The podcast Body Electric seeks to undo many of the physical and mental harms of working with technology. By Louisa Lim.
This podcast may just change your life. That’s a big call, I know, but since I started listening to Body Electric (NPR) at the beginning of October, it has transformed my working day. For several months I’ve had an unrelenting ache in my shoulder, radiating down my arm and up my neck, that kept me awake at night. I had therapeutic massages but they only mitigated the pain for a few days. I exercised more – running, swimming, going to the gym – but nothing helped.
So it was with a shock of recognition that I heard computer and video game historian Laine Nooney on Body Electric describing how the use of computers is literally breaking our bodies. “I think a lot of us don’t realise how much pain we live in because of our interactions with computing,” she said, as she described the stress postures we place ourselves in while using computers. “My body pain is just not relenting. It really does feel like I go to work and then I come home and I try to rehabilitate my body so that I can go to work again.” Me too, Laine, me too.
In fact, most of us. Australian workers on average spend 76 per cent of their time at work – about five hours a day – seated. In the United States, 85 per cent of workers are in sedentary jobs. “That is a truth about how labour works,” said Nooney. “We should remember that when we feel pain in our neck or our wrists or our arms, that this pain is a historical legacy of a sort.”
Body Electric is packed with similar aha! moments, but its unique proposition is its ability to transcend the medium. The podcast coerced its listeners into lifestyle change by turning us into guinea pigs for science. Hosted by TED Radio Hour’s Manoush Zomorodi, it partnered with Columbia University Irving Medical Center to become the first podcast to offer its audience up for scientific research.
Knowing Zomorodi’s track record, I was all in. In 2015, I’d taken part in her Bored and Brilliant challenge (WNYC), a series of short daily podcasts training listeners to detach from their mobile phones and foster their creativity through tasks such as blocking out time away from the phone. By the end, more than 20,000 participants had cut their mobile use by an average of six minutes a day.
This new experiment was even more ambitious, asking participants to take small, regular exercise breaks during their working day and fill in surveys tracking the impact, while listening to six weeks of podcasts about the relationship between our bodies and technology.
We were instructed to work as normal during the first week to collect baseline data. As I sat at my desk typing for hour after hour, I noted my symptoms and mood. My notes for Monday read: “Headache, tense, short of breath, anxious, tired, drowsy, sluggish.” By mid-afternoon, I was so exhausted I lay down on my carpet and went to sleep. By Friday, my summary read: “Eyestrain, headache between eyes, lunch at desk, arm/shoulder is aching, brain fuzzy, feel very tired, piercing head pain, nap on carpet.” I stumbled home, and rolled into bed, exhausted. It was, I realised, an ordinary week.
By then, Body Electric had made me hyper aware of how computer work is changing our bodies. One outstanding interviewee was Vybarr Cregan-Reid, a professor of English and environmental humanities whose name is actually fun to say out loud. From him, I learnt modern humans had less than half the bone density of hunter-gatherers: indeed, the average female hunter-gatherer had greater bone density in her upper arm than a modern Olympic rower. There was so little sitting down in ancient life that chairs are barely mentioned in The Iliad, The Odyssey or the Bible. In Shakespeare’s time, chairs only featured four times in literature, but by Dickens everyone was sitting down all over the place. I listened to Cregan-Reid while sitting in my car as I drove to my office and my back began to ache.
Body Electric outlines our Anthropocene bodies, from our failing eyesight to technology’s ability to interfere with our interoception, or our neurological ability to sense what is happening in our own bodies. The case it lays out is compelling, particularly as I could see it playing out in my own behaviour. Zomorodi is a personable host who mostly manages to avoid preachiness. The sound design is workmanlike rather than elegiac, though one device it harnesses very effectively is the use of voice memos recorded by listeners tracking the experiment.
After the control week, listeners were instructed to pick an option for “exercise snacking” – a phrase that I personally felt attacked by. I chose the medium option: a five-minute break every hour. The hardcore choice was a five-minute break every half-hour, while the easiest option was a break every two hours. I set my alarm as I sat down and every hour I stopped work. For five minutes, I would walk outside around the block, or up and down the corridor at a quick march, or even – alarmingly – run up and down the stairs.
For two weeks, I exercise-snacked religiously, filling in the daily surveys. It was galling to interrupt my workflow so often but the benefits were obvious almost immediately. At the end of every day, I had more energy, my mood was better, I had fewer headaches, my shoulder ached less. More than that, during my walks, I was noticing new things. The sun shining on my face, a basket of free lemons on the street, the flaming slashes of callistemon. I felt better, I worked harder, I was less moody, I was altogether a nicer person. Okay, only incrementally nicer, but frankly every little bit helps.
More than 23,000 people signed up to participate and the vast majority had a positive experience. The final results were telling: the more often people moved, the better they felt. Those who took exercise snacks every half-hour improved their fatigue levels by about 30 per cent, while my group improved by 25 per cent. The group that moved every two hours improved by 20 per cent. Each group reported an increase in positive emotions and a decrease in negative emotions. The most striking finding was 82 per cent of the participants liked taking exercise snacks, regardless of their frequency.
Now that Body Electric is over, I realise I feel a sense of loss. Its real achievement is to take its listeners on a transformative journey, while creating a sense of community. I can’t guarantee that I have the self-discipline to exercise-snack without the scaffolding created by the podcast, but I now know I can’t afford not to try.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 18, 2023 as "Singing the body".
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