VikaValter/VettaBy Rebecca Brown
These days, logging an overwhelming number of hours on our computers, laptops, smartphones, and iPads seems to be the norm. But it turns out you could be losing more than just precious time while plugged into the technology matrix. Here, the physical, mental, and emotional tolls of overusing the Internet -- and why occasionally disconnecting from the digital world may not be such a bad idea.
Related: 20-Minute Workout for Stress Relief
You'll Have More Time for You
A recent TIME mobility poll surveyed 5,000 people and found that 84 percent of participants couldn't go a single day without their mobile device, with 25 percent admitting that they checked their phones every 30 minutes. That's dozens of times a day! And the need to stay connected isn't just tied to your smartphone. A study presented at the British Psychological Society's annual Occupational Conference found that 70 percent of employees studied did not meet the recommended guidelines for physical activity, spending approximately 5 hours and 41 minutes per day at their desk, something that may please your manager but can pose a threat to your health.
"The human body in uniquely designed for movement, not inactivity," says Geralyn Coopersmith, MA, CSCS, member of the Equinox Fitness Training Institute. "Prolonged sitting is the cause of a lot of posture problems and can even contribute to diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease." Take a break from your screen at least every hour to walk around the office or even outside (gasp!) for some fresh air.
You'll Have Real Relationships
Texting at dinner is not just an issue of table manners. Sharing a meal with friends and family is an opportunity to engage in meaningful first-person conversation, and when people are more interested in the game on TV or refreshing status updates, the chance for discourse suffers. In a survey of U.S. working adults sponsored by Good Technology, 38 percent confessed to frequently checking work e-mails while at the dinner table. Sure, there are demanding days, especially in the weak economy when being accessible is crucial, but on the average night these check-ins will hurt your relationships with the people you care about the most.
Even businesses are starting to agree. LA-based restaurant EVA is so behind the concept of unplugging while dining that they started offering a discount to patrons who turn in their phones at the hostess stand before sitting down.
Reduced Muscle Pain
Studies have shown that eyestrain and other painful optic symptoms, like twitching, appear in 50 to 90 percent of those who spend their days working behind a computer. (A number of factors can contribute to this, from the fluorescent lights above your workstation to the brightness of your monitor.) That in addition to improperly positioned desks and screens can force people to sit in ways that misalign their spinal column and legs, making their muscles feel tight. "The posture you have when sitting at your desk typing promotes upper cross and lower cross syndromes, both which are associated with muscle pain and tightness," says Coopersmith.
To prevent chronic pain from hunching, make sure you're sitting with your knees at a 90-degree angle, invest in ergonomic equipment like a chair and wrist supports -- or even better, get up from your desk and talk to your coworker in person instead of picking up the phone or firing off another e-mail.
Related: 7 Common Causes of Back Pain-and How to Prevent Them
It may seem counterintuitive that disconnecting from the Internet can help boost your productivity, but responding to e-mails and messages, updating your status, or browsing through your newsfeed during your 9-to-5 can be a huge hindrance to completing your to-do list. According to John Medina, author of Brain Rules, once a person is interrupted by something that's not work related on the computer, it can take up to 50 percent longer to finish an assignment. Further research suggests that each time a person is sidetracked, the brain takes up to 45 minutes to refocus. That means every time you stop to watch a YouTube video or respond to an e-mail chain about this weekend's plans, you'll have to give up personal hours after hours to compensate. Give yourself a 30-minute time slot around your lunch to catch up on your those cute pet videos and Facebook photos so that you can remain efficient while on the clock.
Save Your Skin
Ever sat on the couch with a laptop on your legs for a long period of time, only to have to move it because things got a little too heated, literally? According to Dr. Andreas Arnold and Dr. Peter Itin from the University Hospital Basel in Switzerland you could be at risk for Toasted Skin Syndrome (TSS) -- permanent spots, burns, and rash-like markings and inflammation from laptop overuse. Ouch!
And a warning for your guy: Some fertility experts believe that the heat from a laptop and consequently the increase in scrotal temperature could actually decrease sperm production in men. A 2010 study at the State University of New York at Stony Brook found that males who placed laptops on their laps for 60 minutes or more experienced an average increase in temperature of about 5 degrees, which is enough to affect the healthy production of sperm.
It may become habit to glance at e-mails during a middle-of-the-night bathroom trip, but it's not worth it. "Our brain has the capacity to perform a daily systematic downshifting of brainwave activity, and much of that transition is cued by the daily arrival of darkness," says Sam Sugar, MD, Director of Sleep Services at the Pritikin Center in Florida. But when the brain's necessary symphony of commands and bio signals are disrupted by light-emitting screens or cell phone LCDs, it smothers the production of melatonin and can lead to much more than morning fatigue. "Sleep deficit is well known to be implicated in the development of obesity, high blood pressure, depression, heart disease, and a whole host of other issues," says Dr. Sugar.
Power down electronics 30 minutes before bedtime. And for those who can't help but flip them on in the middle of the night, turn them completely off -- you'll be less motivated to reboot them if you do wake up.
Related: The FITNESS Get-to-Sleep Guide
Manage Your Mood
With so many ways to check in and let the world know exactly what you're doing and when, many feel pressured to maintain their online identity, constantly blogging, tweeting, and over-communicating around the clock. But that appetite for constant access can cause bouts of uneasiness and envy. "The feeling of needing to be involved and always 'on' actually creates more stress," says Coral Arvon, PhD, Director of Behavioral Health and Wellness at the Pritikin Center. The concern isn't limited to feeling anxious about our social media profiles -- it can cause new anxieties over other people's lives. "People are constantly comparing themselves to their friends on Facebook," says Dr. Arvon. "Users can make snap judgments based on a friend's new career jump or vacation photo album that can make them feel left out, less glamorous, and inadequate that their life isn't as fun."
A study at Missouri University of Science and Technology investigated the relationship between Internet usage and moods and found that college students with depressive symptoms all shared similar behaviors when it came to browsing the Web and that excess time spent chatting online only increased feelings of real-world loneliness. Lesson learned: Beat Facebook fatigue by logging off. It's that simple.
Legislation preventing cell phone use -- even hands-free options -- may soon be the country standard as the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) recently called for an outlaw of all handheld cell phone use while driving. The support is backed by statistics like this one: The National Safety Council has estimated that about 1.2 million accidents a year involve cell phones or texting.
Interestingly, a study conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that cell phone-using drivers operate behind the wheel more aggressively regardless of whether they are on the phone right at the moment, signifying that enforcing GHSA's proposed ban won't be effective because the type of person who would answer a call is simply prone to more dangerous behaviors. Even so, there's been enough data collected to advise against phone use while operating a vehicle. Take California for example -- after instituting a ban in 2008, UC Berkley found that deaths caused by drivers using handheld cell phones fell 47 percent.
Kick the Addiction
It may seem like a hobby, but constantly craving the newest i-whatever or strong Wi-Fi connection can actually become an obsession. A study of brain scans of internet-addicted people, led by Hao Lei of the Chinese Academy, found that white matter abnormalities in the orbit-frontal cortex appear much they way they do in scans of people with substance abuse issues. Excessive use of technology has similar neurochemical effects to drug and alcohol addictions, and fortunately, users are becoming increasingly more aware of their dependency. A UK study found that 53 percent of 300 people surveyed said that they were addicted to Internet use and it has affected their behavior, with 51 percent saying did so in a negative way.
Calm down -- just because you like to mindlessly click away doesn't mean you're suddenly an Internet addict. As a self-test, Dr. Arvon suggests removing yourself from technology for three days. If you experience severe feelings of withdrawal, anxiety, irritability, stress, or tension, you could have a dependency problem. Which leads us to our next investigation, does Facebook have a 12-step program yet?
More from FITNESS Magazine:
Fierce and Fab in 14 Days: Tony Horton's P90X-Inspired Workout
15-Minute Meals: Easy, Healthy Weeknight Recipes
Enter the Face of FITNESS Contest (and Win a Car!)
VikaValter/VettaBy Rebecca Brown