How Fitness Transformed Me into a Better Web Developer

Running for better runtime

Rachel Lum
May 31 · 7 min read
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“Some of the most successful people wake up early to exercise first thing in the morning.”

If you know me, you may have heard me talk about fitness once or twice. Okay, I love it, although I am no super athlete nor fitness model; I simply see myself as a fitness advocate. Even whilst I attended the Full Stack Software Engineering Program at Flatiron School, I prioritized making time for some sort of exercise or physical activity because I knew that it was essential to my sanity, mental clarity, access to discipline, and productivity management. I even created two to help users build a routine and establish healthy living. It is important to note that I was not always like this (just ask my parents); I discovered fitness after college, and it pretty much transformed me into who I am today.

Exercise is one of the main factors to which I owe my success in transitioning into software development. Before I dive into the studies of how exercise can make you a better programmer, I will provide a little background of my journey into fitness, productivity, and code.

Fitness Saved Me

I fell in love with fitness, but in retrospect, I fell in love with what this journey into fitness did for me.

I discovered fitness by accident. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in dance and aspired to perform with contemporary dance companies. I signed up at a gym to stay in shape for my auditions because dance classes in the city are not cheap, hard to get to, and I was also working a part-time job for a math tutoring center in New Jersey.

As a person who loves problem-solving, this situation needed improvement. I was always on a quest to find more efficient ways to do things. So, young and naive as I was, I decided to become a personal trainer to save time by working out with my clients (I was so wrong about this, by the way, see ), and save money on my gym membership by getting paid to work at a gym. Additionally, I thought my background in dance would give me an advantage in becoming a great instructor because dance is all about technique and intention.

In the span of six months, I read an entire personal training textbook, took avid notes, read countless articles, watched hours of educational videos, exercised daily, practiced any new exercises I learned, and passed my personal training exam. I fell in love with fitness, but in retrospect, I fell in love with what this journey into fitness did for me.

For the first time in a long time, I rediscovered my love for learning and had a new desire to make the most out of my day. I established a routine: wake up early, workout, train, tutor, relax, and sleep. I was excited to challenge my mind and body with new workouts and loved meeting new people including other trainers, gym-goers, and new clients. In the afternoon, I was still full of energy and mentally prepared for a busy workday addressing parents and teachers and tutoring my students in tackling challenging mathematical concepts. Each day was busy, but I was satisfied with a full day’s work. Now, let’s dive into the research behind this phenomenon.


Tip #1: Plan out your day

By this, I mean really plan out the hours, even minutes, of your day and you will see how much time you have. You can use the calendar on your phone or a written planner, what is key is to give your workout as much value as a meeting or event. In Friedman’s article, “Regular Exercise is Part of Your Job”, he says that when people say they don’t have time for exercise, it means that they aren’t prioritizing it. If it motivates you to do well at work, then see your workout as just another job responsibility. By working out, you are adding tons of value to your work.


The Science

“Moderate to intense exercise leads to improved concentration, better memory retention, extended mental stamina, boosted creativity, quickened learning, and lower stress.”

There is a scientific explanation for what I had experienced after integrating fitness into my life. To no surprise, there are many physical benefits to exercising, including cardiovascular health, improved strength, increased bone density, and disease prevention. But what may not be as obvious is the abundance of cognitive benefits of doing exercise.

Recent studies (referenced below) show that performing moderate to intense exercise leads to improved concentration, better memory retention, extended mental stamina, boosted creativity, quickened learning, and lower stress. In , researchers concluded that even just 15 minutes of moderate intensity cycling leads to better results using the Eriksen flanker task, basically a test to measure response inhibition and reaction time.

Biologically, physical exercise “induces structural and functional changes in the brain”, leads to “increased gray matter volume in frontal and hippocampal regions” as well as “the release of neurotrophic factors…”, and promotes (). This correlates to cognitive benefits “improving memory abilities, efficiency of attentional processes and executive-control processes”.

Occasionally, I like to listen to Syntax, a web development podcast. In their episode, “”, they say that a person has a capacity to focus of 90 minutes. Any longer than that duration results in a decrease in quality of work and mental clarity. It is recommended to take a short break after each 90-minute work interval to get some fresh air or even do a short workout.

For instance, this conducted at Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK researched the effects of exercising at work based on self-reported work performance. They asked volunteers to participate in about 30 to 45 minutes of exercise during the work day, a couple of times a week. The overall results of this study were that participants felt positive changes in work performance, social interactions, and toleration for minor frustrations on days that they exercised.


Tip #2: Find an activity you like to do

Whether it is cycling, dance, CrossFit, soccer, yoga, jogging, etc., you will be more inclined to stick to something you enjoy as opposed to making exercise a chore. I believe that there is a limit to the amount of willpower someone can exert in any given amount of time, so choosing a desirable activity preserves your willpower for other challenges throughout the day. Additionally, you will be motivated to continue to achieve more in your activity. I personally like to create performance-based goals because it is really cool to see how much potential the human body has.


Relating Cognitive Benefits to Writing Better Code

Exercise can improve memory retention, and help you dissect complex problems more thoroughly.

In building out my web application , I find that the aforementioned cognitive benefits are essential to streamlining the build process. It is hard work to test, debug, locate where your code is in your giant tree of files, apply logic and devise algorithms, and then remember what you want to tackle next. Exercise can improve memory retention, and help you dissect complex problems more thoroughly. It can lead to an increased willingness to continue to find solutions in your work.

As a web developer, you will most likely work with others, and it was found that participants had more positive social interactions on days that they exercised. This benefits a software engineer in and communicating ideas in collaboration with coworkers (check out my on collaboration between designers and developers).

Oftentimes, I lack the confidence to just begin a project and start coding, because I am afraid of not knowing what problems I may encounter along the way. But like in anything, the first step is starting, and physical exercise can lead to “self-efficacy, tasks goal orientation, and perceived competence […] better mood and self-concept” ().


Tip #3: Hack your subconscious

You know how you operate. If you are like me and know that you are more apt to do things in the morning, then do your most grueling tasks in the morning. My belief is that when I wake up, I have had little time to form an opinion about anything. You can significantly reduce decision fatigue by setting aside your thoughts and just do. So in the first couple of hours of my day, I exercise, listen to podcasts, tidy up the apartment, and practice some algorithm problems. I personally love my quiet mornings because that is when I am most productive.


Conclusion

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Incorporating daily exercise can lead to a vast number of benefits in productivity and programming. Both exercise and programming can be meditative. They are practices in patience, endurance, and challenging yourself to your maximum potential, in both long term and short term journeys. It is easy to get frustrated when your code does not work as expected, or if you cannot lift the same weight you did last week. If you take the time to think thoroughly and approach a project with patience, then you significantly reduce stress and careless mistakes. Define clear goals and intentions, in code, in fitness, and in life. Determine what small steps you need to take to reach your goals. Be careful to account for small obstacles. Remain persistent and trust the process. There is more value to be seen in the journey rather than the result.


Better Programming

Advice for programmers.

Rachel Lum

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Full stack web developer with passions for dance, fitness, health, math, communication, and technology.

Better Programming

Advice for programmers.