PTSD: Post-treadmill Stress Disorder

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: 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…

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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5 Responses to PTSD: Post-treadmill Stress Disorder

  1. Heather says:

    I have some memory that exercise of course keeps the somatosensory cortex in good “shape” (at least, the connections humming), and depending on the kind of creativity you want to draw upon – how physically your memories are encoded and attached to your perception of your body in space as you undertake your creative endeavor – it seems logical to find a parallel between the two.

  2. cromercrox says:

    My friend Mr B. C. of Swindon is a professional science writer. Somewhere on his blog ( he writes that the most important item in any writer’s toolkit is … a dog. Dogs need exercise, rain or shine, forcing you to get up from your desk and put one foot in front of another while they engage in sniffage, running-aboutage, chasing sticks and balls and other doggy things. And while the dog is doing that, your mind wanders, and you think up all sorts of new ideas, new angles, things to write and so on and so forth. Now, I find myself deeply suspicious of physical exercise, but like Mr B. C. of Swindon, I do have a dog, and enjoy taking her for long walks. All fuel for the creative mind.

  3. Steve Caplan says:

    Heather and Henry: so it’s 1:1 in favor of physical exercise versus mind-wander/meditation as the stimulus of creativity. Not a very statistical spread.

    This was one of the few papers that came up:
    Br J Sports Med 1997;31:240-245 doi:10.1136/bjsm.31.3.240

    Exercise enhances creativity independently of mood

    1. Hannah Steinberg,
    2. Elizabeth A Sykes,
    3. Tim Moss,
    4. Susan Lowery,
    5. Nick LeBoutillier,
    6. Alison Dewey


    Objectives It has been widely accepted in the literature that various forms of physical exercise, even in a single session, enhance positive mood. It has also been shown that physical exercise may sometimes enhance creative thinking, but the evidence is inconclusive. Positive moods can favour creative thinking, but the opposite has also been reported and these relations are unclear. There is a large anecdotal literature suggesting that creative people sometimes use bodily movement to help overcome “blocks”. The aim of this study was to establish whether post-exercise creative thinking was attributable to improved mood.

    Methods The responses of 63 participants to an exercise (aerobic workout or aerobic dance) and a “neutral” video watching condition were compared. Mood was measured using an adjective list, and creative thinking was tested by three measures of the Torrance test.

    Results Analysis of variance showed a large and significant increase in positive mood after exercise (P<0.001) and a significant decrease in positive mood after video watching (P<0.001). A significant increase between the creative thinking scores of the two conditions was found on the flexibility (variety of responses) measure (P0.05).

    Conclusions These results suggest that mood and creativity were improved by physical exercise independently of each other.

    But then, another study shows that meditation also boosts creativity in university undergraduates:

    So are both ideas correct?

  4. cromercrox says:

    Yes. No. Or possibly. Hang on – what was the question?

  5. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I had no idea how many calories I was burning doing lab work until I stopped and started an office job. No more standing up to work, moving around to grab reagents from the fridge, popping down to another floor to use a machine… not to mention the fact that you’re allowed to eat in offices, but not in labs. I put on quite a bit of weight when I left the lab.

    These days I try to make sure I get up at least once every hour, to go and get some water, collect some printing, or just to have a wander for no good reason. And I bike to work an average of 4 days a week, and try to get at least a minimal amount of other exercise 5 days a week (my thinking is that I shoot for 5 but only manage 3 or 4, that’s still pretty good). It helps, a bit… but damn that slowing metabolism!

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