Well Being: An astronomer's constellation of activity: Biking, running, lifting

Mark Devlin working out at Franklin Field. "Exercise allows me to do the things I want to do, and to do more things," he says. "It's a matter of maintaining balance in life."
Mark Devlin working out at Franklin Field. "Exercise allows me to do the things I want to do, and to do more things," he says. "It's a matter of maintaining balance in life." (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)

It all helps his mood and his productivity.

Posted: September 25, 2012

As a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania, Mark Devlin has his head in the stars and his feet planted firmly on Earth - when he isn't running or mountain-biking.

His professional perspective is cosmic, but many of his sublunary hours are spent tending to the care and maintenance of his body.

It's a necessity in his line of work, for when he's not in his lab or office, he's out in the field, launching telescope-carrying helium balloons in Antarctica, studying the Big Bang at the Atacama Cosmology Telescope in Chile, or at the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope.

Wherever he is and whenever he can, he makes time for exercise. When he's at home, Devlin, 46, who lives with his wife and two boys in Wynnewood, is no less devoted to fitness.

"For me, it's almost impossible to understand why people don't enjoy working out," Devlin says. "It's relaxing, and I'm able to concentrate and get a lot done. If I don't get in my run, it affects my mood; my wife can attest that I'm not a very nice person."

Devlin is a neighbor of mine. I could tell when I first met him that he works out. He has powerful-looking legs, broad shoulders, a deep chest, and muscular arms. For about nine months, his morning routine was to rise about 6, run two miles to Planet Fitness in Ardmore, perform stretching and core exercises and some light resistance training with dumbbells, then run home, eat breakfast, get his boys ready for school, then hop on his mountain bike and cycle eight miles to Penn. He has since discontinued the runs to the gym, but he still gets up early and works out every morning at home after eating breakfast and answering e-mail.

Devlin is out of town about 100 days a year. When he's not traveling, he commutes to Penn every day, a 16-mile round trip by bike that he relishes (it usually takes 26 minutes for the ride in, 30 minutes for the ride home). Back home, he sold the family's second car. He estimates the savings (gasoline, insurance, repairs, parking) at $4,000 to $5,000 a year.

Occasionally, Devlin runs to work and back, and once or twice a week, he charges up and down the stadium steps at Franklin Field for 30 minutes. His mind is so facile with numbers, he's able to calculate in his head how much energy it takes and how many calories he burns. To blow off steam or regain concentration, Devlin will sometimes run six miles at night.

Devlin was not always so fit. In fact, in sixth grade he weighed nearly 200 pounds. Fortunately, an uncle who was an avid cyclist infected Devlin with his enthusiasm.

By ninth grade, Devlin's weight was in the normal range. (Today, he packs 185 pounds of muscle on a 5-foot-11 frame.) His interest in cycling waned at age 17 when he acquired a girlfriend, but when he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, his bicycle became his main mode of travel around Madison. Come winter, when it was too icy or snowy to cycle, he ran on the university track.

Earlier this year, Devlin and his wife, Jennifer, worked out for 10 weeks to the Insanity video, which is as tough as its name implies. Devlin's parents own a house in Vail, Colo., and at least once a year, the family vacations there. One of Devlin's rituals is to hike up Mount of the Holy Cross, the northernmost 14,000-foot mountain in the Sawatch Range. He has scaled the peak in as little as two hours and 40 minutes.

One of his most difficult feats occurred in Chile, when he pedaled his mountain bike from base camp at 9,000 feet to the site of the telescope, at 17,000 feet. The air was so thin that Devlin was gasping for oxygen.

"It's one of the hardest things I ever did," Devlin says. "But I figured I'd be a weenie if I didn't finish."

In Chile and Antarctica, Devlin studies the formation of stars in galaxies for clues about the evolution of the structure of the universe, how it went from a relatively smooth, uniform gas to something he describes as "very ordered."

These puzzles tease his brain and challenge his intellect. To keep his mind keen and agile, he knows he must nourish his body and mind through vigorous exercise. His attitude is shared by many of the scientists and graduate students in his lab, who also bike to work.

"I don't consider myself over the top," Devlin insists. "Exercise allows me to do the things I want to do, and to do more things. It's a matter of maintaining balance in life between work, family, and self. This is what I do for myself, and it's paying off."


Contact Art Carey at art.carey@gmail.com. Read his recent columns at www.philly.com/wellbeing.

"Well Being" appears every other week, alternating with Sandy Bauers' "GreenSpace" column.

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