Beyond the Lab Bench

GetFit: Walk, Run, or Dance to the Finish

Collage of people doing exercise and images of medals

This story is part of our ongoing series, Beyond the Lab Bench. Click here to see all stories in this collection. 

On the 4th floor of Whitehead Institute, scientists have found a unique way to cope with the rainy period of early spring — a competition where teams of eight try to exercise the most minutes. It’s a hotly contested race within the larger GetFit competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in which community members log their weekly exercise totals for 12 weeks. And it has helped a sizable part of the Whitehead community cope with social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s been fantastic,” says Neha Bokil, a graduate student in the lab of Institute Director David Page and captain of a team called “Cut and Running.” “It definitely gives me motivation to stay active and a way to stay active. I think that during times like this, it can be hard to be motivated to move and get out. I think it’s really nice to have this way not only to get exercise but also to connect with people.”

Bokil’s team name, like many others in GetFit, is a science pun—in this case, on a genomics protocol called CUT&RUN. Her team, which includes David Page, competed against six others on the 4th floor this year.

People were already engaging in a wide variety of activities to meet their weekly GetFit goals: from running to boxing to dance fitness classes. But social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to people getting even more creative. Bokil was recently certified as an instructor for BollyX, dance fitness classes that are Bollywood style. “Since everything in-person got shut down, I’ve been leading virtual dance fitness classes,” she says. “That takes up a lot of time: learning the choreography, practicing it before actually teaching the class, and then the class itself. That’s been my go-to exercise.”

Lab Materials Assistant Elena Popkova participates in Bokil’s classes three times per week. “It’s good to see people, especially on Saturday morning,” she says. “It’s good to get some endorphins going and see everyone smiling.”

A clip from Neha Bokil’s online BollyX dance fitness class. Courtesy of Neha Bokil

“It’s the competition that makes it fun, but it’s also a way for us to spend time together that’s not lab-based,” Bokil says.

Marine Krzisch, a postdoc in the lab of Whitehead Institute Founding Member Rudolf Jaenisch, captains a team called “Rage Against the PCR Machine.” Their social distancing exercise includes home boxing workouts, running apartment stairs, basketball, badminton, Bhangra dancing, running with dogs, yoga, biking, weights, and chasing down family members absconding with Oreos, to name a few.

Over the years, the 4th floor game has evolved house rules separate from the larger MIT GetFit competition — which called for a separate online scoreboard and weekly email updates in sports reporting form, produced by Alex Godfrey, a graduate student in the Page lab. One important rule affects how team exercise totals are scored. Each week has a goal for total minutes— for example, 300 minutes per person. If an individual logs more than 300 minutes, then the additional minutes only count as 1/3 of a minute for the team. This weights full team participation more strongly than one individual exercising a lot. But individuals still compete against each other with their unweighted totals for the individual rankings, so the heavy hitters aren’t discouraged from big totals.

Godfrey and Popkova help organize the 4th floor game. Several years ago, the Page lab began an internal GetFit competition with three teams. While it was a vibrant contest, the players wanted to raise the stakes. Last year, Popkova, Godfrey and others from the Page lab recruited colleagues from the 4th floor. Teams from the Sive, Cheeseman, and Jaenisch labs joined in the fun, with relatively equal proportions of technicians/staff scientists, graduate students, and postdocs participating—with some lab alumni and family members taking part, too.

 “All of a sudden, everyone was meeting their weekly goals,” Godfrey says. “Our teams were doing extremely well across MIT as well, because it just made it a little more exciting.

Alexsia Richards with a medal and a thermal blanket at a finish line

Jaenisch lab postdoc Alexsia Richards, a member of the GetFit team "Rage Against the PCR Machine," at the end of a marathon

“They wanted to be motivated, and competing against people you know is more motivating,” says Krzisch. She and her Jaenisch lab mates quickly became a considerable force on the weekly scoreboard in 2019. Part of her motivation was logging more minutes than Page lab postdoc Lukas Chmatal, an ultramarathon runner. “I tried really hard because my goal was to beat Lukas, and I did,” she says. “I was walking a lot as well, because my bike was broken.”

Krzisch won first place on the 4th floor for her individual time last year, receiving a cardboard “gold” medal. And her team won an award from MIT GetFit for its name: “I Work Out Because My Experiments Don’t” — earning them gift certificates to a local restaurant.

Godfrey’s weekly updates keep people motivated and season the action with commentary. Here’s an excerpt of the week 8 recap:

“In our team competition, Thor's Workout Routine from the Sive Lab (2,299 weighted min.) is in 1st place, maintaining its narrow lead over Cut and Running from the Page Lab (2275 w. min.), while 99 Problems from the Jaenisch Lab (2,100 w. min.) is holding on to the 3rd place spot by an even narrower margin over Mostly Harmless from the Page Lab (2,096 w. min.). But with four more weeks and a little extra time on our hands, it's still anyone's game!”

The competition started in February before social distancing measures for the COVID-19 outbreak. When remote work began, Godfrey wasn’t sure how things would go, but soon he was pleasantly surprised.

Yi Liu holds his dog up on his shoulder in a park
Jaenisch lab postdoc Yi Liu earns his GetFit minutes with his dog.

“Most people are still really engaged and logging lots of minutes,” Godfrey says. “I didn’t really know how it would go, but it’s been pretty amazing to see that even though we’re all apart, almost everyone is still participating and taking it seriously.” For his own part, Godfrey ran 26.2 miles on April 20th, in place of the postponed Boston marathon.

Krzisch, a boxer, says that the shutdown of non-essential businesses has taken a toll on her minutes and her team’s rankings. Since boxing and fitness gyms have all closed, she has shifted to running and doing online workouts at home. “My minutes have decreased by 50 percent, but I’m still doing things,” she says.

But fellow Jaenisch lab postdoc Emile Wogram, captain of “99 Problems But Workout Ain’t One,” has a different perspective. “Now with coronavirus we have a lot more problems, but actually, I think GetFit makes it easier for us to cope with it,” he says.

Wogram cares for his 10-month old son in the mornings and works in the afternoons, when his wife takes over childcare. “With my son, it’s more entertaining to stay at home, even,” he says. “It never gets boring. And for GetFit, he wants to be entertained, so I sometimes count the minutes that I try to teach him soccer in the living room.” Wogram also racks up minutes when he walks with his son in the stroller to help him get to sleep.

Wogram’s teammates tend to do yoga or weight lifting at home, as well and walking and running. “Everybody works out more now than before,” he says. “I think it’s a good way to stay sane while trapped inside.”

A crucial part of GetFit is that all types of exercise count, Wogram adds. “It’s so important to keep in mind that it’s a fun competition,” he says. “People that go outside for a walk to participate in GetFit— of course that counts. It’s more about doing something together, especially in these months when the weather is bad and it’s cold. For three months, more or less, people are united by counting minutes, competing, and making fun of or challenging each other. And of course, there is our GetFit Party when all is over."

“People are getting more creative with how they do their minutes,” Popkova says. “One person on our team is taking online classes to become a yoga teacher. People have a little more time for exercise, even if it’s indoor exercise. And we all need to stay connected!” Popkova has recently begun teaching some exercises to her parents in Russia over video chat because they have been getting bored.

This year’s GetFit competition ended on April 27. “Thor’s Workout Routine” won the 4th floor match, placing 15th out of 495 teams on the MIT scoreboard. They were followed by “Cut and Running” in second and “99 Problems But Workout Ain't One” in third. For the individual competition, Lukas Chmatal placed first, Neha Bokil placed second, and Justin Chen placed third.

Image of medals for the GetFit competition

The medals for the 2019 GetFit competition

In previous years, the GetFit participants would cap the season with a celebration that included an award ceremony. The top teams receive handmade gold, silver, and bronze “medals,” as do the top-ranking individuals. This year, they’re contemplating a video hangout, with an in-person party at a later date.

Looking towards future years, some have their eye on expanding the competition once more.

“I guess some people want to do competitions between different floors and create really strong teams—the most active people on 4th floor versus the most active on 5th floor,” Popkova says.

“Personally I think it would be really successful as a building-wide competition, with maybe a $5 buy-in,” Godfrey says. “Then you could have more exciting prizes and see some really fun competition. It would be a bigger organizing task, but if someone wants to take it on, I think it would be really successful.”

Beyond the end of the competition, Popkova says it’s important to stay active. “Even if you do low-impact exercise, it’s one way to feel connected to other people, get your blood flowing, your endorphins kicking, and feel like you’re not alone,” she says.



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