Years ago when I was an ambitious young Ph.D., and I had more hair, fewer wrinkles, and no children to poke fun at me—I worked hard. I mean physically hard. Much of my research revolved around the necessity of putting together multiple large protein gel apparatuses, and separating large amounts of protein lysates in two-dimensions—first by their reduction status (if they had, or didn’t have disulfide bonds), and then by molecular weight.
Well all this explanation is to set the tone for the actual amount of physical work that I carried out in order to run and analyze up to 30 of these protein ‘gels’ a week. Lots of preparing reagents, toting around heavy containers filled with buffers for use in the protein separations. In short—some physical exercise. Moreover, I had no computer, e-mail, or internet. I only had access to these luxuries on a departmental computer unit occasionally (and more frequently as I neared my graduation in 1998). Much less temptation to sit down—unless reading a journal or actually writing.
As a postdoctoral fellow at NIH, I had my own computer. Reagents were often easier (and even less expensive, sometimes) to purchase. Nonetheless, I worked long hours at the bench and still managed to stay somewhat in shape.
Seven years ago I set up my own lab. I worked hard in the beginning, unpacking boxes and setting up incubators. A year or two later, I found myself mostly parked behind my desk, staring for hours at my computer screen. In other words a “desk potato”.
After gaining a few pounds, I could see where this was heading, so I started to exercise. Due to some old knee trouble that I’m plagued with, I didn’t have many options, and have ended up with a regimen that consists mostly of walking quickly on the treadmill. In trying to keep up with my slowing metabolism, I’ve been increasing my treadmill time on average to about 40 minutes every morning. And I’m extremely proud of myself—neither rain nor snow nor trivial viral illness knocks me off my routine. I drop my daughter off at school and head to the gym every morning before work.
It’s interesting that one of the entirely unintended (but certainly welcome) consequences has been that my productivity at work is better—but it’s really more than that. It’s my creativity that has really improved. As I walk, my thoughts first turn to the people in my lab, their individual projects, and what we can do to progress. I find myself frequently using my memo pad on BlackBerry to jot down ideas, before I become too seasick to continue.
It’s not just the science—I find ideas for the novel I am writing come naturally during this exercise—as well as ideas for OT blogs. This one is obviously an example.
So is it really the exercise, or is it simply that I have designated thinking time where I have little else to capture and compete with my attention? The literature on PubMed is not extremely compelling. There are a series of articles, mostly about exercise and the elderly, and some on exercise as part of rehabilitation. There are a few scattered reports of enhanced creativity related to exercise, but many fewer than I would have expected. Here is a sample abstract from one of them: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3982945 Perhaps there are better places to look for such papers. Can anyone help me out?
So I now have a new theory, a new hypothesis that exercise stimulates creativity—and perhaps one day I’ll look into it more deeply. But today I underwent a negative treadmill-related experience that I call Post-treadmill Stress Disorder (PTSD). After a solid 50 min. of walking at a 5.3 mph pace, I took a big drink of water and headed to the locker room to congratulate myself on a job well done and bask in a nice hot shower. The temperature outside was 1 degree Fahrenheit when I entered the gym.
I set my work clothes in a locker, undressed, grabbed a couple towels and headed to the showers. I pulled the curtain across my stall, and turned the lever for the water. A gurgling noise. Then nothing. Unfazed, as yet, I moved to the next stall, and the next. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Not even a drop.
I then noticed two workmen on the other side of the locker room with a ladder and tools. I asked them. No water. How long? At least an hour. Great, I have a meeting in my office in 30 min.
Well that’s Post-treadmill Stress Disorder: but the stress will be with my colleagues—who will need to find a seat as far away from me as possible…