Eric Trexler connects the dots between data, physical health, and a joyful life
Eric Trexler, a Postdoctoral Researcher at Duke University's Religion & Social Change Lab (RaSCL), has a deep-seated drive to unravel the links between physical activity, nutrition, and stress. Growing up as a sporty child in Cincinnati, Ohio, he developed a keen interest in exercise science and nutrition. While presenting research during his undergraduate years, he surprised himself and others by blossoming from an introvert to an extrovert. "I just came out of my shell. It was a clear indicator that I was in my element and doing what I love to do," he recalls. "My entire career unfolded from there."
A former health coach, Trexler has seen firsthand the profound transformations people undergo when they recognize that small actions can have big impacts on their well-being. "It’s like you can see a switch go on and their confidence soars," he remarks. Today, Trexler focuses on identifying barriers that impede clergy health and practical measures to keep them on track. Trexler says it's essential for physical health researchers to show people that the impacts of exercise and nutrition go far beyond quantifiable outcomes like reduced blood pressure or weight loss: "Ultimately, the purpose of improving physical health and well-being is to improve our quality of life, to make every day a little bit better so we're empowered to pursue the things that give us joy and fulfillment ... I hope our research can help clergy feel like they are steering the ship again," he says.
When people realize that small actions can lead to big changes in their health, it’s like you can see a switch go on and their confidence soars ... I hope our research can help clergy feel like they are steering the ship again.
[NOTE: The following interview is part of a series of interviews with RaSCL team members to explore the motivations, pivotal moments, and values inspiring their work.]
What’s a question you never tire of asking—something which connects to your current role?
The question I never tire of asking is ‘How can we improve the quality of our lives?” I study physical health, but I view it as just one component of overall wellness. The things that are often cited as threats to quality of life are anxiety, depression, and sleep issues. If you could look at one thing that has been shown in studies to positively impact those things, physical activity comes up time and time again. A lot of people think, ‘Well, I'm not really worried about having a heart attack this week, and I don't really care if I lose five pounds or go down a waist size.’ One of the most important things physical health researchers can do is to show people that the impacts of exercise and nutrition go far beyond these things. Ultimately, the purpose of improving physical health and well-being is to improve our quality of life, to make every day a little bit better so we’re empowered to pursue the things that give us joy and fulfillment.
What’s the nerdiest thing about you?
The nerdiest thing about me, easily, is my love of statistical analysis. It's funny, most people get into this work for the physical health side, and they know they have to use statistical analysis just because of conventions of our academic field. But they kind of hold their nose and say, 'Fine, I'll learn just enough to meet the expectation.' But I've always seen it completely differently. I get excited because I feel like the statistical analysis is what turns data collection into meaningful insights that improve the health and lives of people.
When did you first realize you had a knack for research?
As an undergraduate student, I was presenting a poster with the preliminary results from my undergraduate thesis. I normally tend to be fairly introverted. I'm not the type of person who is very outgoing and I usually don't talk too much at public gatherings. But in the context of doing science and presenting research, I came out of my shell and immediately switched from very introverted to very extroverted. I would talk to anyone who would even slow down near my poster. A classmate remarked they had never seen that side of me. It was a clear indicator that I was in my element and doing what I love to do.
Growing up, were there any people who had a big influence on your current path?
When I was in high school, I really loved exercise and nutrition, and one of the coaches of my wrestling team picked up on that and really facilitated that passion and enthusiasm. He would give me articles to read about training and nutrition and we would work out together. It was one of those things where he did a great job of embracing and helping me cultivate that passion. When I was deciding where to go to college and what I would major in, he convinced me that when you choose a career path, you're making a decision that affects many parts of your life - financial status, geographical opportunities, all sorts of things. But he said the most important thing is you're going to spend at least a third of your life doing this, so you really ought to weigh that more heavily than anything else. And he helped me identify the track that I wanted to be on. It’s hard to say what path I would have been on without his guidance.
Is there any aspect of RaSCL research that you’ve been involved with that feels particularly meaningful? What kind of impact do you hope it will have?
Empowerment and self-efficacy are central themes in my research. When people realize that small actions can lead to big changes in their health, it’s like you can see a switch go on and their confidence soars. I've experienced the satisfaction of helping individuals who felt stuck regain control over their health journey. Clergy often struggle to carve out the time and effort and energy to develop healthy habits because they have stressful jobs that are focused on serving others. I hope our research will empower them to overcome the barriers that hinder their ability to manage their physical health and help them feel like they are steering the ship again.