Chapter 13: Madcap Laughs (excerpt from my upcoming novel, The Silver Year)

Good news! I’m on the final leg of my second draft and my book should finally be out in spring to early summer of next year! Until then, I’ve decided to tease you with another chapter. If you haven’t read the book’s synopsis you can find it here. Enjoy!

Chapter 13

Madcap Laughs

Each palpitation of bass pushed Walter farther away from himself. But really, who is myself? the quivering voice inside his head asked. I’m thousands of miles away from any type of familiarity. I don’t know these people, their language, this country, this city, or even what type or how many drugs I’m on. I don’t even know how I got here. I do know one thing though: I hate this music . . . Am I at a rave?

Electronic dance music chomped with the precision of pneumatic machinery, slicing the air around him into rhythmical bouillon cubes of music and noise. Blacklit glowsticks and the smell of Vicks VapoRub pulverized the dark as glistening skin pumped and thumped around him in an orgy of neon movement. What beautiful oddity allured me to this strange plane of existence and time this time? He soon found his answer in the half-naked body thrusting her bountiful buttocks upon his hips.

Wally, Walter’s inner frat boy and drunk persona, had a tendency to “go exploring” when Walter was blacked out and this was a fatal flaw in a city so bipolar as Amsterdam. In the sobriety of day she was a serene Dutch beauty, but in the inebriation of night, she was a shape-shifting she-devil, and not the place you wanted to come to in not knowing where you were, how you got there, or where your friends went.

Hello Planet Amsterdam! Walter thought to himself in a comical, Buzz-Lightyear-like voice, desperately reaching for some former plane of euphoria he had since fallen off of. I am Walter Huxley, and I come in strange, just like you! Please accept me as one of your own. Tracers of light began to freeze in rejection; faces within his vicinity began to change and unhinge. Walter swallowed in fear as he suddenly felt himself falling.

Walter had hung his feet over the edge of sanity before, but tonight it felt as if he’d made a running leap and was now cannonballing down the mineshaft of his mind. How far above reality was and what lay below he was unsure, however, if he could find a tether, perhaps he could still save himself. He just needed to find out when and where reality escaped him.

I am Walter Huxley—for the most part, I am Walter Huxley, he started with what he could last remember to be true. I am in Amsterdam. I came here on a Contiki trip… And that was all memory could give him for now.

FUUUUCK! his thoughts groaned as thunderclouds of panic grew. Well, this is a new and frightening high. I’m not even sure if I’m really alive. This feels like a dream . . . Well, I think you did it Walter. Whatever you took it’s killed you, or put you in a coma, or somewhere in between, but whatever this is, it isn’t real life . . . But then what is it?

Okay Walter, get a grip! Calm down! We can handle this. WE can handle this . . . We just need some quiet right now. We need to find a restroom. Not only because we suddenly really need to pee, but this orchestration of strobing lights and merciless EDM is fucking our psyche with the grace of a jackhammer right now. Once we’re there, we’ll get a good look over in the mirror to reaffirm our—I mean my existence, and that will bring we—I mean, me—back to reality . . . Fuck, I hope.  

Fog machines suddenly filled the dancefloor with a pulsating cloud of color and disorientation as if the dream was fighting back, not wanting Walter to leave. As the music began a crescendo, he felt as if the ground was lifting, and if he were to leave, he’d fall to his death.

Doooo you know where the bathroom izzzzz?” he yelled to the girl he was dancing with—or more or less humping. Inside his head, his voice sounded like it was being run through a pitch-shifter. The music was so deafening it was not only affecting Walter’s hearing, but blurring his vision from the reverberations of his skull. Certainty’s outlines kept going in and out of focus. She yelled something back, whether it was English or not was unclear. “The baaathrooooom—the pisser, water closet. Où est le toilet?! El baaanooo!

She shrugged her shoulders and turned around, waiting to be humped into again. He turned her back, and shouted: “Is there a proper place to urinate, or shall I just go on this dancefloooooor?!”

At this point he was no longer asking to be answered, just needing somewhere to aim his frustration. Punch drunk and certain he was in a lucid dream, he unzipped his pants and exposed himself to the girl in a challenge to reality. “Wheeere do I take this guyyyy?” The girl screamed and everyone turned to see the freakshow unraveling in the middle of the dancefloor. Before Walter could start relieving himself though, two hefty and very real security guards hauled him out of the cloud and onto the cobbled streets of the Red Light District. “Thank yooooou!” he yelled as they sloppily tossed him to the ground.

The industrial stomp of the nightclub soon receded into sounds of urban nightlife as Walter’s mind calmed for the time being. Okay, so I’m still in reality, he thought. I still am in Amsterdam . . . God, I need to take a piss. He then remembered a green, spiral-shaped public urinal he’d pissed in earlier on his way to…

The sex show! the memory slowly climbed out of the abyss. My tour group and I went to a sex show . . . I ate a banana . . . I ate a banana out of a girl’s vagina. I was pulled onstage and ate a banana out of one of the performer’s vagina . . . Okay, nope. I excitedly volunteered myself to eat the banana. The memory flow ceased. Well, maybe I’ll be able to remember more once all this fluid is out of me, he thought, and set out in search of another city urinal.

The air was cool as it hit Walter’s lungs. The roads had been polished by a recent rainstorm and were gleaming and menacing as the District’s red lights echoed off them. This red-tinged reality, however, soon began to rattle his bearings again, and again the drugs took advantage of his loosening grip. Chemical demon upon chemical demon stuffed itself into his neural network until his head exploded open, and a vivid flood of animated insanity was spilt upon the world. Voices cooed and cackled at him from every corridor, passersby twisted and stretched in hellish facial contortions, while the streets burned in a fire of blood. The monsters of paranoia were encircling Walter and there was nothing to do but surrender or run.

Walter chose the latter, his feet setting a frenetic pace as they bounced down the alleyways like a pinball off the rubbery walls of his imagination. The faster he moved, the less time his senses had to play tricks on him. Anywhere else this public display of lunacy would have attracted notice, however everyone was too busy managing their own demons of the Red Light District to worry about his. He was just one among many madcaps out of their minds—or in his case, trapped within it.

Fortuitously, Walter struck upon a urinal while zigzagging through the city with no other strategy than folly madness. Shelter! he thought as he cuddled against his piss-stained savior. Surrounded by only green steel and darkness, the malicious animations of his mind had little to work with. The urinal was nothing more than a spiraled shade around a hole in the ground. The confined space was easier for him to comprehend, and his neurons began to cool after being set ablaze from the friction of so many over-firing synapses.

He rested his head against the wall and looked up into the misty sky, waiting until his heartrate and breathing regulated before finally discharging himself. The piss felt as good as an escaping possession and stirred up a foul odor of stale urine, vomit, and spoiled milk. Now within reach of composure, he had everything he needed but a recognizable face. He needed the stability of someone familiar to reassure himself that he had found the way out of the maze of his mind. But in the solitude of his spiraled bunker, the only face familiar to him was his own.

As expected, the urinal had no mirror. Walter dug through his pockets and found his otherwise useless cellphone. He couldn’t make a call, but it did have a camera. He turned the front-facing camera on, but was only greeted by a black screen. He pressed the screen and his face against the steel walls, hoping to catch some reflecting rays, but it was far too dark. He then resolved to using his phone’s primary camera which had a flash, but his eyes and mind were in a tenuous state, still regaining normal function. Using it came with the risk of being sent back into a lunatic fit. So with eyes closed, he pointed the camera carefully at himself as if it were a loaded gun. The flash then exploded and an imaginary force of voltaic monsters came rushing in under his eyelids. Reactionarily, he threw the phone in fear, and after several seconds of blindness, a sad image slowly faded into view. There, in a pool of public excrement, lay his phone like his spirit: shattered. He squatted down and picked up the splintered device and its assorted pieces. He pressed the power button with both thumbs as if choking it, but to no avail. Unable to confirm himself, he gradually dissipated into the ether, left to swim again with his chemical demons.

As catcalls oozed over the grates from above, Walter cowered over fetally onto the floor. His body writhed as he held his hands to his face and cried. There was nothing to do but cry, cry with the intensity of a discarded newborn. His tears, however, unfortunately soon loosened the film of filth from the floor that had accumulated on his palms, and soon his eyes were invaded with the passion of an army of fire ants, leaving Walter in a deserted, burning blindness. But sight wasn’t the last of his senses to leave him. Slowly, he retreated from any bodily sensation until there was nothing left but thought, then only one thought: This must be what death feels like. It bounded down the halls of his empty consciousness until it was nothing but a whisper, then finally, dense silence.

Undisturbed of the outside world, Walter was left to wander within himself in search of any trace of himself; any proof that he had ever existed. An ember of life began to flicker. It was the oldest memory he could revive from the database of his existence. A young woman was humming, the light hush of her breathing and the slow rhythmic pulse of her heart pressed against his ear. There was no sight, only sound. Walter was in his mother’s womb.

For a lot of his life, Walter was made to feel unwanted. He entered into the world unwelcomed, and in some sense that sentiment never left him. But in his lonely foxhole, he found he was not actually alone. There was and always would be one person who saw worth in his existence, so much so she gave her life for it: his mother. Nothing could ever change that; he had and always would have his mother’s love.

Soon her heartbeat became all Walter could hear, and it beat with the fury of a war drum until his outside tormentors withdrew. Slowly, corporeality returned to his soggy, corduroy bellbottoms, rinsed in a marinade of rainwater, piss, and the other unknown elements Walter shared the floor with. He picked up his cellphone again and spoke into it as if it were still operable.

“Hi Mom,” he said out loud. Mom: he wasn’t sure if he had ever even said the word. “Even though I’ve only met you in pictures and Grandma’s stories, I want you to know you are still very much a part of my life—a part of me. No matter where I am, your love is and always has been with me. I guess somewhere along the way I forgot that. But however neglected it may be, when I need it the most, your love is always there to shush away my demons, and that is what I’m most grateful for Mommy. When the world tells me I don’t belong, you tell it I damn sure do . . . I don’t know the last time or if I ever told you this, but I love you Mom, and I’m sorry I don’t tell you that more often. I love you.”

Absolved, Walter sat up with a more peaceful mind. He then remembered—and then realized, there was a way out of this mess. He searched his jacket pockets and found a forgotten lighter he had bought earlier at a coffee shop with Curt and Kourtney—however, whatever else he bought there and what happened before and after was still a mystery. He took out the lighter and struck it in front of the glass shards left of his phone screen. There, fragmented but reflected in the flame, was the face he so needed to see: himself. Walter had returned to reality—sort of. He was still high as shit, but at least the monster was manageable now.

“I thought you came here for something new and revelating?” Walter’s familiar therapist inside his head spoke out loud. “Yet, I don’t think the bottom of a urinal is exactly what you had in mind, huh? But I suppose once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right, right? But still, you shouldn’t be wasting this trip in a goddamn urinal reflecting on your past. You should be outside of it creating a past worth reflecting on; inspiring a story that will hopefully keep you entertained for an eternity, because in the end, the story of your life may be all you have left to read.

“Now, as you know, I’m an advocate of moderate drug use, but you’re doing it all wrong. Traveling the world is a mind-altering experience itself, and additional intoxicants should be taken with extreme care—especially when you’re in a place you’ve never been before. Drugs can enhance the experience of life, but too much and you’ll destroy it altogether as you’re starting to do with this trip.

“But there’s hope for you Walter. I’m glad I found you when I did. You still have a chance to salvage your one night in one of the greatest cities in the world. Don’t blow it on account of a bad trip. We all have them. But that’s why it’s called a trip, you can always stand up…”

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How Old Are You?: How The Atomic Age Solved One of Biology’s Greatest Mysteries

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By Bradley Stockwell

My two favorite arenas of academia are science and history, and the more I study the two, the more I see how interwoven they really are. There’s no greater example of this than something called the “bomb pulse”. Whether you know it or not, lurking inside of you is a piece of Cold War history—even if you weren’t alive at the time—and it is this little memento that finally solved one of biology’s most elusive secrets: How old are you? And I don’t mean how many times has the cellular clump of mass known as you swung around the sun, but how old are the individual cells that make up that mass? Your skin cells, heart cells, neurons—your body is constantly renewing itself with new cells and it is only as of 2002 that we began to have a definitive answer for how old each one was. With this post, my intentions are twofold. One: I want to tell you about one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 21st century, and two: I’m hoping that by wrapping them in this titillating story, I can also slip in a few basic principles of nuclear chemistry. With that said, let’s begin!

Between 1945 and 1963, over four hundred nuclear bombs were detonated, unleashing an untold number of extra neutrons into the atmosphere. Some of these neutrons found their way into nitrogen atoms, causing them to eject a proton. If you’re familiar with some basic chemistry, when a seven-proton nitrogen atom loses a proton, it becomes a six-proton carbon atom. However, because these carbon atoms still have two extra neutrons from when they were nitrogen, they become something called an isotope, a variant of an element which differs in neutrons, but has the same amount of protons. In this case, these slightly more massive and radioactive isotopes become an isotope of carbon called carbon-14.

When I say radioactive, all I mean is that the atom’s nucleus is unstable; that it is emitting energy in the form of ejected subatomic particles or energetic light waves to stabilize itself until it becomes a stable isotope, or a completely new element altogether. This radioactive decay comes in three main forms: alpha, beta and gamma. Alpha decay—which only happens with heavy elements like uranium—is the ejection of something physicists call an alpha particle, but chemists just call it a helium atom, a bundle of two protons and two neutrons. In fact, almost all the helium here on Earth came from this type of decay. Think about that the next time your sucking down a helium balloon; you’re inhaling the atomic leftovers of uranium, thorium and other heavy, radioactive elements. Beta minus decay is the ejection of an electron and beta plus decay is the ejection of the electron’s antiparticle, the positron. Gamma decay is the emission of an extremely energetic light wave called a gamma ray and it is often emitted in conjunction with alpha and beta decay.

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The time it can take for a radioactive element to reach a stable form can be anywhere from instantaneous to far longer than the age of the universe. Because individual atoms decay unpredictably, the way in which we measure this loss is through probability, or something called a half-life. This is the time it takes for half a quantity of radioactive material to decay into a more stable form. This is not to say if you have four radioactive atoms, in x amount of time you’ll have two necessarily, but more that each individual radioactive atom has a fifty percent chance that it will decay to a more stable form in x amount of time. For example, carbon-14, the star of our story, has a half-life of 5,730 years. This means if you had a pound of it, after 5,730 years you’d have a half pound of carbon-14 and half a pound of nitrogen-14, carbon-14’s more stable form. Then after another 5,730 years you’d have a quarter pound of carbon-14 and three-quarters pound of nitrogen-14, and so forth. This is how carbon dating works; by measuring the relative portions of carbon-12 and carbon-14 in a sample of organic matter, archeologists are able to determine its age.

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The period between 1945 and 1963 in which all this atomic testing was happening is now called the “bomb pulse” by the scientific community. It was called this because the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere was doubled during this period from all those free neutrons crashing into nitrogen. In 1963, when the Soviet Union, the U.K. and the U.S. agreed to the Limited Test Ban Treaty which prohibited all above-ground detonations, the amount of carbon-14 began to decrease by half every eleven years and will eventually be depleted somewhere around 2030 to 2050. This isn’t because the carbon-14 is decaying into nitrogen-14 (remember the half-life of carbon-14 is 5,730 years), but because it is being absorbed by the life inhabiting our planet, which includes us. Although carbon-14 is an altered carbon atom—a carbon isotope, it still behaves like a carbon atom because it is the number of protons in an atom that determines its chemical behavior, while the number of neutrons determines its mass; and like a regular carbon atom, these carbon-14 atoms have been binding to oxygen, forming CO2, which is sucked up by plants during photosynthesis and then fed to the rest of us through the food chain. Like the plants, our bodies too can’t tell the difference between carbon and carbon-14, so for the last seventy-plus years all this extra carbon-14 has been used by every living creature to build new cells, proteins and DNA.

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While our bodies can’t tell the difference between carbon and carbon-14 (because they have the same amount of protons), scientists can because of their slight difference in mass (remember carbon-14 has two extra neutrons). The difference in mass is measureable through a technique called mass spectrometry, which sorts atoms by weight. Without getting too technical, an instrument called a mass spectrometer strips atoms of some of their electrons and launches them into a magnetic field, which alters the atoms’ course, and because of inertia, heavier atoms take a wider path than lighter ones. By measuring how many atoms travel along certain paths, scientists can determine how much of a specific atom—in this case a carbon-14 atom—is in a sample.

So what does this have to do with determining a cell’s age? Well for a long time nothing. But somewhere around 2002, Krista Spalding, a postdoc at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, wanted to challenge the longtime doctrine that said the human brain couldn’t create any new neurons after the age of four. There had been growing evidence that the adult hippocampus—a seahorse-shaped region deep in the brain that is important for memory and learning—could regenerate neurons, but no one knew for sure. Spalding and her postdoc advisor, Jonas Frisén, had a hunch that the “bomb pulse” period could somehow offer a solution and it did, culminating in a paper by Spalding, Frisén and their team published in June 2013, which conclusively found that the hippocampus did produce approximately 700 to 1,400 new neurons per day, and these neurons last twenty to thirty years. How you ask? Well there’s an episode of Radiolab (a wonderful science podcast I recommend you all listen to) that has a much more colorful version of Spalding and Frisén’s journey here, but because I know I’m probably already pushing your attention spans, I’ll just give a brief overview. You see, atmospheric scientists have been measuring the amount of carbon-14 and other elements in the atmosphere every two weeks since the late 1950s, giving us an extremely accurate timetable of how much carbon-14 is and was in the atmosphere at any given time after. By correlating this data to the amount of carbon-14 found in a cell’s DNA (while other molecules are regularly refreshed throughout a cell’s life, DNA remains constant), researchers can determine not just the age of a hippocampal neuron, but any cell. So by accident, the nuclear age finally shed light on when tissues form, how long they last and how quickly they’re replaced.

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You—and every other living organism—are continually creating new cells. Cells that make up your skin, hair and the lining of your gut are constantly being replaced, while others, like cells that make up the lens of your eye, the muscles of your heart and the neurons of the cerebral cortex, have been with you since birth and will stay with you until you die.

So why is this so important? Well firstly, it gives us a key insight into the mechanisms behind many neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and many more. Really we’ve only just begun to dig into this Pandora’s box so to speak, and unfortunately time is limited (well unless we start blowing up a bunch of atomic weapons again, but let’s hope humanity has moved past this) because, as I said, this measureable spike of carbon-14 in our atmosphere from the “bomb pulse” will eventually be depleted somewhere between 2030 and 2050.

Despite what the “bomb pulse” is and will offer to scientific research, isn’t it cool just knowing which cells have been at the party of you the longest? Or that like the rings of a tree, or the sedimentary layers of rock, our bodies too tell the story of our times? With that, until next time, stay curious my friends.

 

 

5 Things That Separate Successful People From Everyone Else

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By Bradley Stockwell

Marketing Director Merchant Capital Source

As I’ve said several times before, bettering your business begins with you. Every investment in yourself is an investment in your business. If you’re looking to transform yourself into a successful business owner and entrepreneur, you need to begin acting and thinking like one—and it’s not easy. In some cases it can mean some major life and brain hacking, but once you’ve made these transformations, you’ll wonder how you ever operated any other way. If you don’t know where to begin, you’re in luck. After reading hundreds of articles, biographies, advice columns and using myself as a guinea pig, I’ve narrowed down the five essential things successful people do that others don’t. After all this research and testing you’ll be surprised to learn there’s no great secret. Success comes down to five simple things that you most likely know you should already be doing.

1. They Read More & Watch Less Television

All great thinkers and innovators read and I can’t express the difference it’s made in my life personally as someone who was once a very casual reader. If there’s one thing you take away from this post, I insist it is this. While it may be hard to start, once you’re in the habit you’ll find it’s much more fulfilling than other forms of media because neurologically it’s the healthiest thing you can consume. Numerous studies have shown reading requires, stimulates and strengthens several regions of the brain.

Television on the other hand has shown to decrease brain activity in regions that are particularly important to business owners. When watching television, brain activity switches to the right side of the brain. This is significant because the left side of the brain is responsible for logical thinking and critical analysis. It also decreases activity in your frontal lobes which is responsible for decision making. Brain scans have shown that when people watch television brain activity mirrors that of someone under hypnosis. Maybe all those rumors of television being used as a brainwashing device have some merit. While I’m not saying to stop watching television altogether it’s good to practice moderation and be selective with the programs you consume.

2. They Sleep

While it may be tempting, and sometimes necessary, to tack a few more hours onto your busy day you should calculate the repercussions sleep deprivation can have on productivity, not to mention health.

Studies have shown that reducing sleep by even 1.5 hours for one night can reduce flexible decision-making and innovative thinking by as much as 32%! Also when sleep-deprived your perceived exertion level for the same tasks done while fully awake increases by 17-19%.

I myself have read and tried many methods on supposedly how to operate on less than six hours of sleep and found unless you’re superhuman, they simply don’t work. For me personally, sleep is essential to my creative process. Some of my best ideas have come from my dreams or middle-of-the-night epiphanies. While the amount of sleep needed varies for everyone, sacrificing it for productivity, in my opinion, is counterproductive. So sleep—you’ll be healthier, happier and much more successful.

3. They Learn

Although you may not be in school anymore, there’s no reason why learning should stop. In fact I’ve found learning to be much more enjoyable outside the confines of formal education because I can learn what I want, when I want and how I want. And it doesn’t always have to be a business-related education; learning anything new creates new neural pathways in the brain and as I’ve said previously, the more neural pathways your brain has available the better it works.

Granted this doesn’t mean learning about the latest celebrity gossip is just as valuable as learning how to play an instrument. I’m sorry to tell you, but if it doesn’t feel like your brain is stretching it’s not. The reason why something is perceived as challenging is it requires you to alter your way of thinking, or neurologically speaking, to create new neural pathways.

While this is difficult, finding something you’re curious about is a great motivator. And you’ll find the more you challenge yourself, suddenly the easier and more enjoyable it becomes to learn new things. Intelligence in my opinion is much more an exercise than a gift. While you may think you don’t have enough time to educate yourself, I began dedicating just my lunch break to learning and in the last year I’ve learned how to play the piano and taught myself enough courses in physics to keep a regular blog on it. The world is a wonderful and mysterious place and I encourage you to poke and probe at it as much as possible.

4. They Write

Something you’ve probably noticed if you keep up with business publications is that most successful business owners and CEO’s write. Whether it’s in a journal, book, blog, or guest article, they do this for two reasons. One being that writing is simply a great cathartic release and the other to retain information they’ve learned.

Writing is great for your mental and emotional health. Keeping a journal can give you a safe place to vent stress and process problems. Studies have also shown it improves creativity, self-esteem and memory retention. Like reading, this can be difficult to start but I think what most people get caught up on (or at least I did at first) is that you have to make an entry every day for it to be effective. I’ve found that even one journal entry a week can suffice, however I tend to write more when my life is stressful or eventful.

Writing is also an essential adjunct to learning. It requires you to not only recall something you’ve learned but to also process and analyze its applications. In my opinion, this makes the difference between knowing and understanding something. As Einstein once said, “Any fool can know; the point is to understand.” This is the primary reason I keep regular business and physics blogs whether or not anyone actually reads them.

5. They Exercise & Eat Well

If you want to be a highly productive individual you’re going to need the right fuel. While most people say they don’t have enough time to accomplish the tasks they intend to (so they do counterproductive things like not sleeping enough), the truth most likely is they don’t have the energy to. Just like a race car can’t run off low octane fuel, successful people cannot run off low-grade food. Like any machine, your body is an energy processor and if you input high quality energy, the greater your output will be. As with all these changes it’s difficult at first, but once you make a habit of it you’ll find you’ll actually start craving healthy food over junk.

The second part of this is making your body as energy efficient as possible and that means working out. Once again, don’t get hung up on setting unrealistic goals and think you need to work out every day. You’ll be amazed at what just a little walking, or bicycle riding can do. If you’re close enough to work to commute by these methods, do so. Beginning and ending your day with a little exercise can do wonders.

The biggest nemesis to productivity is stress, hormonally known as cortisol. Your body releases cortisol when stressed and without exercise to burn that cortisol, stress compounds on itself and leads to impulsive behavior and anxiety. Exercise also releases endorphins which help you rationalize problems and increases optimism, energy and memory retention—not to mention you’ll live longer. Also while exercise may be physically exhausting, mentally it is relaxing. Treat it as your alone time to distress from work and home life.