Earlier this year I invited Dr. Eli Puterman to discuss his role at UBC’s School of Kinesiology, his current research and his thoughts on kinesiology graduate studies.
I wasn’t sure what to expect meeting a high caliber researcher like Eli without much context, and for some reason I expected more pomp, and even ego. As it turns out it’s really hard to gauge someone just by their biography page on a website. He’s very approachable and we hit it off right away. With shared interests on fitness, research and the Sunshine Coast, the interview flowed smoothly.
We started our interview with his upcoming trip to the Sunshine Coast, discussing Eli’s personal life. Then he spoke about his career and the pressing scientific questions that he is asking as a researcher. And as it turns out, his research on stress, aging and exercise is expansive, engaging and accessible in a way I was not expecting.
Finally he spoke about what roles his graduate students at UBC take in his research lab and as Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity and Health what type of student he chooses to supervise. Read on to learn more about the life, research and lab of Canada Research Chair Dr. Eli Puterman.
Eli, thanks for taking the time today. Why not start with your interests. What are your favorite sports and pastimes?
That's a great question. So my favorite thing to do is go camping in the summertime, going for hikes, taking the dog for a hike, a walk on the seawall, and trying to get my son into the outdoors! Anything that's outside in nature is really ideal for me.
When I'm in the gym, though, I guess I'd say I’m a high intensity interval training kind of guy. The more I sweat in a workout, the better I feel.
I use this app called Down Dog, which is an app that we've used for some of our studies that I got really hooked on at the beginning of the pandemic. I use the app maybe three, four times a week for about 30 minutes each time and I’m just dripping in sweat by the end of it.
That's excellent. Earlier you mentioned you were going camping with your family. Where are you camping?
We have some vacant land on Nelson island off the Sunshine Coast. It's a pretty massive Island and we have a bit of vacant land where we pitch our tents every first week of July and live on the island for about eight weeks every summer.
I do some writing from there so I still get work done, but I'm breathing and sleeping and living in the outdoors for eight weeks straight every single summer.
It's pretty crazy. It was my husband's dream and we made it come true. We just have a little plot of land and we camp. We built a treehouse, an outdoor shower and bathroom and also a kitchen area.
That's amazing. So it's just the three of you up there? Do you guys have guests?
You know, we do have a lot of guests. So I guess this is where we get into personal stuff. It's me, my husband and our son. Our son has a mother who is part of the living arrangements, not part of the relationship. And so we have five tent platforms, one for her, one for my husband and I, and then we have some extras for when we have family and friends.
We cook together all summer long. We take trips on the boat. We go swimming in the ocean. We build things.
That's awesome! I'm doing a trip next weekend to the Sunshine Coast and I’m also a big fan of camping.
Why don't I dive into some of these questions about your research? I'm really interested that you started in psychology and that you've transitioned into a health role. Was your psychology research related to health? Or did you switch after your graduate studies?
Great question. I think it all just unfolded really naturally. My master's was on the idea of rumination and daily mood. I was asking under what daily situations do we ruminate too much? And for people who ruminate too much, how much does it affect them?
And what we found was that yes, rumination does affect us poorly, or negatively impacts how we're feeling throughout the day.
That was my master's research, and it was in clinical psychology. I continued clinical psychology for my PhD, and then quickly transitioned to a health psychology PhD program and shifted away from clinical work. My PhD research focus was on health behaviors, and how mood and wellbeing throughout the day might impact health behaviors, and specifically engagement in protective sexual intercourse.
As I worked on my PhD I started getting really interested in the stress/health link. Research shows that psychological stress is part of the system that motivates us towards action, to deal with whatever is coming our way.
There's also physiological responses to stress—the increase in cortisol, the increase in cardiovascular responses. They manage fight or flight and alertness to an acute stressful experience, but when they are constantly being activated they become dysregulated. Those systems impact the immune system, which impacts cardiovascular disease development, and more.
So I started getting really fascinated by this link between stress and health, but with a twist. I'm a health behavior researcher and I believed that health behaviors can protect us from some of these negative effects of stress. I was really interested in tackling the question of when people who are stressed out begin exercising, whether that changes the effects of stress on their health and wellbeing.
I started off with just observational stuff – checking whether people who exercise have a different relationship between stress and cellular markers of health. In our first study, we found that the already evidenced relationship between chronic life stress and shortened telomeres (a marker of cell aging) is non-existent in people who are exercise. In other words, stress was unrelated to telomere length if the participants were exercisers..
Then I started developing randomized trials with people who had high stress in their lives and providing them with exercise programs or free gym memberships. That's what I did in San Francisco with family caregivers–which became my first foray into intervention work.
I like to call it interdisciplinary. Our minds are just biological processes occurring in our brain, but there's something magical about how these biochemical neurotransmitters and all these things happening in our brain turn into thoughts.
It makes sense that if we move our bodies, there are these changes physiologically that are then circulating throughout the body that are impacting everything from the immune cell, and the length of our telomeres, all the way to how we're feeling in the brain and expressing how we're feeling.
You mention interventions, that if people started exercising they see physiological changes. Can you tell me a little more about your current research on that? What populations are you working with? How did you set that up?
I have two big studies right now. One of them is in collaboration with Providence Health Care and their team leadership. That study is an exercise trial with health care workers during the pandemic–something that is all over the news. They've been seriously stressed out and burnt out resulting in lots of absenteeism and many leaving their profession.
During the early months of the pandemic, when I was working out with Down Dog, I was meeting a lot of people talking about how depressed they wer,e that they weren’t able to go to work or to the gym anymore. I thought why not study exercise during the pandemic, during a time when people are isolated and stressed out. This was a perfect opportunity.
With my team of graduates students at UBC, I launched the Covid-19 Pandemic and Exercise (COPE) Trial, an at-home app-based exercise randomized study with almost 350 Canadians who signed up after seeing our ads on social media. The participants were randomized to either the HIIT app or yoga app, or the combination of the two, orthey got randomized to a waitlist control group. Over a six week period, we tracked their levels of depression symptoms, regardless of the group they were assigned to. What we found was a steady decline in depressive symptoms over that six week period for those who were in any of the exercise groups, whereas the control group participants remained steady and high in their depressive symptoms. The study was published a few months ago in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
When that publication came out it started getting media attention. The Providence Health Care team, with whom I had already had some conversations by email, said “we want to do something immediately with health care workers”. And here we are, just 5 months later, we are wrapping up recruitment for our new study with 284 healthcare workers–randomized to either have received all the different apps from Down Dog (HIIT, yoga, barre, running), or they were randomized to the waitlistcontrol group .
We're looking at their depressive symptoms, their burnout and absenteeism as outcomes to see whether exercising for a 12 week period changes their depressive symptoms. That is one study.
Then there’s the Positively Dance Project that we developed in collaboration and with women living with HIV to be delivered by women living with HIV and for women living with HIV. We were already in consultation with an advisory group to another study for women living with HIV. So we asked them “what would you want to do to move your body” and, and they said dance. So we got funding to implement this.
We hired two Canadian choreographers who are also women, to create a dance training program and they taught this program to three women living with HIV who now have been trained to become dance instructors over the past few months. Now they're delivering a dance program two times a week, for a group of women living with HIV. It's a peer supported or peer led research program developed by and in collaboration with a team living with HIV. For them this was their dream.
We just had our first class this past Wednesday, where we had a teacher who was herself living with HIV, teaching to eight women and we’re keeping enrollment open. We’re hoping we get to 30 participants within the next six months to show the program’s viability and sustainability.
Will they come? How many will come? How often will they come over a six month period? These are our primary questions. But we're also trying to get some cell aging data, some biological outcomes, and wellbeing outcomes to see if there's any evidence that things are changing for them inside their body and inside their minds.
Then we can apply for another larger grant saying “we've put together a pretty good package and people will enroll and there's some evidence that something's changing. Let's get some better funding to make it a more stable program.”
I imagine there will be a lot of biological insights that will come out of these studies as well as psychological indicators. But also, what an incredible program that could feasibly generate a lot of other dance groups!
The big question is how do we make this sustainable, whether it's within an organization that is serving–healthcare, and health care workers, nurses, the administrative staff, the allied health care professionals, all the way to community organizations that they are serving. Whether they're serving lower income people with housing insecurity, people living with HIV, whatever the organization is–how do we make these types of programs sustainable?
You know, I'm now a tenured professor and I'm thinking “What's next?” And I’ve realized that the sustainability piece is next for me. I've answered a lot of basic science questions, but how do I make these next things more impactful for more people?
For example, how do we deal with it from an insurance perspective? If we want people exercising right now, then why aren’t the insurance programs and our medical systems covering kinesiology? They're not currently covering people for going to a gym.
“How do we deal with it from an insurance perspective? If we want people exercising right now, then why aren’t the insurance programs and medical medical systems covering kinesiology? They’re not covering people for going to the gym.“
How do we prove this is really important? The only way is to demonstrate, through research, that exercise programming leads to less absenteeism, greater workplace enjoyment, less burnout and less needing to replace people. The only way is if you can show that there's dollar value to it.
But when I think about the dance project with women living with HIV, I think about how do we make this happen on a larger scale? And how do we now develop this and think about this dance project for more than just for women living with HIV, but for all people who don't want to go to the gym or afford the gym? Can we engage other people who are dealing with systemic racism, violence and trauma?
The two dance choreographers developed a beautiful program and I wonder how do we get it out there further? And with them in particular, because I made sure they own this program.
Some of the readers of the blog are kinesiology students looking at kinesiology as a career. Many of them are also interested in graduate studies. Can you tell me a bit about what a typical graduate student would work on within one of these studies?
Sure. I currently have a pretty large team. I'm working with a postdoc, Vincent, who came from Quebec and he's leading the whole healthcare study. He’s managing the whole team, putting together all the documents, making sure it's ethical, and editing everything, preparing all first round documents, as well as helping create the website.
Then we have a grad student, Brook, who is managing all the research assistants and scheduling the participants, ensuring that all the documents are being followed properly by the students. Some of the data that we're going to have from this study will be used for her master's thesis. She's very deeply involved in making sure that it's all followed according to the correct protocols so that she can have the best data.
Another two graduate students, Luke and Hana, are leading the other big projects that we do in the lab that is supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. They’re completing studies where we are stressing people out within the controlled environment of our lab, and then looking to see how they perform in physical activity. And they are s also leading the projects where we have people complete a single bout of exercise, and then examining how it changes some of the stress responses.
Students come to me with different interests and if they are strong students with great academic training along with good grades and a really strong interest in research, it becomes exciting to work with them, to follow their path and what they're interested in.
I hope that I provide a lot of support to my students. We currently have nine people in the lab right now. Five masters students and four PhDs, it's pretty big. But the PhD students also work with the master's students so there's good collaboration. We work together as a team to make sure that things progress nicely and smoothly.
Okay, now I think this is a pretty basic question and hopefully it's not too hard to answer: how does a graduate degree benefit kinesiology students?
With a bachelor in kinesiology, people can become a practicing kinesiologist and get certified. I think graduate school helps when their goals and their mission are to get more training, learn how to do some research which they can apply to wherever they might work.
Most of the master's students that I see end up going on to their PhDs or to one of the allied professions or medical professions. The others might go to get jobs at Lululemon as research scientists, or at tech companies as research scientists. I think our masters program is like a step towards getting into industry.
For example, there are opportunities for getting into the sports environment. I've seen some master's students get to work with teams. A big part of sports teams is about getting the right type of evidence to advance an athlete’s performance, as well as the team dynamics.
To answer some of those questions you need to have a Master's degree. We also have a Master’s of High Performance Coaching for coaches that have been in the field for a long time and want extra training. It's a very hands-on program.
Some of your studies at UBC’s School of Kinesiology seem to involve a lot of programming. I guess that's a big part of a lot of industry work, nonprofits and public service.
One of my students is really interested in program development for organizations and we can steer some of her work within the healthcare world to better understand absenteeism as well as exercise and wellness programming for these outcomes. She might not want to be an academic at the end of it but having a PhD will help her to lead that aspect of an organization.
I think grad school helps you get into a program, or a company or a job, whatever it is, where you're not starting at the lowest end and moving up, but you're coming in with the knowledge that's necessary to lead and to ask the right questions.
Very cool. And my last question for you is what kind of students are you looking for in your lab? How do you find these people and what are they like?
People with a passion for research and for asking questions. Interestingly, I often get people applying who I like to accept who have had part time jobs in restaurants because they know how to talk to people, they are reliable and show up on time!
I did that my whole life until I became an academic. There's something there… because you can rush around a floor remembering orders, getting it to people's tables and being polite if you're really good!
When you have nine people in the lab, you have to make sure they're all getting along. So I make sure that there's something about them that is endearing because I need to have endearing people around me. If not, coming to work becomes a problem.
It's important to build that culture from the ground up that way too.
My students hang out together on the weekends, they go to the beach. I mean, I'm never invited, I don't know why. (laugther) They all get along really great. Of course I look for grades and their experiences in labs too.
Ok what a great answer. I really appreciate that Eli and let's touch base in the future. Thank you so much and have a good rest of your day, and a great trip to Nelson Island.
This interview was a lot of fun because Eli is so accomplished and yet down to earth. I love how his academic questions are testing real word challenges and truly making a difference in people’s lives.
If you have questions for Dr. Eli Puterman you can reach him on Twitter on @eliputerman or at his email at UBC at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re interested in learning more about kinesiology make sure to read Top 5 Canadian Universities to Study a Kinesiology Undergraduate Program.