering but haven't done or looked into yet:
  • Finding a gym near my office and working out during lunch
  • Asking my boss about getting a standing desk
  • Could it be the florescent lighting? Both my current office and my previous one had similar lights - the tube-like florescent ones. The lights I have at home are different. But I'm not aware of having any problems when visiting other buildings with florescent lights.
I should also mention that at times I do things other than work that involve sitting in one place for long periods - attending a conference for example - and I don't usually feel the same way. I do feel a bit stiff after sitting for 3-4 hours in any situation, but it's nothing like the itch to move and/or sleep that I get at work.

I have had a complete physical exam recently and am in pretty good physical health. No major problems that I or my doctor are aware of. I am not an especially active person, but I do work out (weights/treadmill) 3 times a week or so.

Not really sure what else I can say.... It's certainly not a crippling problem. I'm still productive at work and I think my superiors are pleased with my output. I've pretty much just been toughing it out. I just feel like work would be so much more enjoyable, and I would have so much more energy for doing things when I get home from work, if I could make this annoying fatigue and restlessness go away.

Does anyone have any suggestions? In case this gets into medical territory, let me say that I know you are not my doctor and I will not take any answer given here as medical advance.

Thanks MeFites!
posted by Vorteks to Work & Money (23 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I get this way. Have you looked at your eating habits? That's the number one source of sluggishness and restlessness for me.
posted by 200burritos at 10:11 AM on September 15, 2011

@200burritos - That's an interesting thought. Can you elaborate? What exactly should I be looking for in my eating habits? What did you change to improve the situation? (I imagine you're not literally eating 200 burritos :-) )
posted by Vorteks at 10:13 AM on September 15, 2011

I get this too, when I'm burning the candle at both ends. Apart from coffee, the other way I deal with it is ice cold water. We have a fridge here at work, so I fill up my stainless steel water bottle with ice and cold water from the water fountain. Somehow the cold slaps me awake.
posted by LN at 10:13 AM on September 15, 2011

Working out at lunch does it for me - or even just taking a long walk. I also used to drink water more or less continuously during the day, so I had to get up at least every half hour to either pee or refill the bottle.

I don't sit for long periods well unless I'm super engaged in what I'm doing - even when I'm lying about in the house it's ten minutes on the bed with a book, five minutes on the computer, wander to the couch to annoy the cat, and back again. If I get going on something, I don't have that itch - a really good book, an engaging computer game, etc - but work seldom qualifies. I have trouble with movies for the same reason.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:14 AM on September 15, 2011

I have a similar job situation. I get this too. Not as sensitive as you though. (I tend to deteriorate mentally if I don't take care of myself.)

Two very important things:
- Drink water!
- Get exercise!

(Sounds like your body is begging to be taken and exercised a little bit.)
posted by krilli at 10:15 AM on September 15, 2011

I go for a long walk outside at lunchtime. Makes me feel less like a slug in the afternoons. I'm also planning to explore a standing desk, because I've heard great things about how much better people's bodies feel not sitting all the time.
posted by decathecting at 10:29 AM on September 15, 2011

getting up every now and then helps, even if it's just to take a short walk a) to the coffee maker, or b) to the bathroom. It is a degree of physical activity -- not a lot, but if it happens once an hour it can discharge the "omigod i haven't gotten out of this chair in forever aaaaargh" feeling. (And if you are like me, drinking coffee will ensure you have to use the bathroom anyway, so maybe it'll be a bit more frequent.) If you don't drink coffee, go get some water or some tea or some juice or whatever; it's just an excuse to get up and walk somewhere other than your desk for a few minutes.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:36 AM on September 15, 2011

Oh yeah, I am quite familiar with the sensation you're describing. At my last job (where I sat in a cubicle most of the time) I experienced it frequently, and by the end of most days I would often feel like a caged animal wanting to escape and just run.

At my new/present job I actually stand up most of the day (by choice, as there are lots of lab benches here at just the right height for standing and working on a laptop) and thus far that seems to be helping a ton with the restlessness (well, that and the work being more interesting, but I definitely suspect a physical component as well).

Thus, I would certainly recommend trying out a standing desk (or kludging one together as a proof-of-concept before asking your employers for a real one -- a guy at a previous job who had back problems used to put his keyboard up on an inverted wastebasket and work that way).

Another thing you might want to look at is your cube/office/desk layout and positioning. The only thing that enabled me to stay halfway sane at my last job, after a certain point, was getting my cube furniture oriented so that my side, rather than my back, faced the cubicle opening. Having people walking back and forth behind me all day makes me really, really agitated -- like I'm constantly in this hypervigilant mode because of all the shadows and flickering in my peripheral vision. Turning my desk sideways made it so I had a bit more movement in my "direct" vision but for whatever reason that didn't trigger the "prey animal" state nearly as much so I felt a lot better following the rearrangement.
posted by aecorwin at 10:47 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Going to the gym three times per week is fine but it sounds like you aren't working hard enough - run FAST and lift HEAVY weights. Raise the intensity and really push yourself and a lot of this excess, anxious energy will go away.
posted by The Lamplighter at 10:47 AM on September 15, 2011

Yep, I feel this way when I'm dehydrated - either not drinking enough water, or eating a lot of salty/high sugar foods. I find that eating more protein and vegetables at both breakfast and lunch has helped a lot, as well as eating less sugar and refined flour overall.

Also - for the eyestrain issue, take more frequent, shorter breaks, and do some eye exercises. You'll find a lot of "woo-woo" stuff out there if you Google "eye exercises", but I've found that things like near/far focus (looking at close up stuff, then far away stuff, then back), slowly moving my focus in a circle around my computer monitor edge, etc...this has helped my eyes feel less tired. Might be the placebo effect, but it's helped me.

Oh - and neck/shoulder stretches during breaks, too!

I've been happy with Workrave as a method for reminding me to take breaks. You might not be taking as many breaks as you think you are.
posted by Knicke at 10:49 AM on September 15, 2011

I appreciate the comments about food and water. What @Knicke said about dehydration and salty/sugary foods makes sense to me, and it's something I haven't yet pushed hard to change. I've made intermittent efforts to change my eating habits, but they never really stuck, and it didn't occur to me that eating/drinking could be a cause of my problem. It is possible that I am dehydrated. It is a certainty that I take in way too much sodium. I will renew my efforts to drink water and eat healthy during work hours.

@The Lamplighter - I don't think the issue is that my exercise isn't intense enough. I've been following the Stronglifts lifting program since February and I've made some huge gains. I can squat more than 260 lbs now, and my other lifts have improved significantly as well. Oddly though, I find that the day after I do very strenuous exercise I'm even more restless at work. *shrug*. It is possible that doing some kind of exercise every day might help though.

@aecorwin - I really appreciate your suggestions. I mentioned that I was considering a standing desk, and after hearing your experience I think I'll give it a try. I'll get something for use at home first and try it out there. If I find it usable after a few weeks, I'll talk to my boss about doing it for the office.

The suggestion to adjust my office/desk layout was a good one. I appreciate it. I think my situation is pretty optimal right now though. I share an office with one other person. Both of us more or less face the office door and hallway with our backs to a corner. Nobody can pass behind me, and neither me nor my office mate could see each other's screens without deliberately shifting a foot or two from our normal positions. We both like it fairly quiet when we work and we don't bother each other.
posted by Vorteks at 11:51 AM on September 15, 2011

BTW, please don't hesitate to post more suggestions everyone! Thanks a lot for all the help.
posted by Vorteks at 12:11 PM on September 15, 2011

I also find that a standing desk helps with this. I used to sit all day in a very nice ergonomic chair, but I'd get all restless and twitchy too. Now I've switched to a standing desk, though it's adjustable so I can choose to sit if I need to, which I think is recommended (you're not supposed to jump from 100% sitting to 100% standing). I have definitely noticed a decrease in the restlessness. I've also increased my water intake, so that may be a factor too.
posted by bedhead at 12:22 PM on September 15, 2011

This sounds a little bit like restless legs syndrome - try getting more magnesium in your diet (or taking a supplement).
posted by sarahsynonymous at 4:04 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

You mentioned lighting as a possible factor. Perhaps there's something about how your monitor is lit, a few people used to have problems with eyestrain when using CRT's under florescent lighting in part due to the refresh rate. I haven't heard of people having this problem with the newer monitors, but it was always pretty rare at any rate.

Different brands of florescent lights and ballasts seem to have slight differences in the properties of light they produce, so it is possible that the lights in your office might be having an effect that would be different from other lights.

Try bringing in a lamp, experiment with placement and type. Easy, simple, worth a shot.

A different type of florescent tube lamp might be a possibility. A coworker of mine swore by the "Happylite" (or Happylight?), had one on his desk to supplement the office overhead lights.
posted by yohko at 5:38 PM on September 15, 2011

I second the restless legs syndrome. Like, a lot. My husband has this pretty bad, and it doesn't happen only when sleeping, but also when he does activities like you're describing at work -- watching a movie, studying, reading... He says that getting up and/or jogging does help for a bit, but that it's a temporary relief. He did a lot of jogging studying for exams in school. Then it didn't bother him for a long time, and now lately, it has been again. So it's not something that you would have had to suffer from your whole life, to have it be a problem now.

sarahsynonymous is right on with the Mg supplements. My husband also tries to avoid chocolate and finds that a lot of OTC meds, like Sudafed, Benadryl and Advil bother him. He takes Gabapentin regularly, at a moderate dose (he had to try a few levels before he figured out what was helpful) and he takes clonipin when things are really uncomfortable (but he doesn't like the drowsy feeling so he avoids that). I don't know if any of these things would help you, but anybody with restless legs will tell you that what will help, is a doctor that takes the syndrome seriously and is experienced in treating it.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:42 PM on September 15, 2011

@Tandem Affinity & @SarahSynonymous - I could see restless leg syndrome as a possibility. Actually my dad was diagnosed with that some years ago, so if it's hereditary it's certainly possible that it could affect me too. I don't know that restless leg syndrome would fully explain the situation I've described, but if something like magnesium supplements is enough to calm it, then it's probably worth a shot. I'll look into it further. Thanks.
posted by Vorteks at 7:47 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

If it helps at all, the Mayo clinic has a pretty good summary. Yes it's hereditary! Hope you feel better!
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:56 PM on September 15, 2011

I think it's not just exercise in general, but specifically cardio, and before work. When I take the bus in the morning, I feel like a dead animal all day. When I bike commute (which is, for these very reasons, most often), I am totally with it.
posted by threeants at 9:00 PM on September 15, 2011

Also, totally agree about the salt thing. I've noticed that as I've gotten older (and I'm only mid-20s), I've gotten way, way more sensitive to salt. If I pig out on something salty at night, the next morning I usually have what feels exactly like a hangover, except ten times worse than any hangover actual alcohol has ever given me.
posted by threeants at 9:02 PM on September 15, 2011

I agree that cardio is what helps with the restless feeling (not weights). Do it as intensely as you can; ideally before work or at lunch, but I think evenings are okay too. After starting to do fairly intense cardio 4-5 times a week, I no longer feel that restless at work.

But if I thing that really helps is taking a walk outside at lunch. You can do this even if you can't find a gym.

Oh, and also! Doing stretches in the hall, especially yoga-type stretches that will get blood flowing to your brain.
posted by bearette at 2:01 AM on September 16, 2011

+1 on cardio
posted by krilli at 3:11 AM on September 16, 2011

I'd say yes, look at your eating habits--if at all possible try to eat every 3 hours by keeping fast no-mess snacks like nuts and string cheese at your desk, don't eat huge carb/sugar-laden meals while at work (causes energy crashes and weird cravings), stay hydrated WITHOUT a lot of caffeine or sugar. Also, you may want to look into mobility stretches. You mentioned moving around, but in my experience it's the actual sitting all day in a chair specifically that makes bodies stiff and restless, and Mobility Work can help. My favorites are doing 5 or 10 full ass-to-grass body squats with proper form (legs fairly wide apart with toes at an angle out, keeping lower back curved in the natural lumbar position, hands behind my head, all the way down keeping knees tracking with toes, using hip drive to bring myself up), or squatting for a fairly long period of time (IIRC, that was the very first MWOD on that blog if you go back), neck movements (carefully tuck in your chin, bend your head back, look over your shoulder both ways, tuck your ear into your neck both ways), shoulder dislocations or windmills, leg lifts, torso twists (make sure to tighten abs and don't bounce quickly), use a decent gripper. Stuff like that. Yes you will get weird looks if you don't have your own closed office. But this stuff takes 3 minutes max to do and I always feel much better after. Any time you can avoid sitting do it--stand or kneel sometimes at your desk, pace when on the phone, etc.
posted by ifjuly at 7:34 AM on September 16, 2011

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