In a recent piece entitled ‘Exercise & Programming’, Twitter developer Alex MacCaw makes the case that programmers invest a huge amount of time and effort in expanding their skills, but completely neglect their physical health. In doing so, they miss a tremendous opportunity to maximize their brain’s ability to absorb and use those skills.
Our bodies are not just some vehicle to get our brains between meetings and keyboards. Like it or not, our brains are deeply tied to the performance of our bodies. This sedentary lifestyle we’ve become accustomed to has severe implications on our performance as programmers. —Alex MacCaw, Exercise & Programming
I couldn’t agree more. I started running about a year ago, as part of an effort to offset the negative impact of sitting all day at work, and it’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever given myself. Below are some of the benefits I’ve observed from having a consistent running practice.
Routine and Lifestyle Moderation
When I first became a freelance designer/developer, I was working and studying like mad, and my lifestyle was a shambles. I developed insomnia, and had a fractured schedule, sleeping in bursts and working excessive hours. I smoked, and drank too much, and generally looked and felt like hell.
Since that initial phase of orienting myself within my field, I’ve gradually managed to develop a normal routine and normal sleeping patterns, relying on blocks of uninterrupted work hours and meals to structure my day (there’s nothing like sipping a cocktail while chopping vegetables to put you in evening-mode).
In the past year, however, I’ve noticed that running has really rounded off the rough edges, helping me follow those small daily good-for-you choices that part of me would usually resist. No more staying up late with that one last glass of bourbon and episode of Deadwood, trying to take the edge off a frustrating day. By late evening I’m already focused on getting up at 7:30 AM and doing at least 5K before the sun gets too high in the sky.
Good for the Brain
MacCaw doesn’t really talk too much about the direct benefits of exercise on the brain, and I don’t have the scientific background to offer much insight either. However, the quality of my work, and my enjoyment of my working life, have vastly improved in the past year. Frankly, I can’t think of a better metric to go by.
A couple of articles recently published by the NY Times back up MacCaw’s argument. ‘How Exercise Fuels the Brain’ discusses some research pointing to the fact that exercise directly increases to the brain’s capacity to store glycogen (fuel). This enables the brain to effectively carbo-load, giving it consistently more fuel to work with (as long as you exercise regularly).
Another recent piece, ‘How Exercise Could Lead to a Better Brain‘, examines the role exercise has in slowing or reversing the natural degradation of the brain that occurs with age.
Working out Frustrations
It’s not just that I’m now voluntarily skipping that last nightcap—I often don’t even need it. Running really helps me get past any frustrations with client projects.
You know it goes. A client comes back saying “I love this mock-up, but can we just change this—and this, and that…”, and suddenly what you thought was a great design solution needs to be reconsidered entirely.
Once I get past my initial annoyance, I inevitably realize that the client’s feedback has actually provided me with valuable information and constraints, and the result is always better. The thing is, I can’t skip that annoyance phase, no matter how minor it may be. Running helps me get over my own ego faster, so I can move onto the next round of revisions with a healthy dose of endorphins and not a trace of resentment.
Mental and Emotional Levelness
Like most folks, I’ve struggled a bit with anxiety, even the occasional bout of depression. I’m flat-out amazed at the effect that running has on my attitude and emotions—it’s just fantastically levelling.
The biggest indication of this comes on rest days, especially if strain or injury forces me to take a few days off in a row. Sometimes I’ll feel the return of a creeping background negativity and listlessness. I can’t believe that used to be my everyday state.
Endorphins are a big part of the mental levelness I mentioned above, but they warrant their own mention. When recently I completed a relatively long run of 16K, and slowed down to a cool-down walk, it felt amazing, like my brain and body were shining as I floated down the street. I imagine that’s what heroin feels like.
The Runner’s High
This is maybe the biggest one for me, and the most difficult to attain. Sometimes all the factors of your run come together—no pain or discomfort, great weather, an absense of thirst, etc. and suddenly you’re zooming effortlessly down the street, floating like in an astral projection, endorphins flashing across your brain. It’s worth the 19 dull runs you have to slog through until it happens again.
I’m fascinated with personal analytics, and love seeing everything from trends in my music listening habits on Rdio to the frequency with which I annotate texts in Readmill. (Oddly enough, Facebook has become my bucket for this kind of data across a range of apps, but that’s another post).
Running is particularly fun and rewarding to track, and for a while I was using both Runkeeper and Nike Plus simultaneously (I’ve since committed to the latter). Tracking trends in pace, elevation and heart rate adds a richness to the experience, and it really does motivate you beat personal records. It also helps prevent injury: if you track and trust the numbers, you can slowly develop in a way that’s structured and safe.
Listening to the Body
Of course, the most important way to avoid injury, aside from sticking to an established and reliable training plan, is to listen to your body. I’ve become an expert at which of my pains and aches mean what, when I need to rest more, use ice, or add different stretches to my cool-down.
This awareness is probably the driving force behind other changes in my lifestyle as well—for instance, I’m more aware of what glucose overload feels like when I eat sugary foods, or when I’m dehydrated or in need of protein.
Try it Yourself
While running may not be the sport for you, I’d strongly urge you incorporate some kind of exercise into your life, if you don’t already. Especially if you work in a field that requires a lot of mental acuity and stamina—the difference to your quality of work and life is remarkable.