Women in Academia: Fitting in Fitness

Hi, everyone! How’s the weather where you are? It’s been pretty great here, and that has heralded more than just seasonal allergies – it’s brought about a flurry of runners. Now, I am not suggesting that everyone must work out OR ELSE, but I find exercise to be valuable and enjoyable. Even so, it can be a surprising tricky habit to maintain, especially in graduate school. Sequined, a PhD student in the humanities at a big research school out West leads an active lifestyle, even when juggling the demands of graduate school. I invited her to share her experiences and get the discussion rolling about exercise and academia. She takes it away after the jump.

Be realistic about your work.

My first piece of advice would be to be realistic about your academic workload. This means being realistic about how much work needs to be done each day or week, but also being realistic about how much you can do for any given stretch of time. I can buckle down for four or so hours when necessary, but not twelve. I try to treat my work day as about 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. with breaks in that period for teaching, eating or coffee with friends, the Internet, and fitness.

Ailanthus altissima: Many professors and graduate students I know take a mid-day break. Instead of taking a traditional lunch hour, they head to the gym for a 45 minute work-out. Personally, I do not work best like this – I prefer to load up on coffee at lunch and use a run as a late-evening de-stressing session – but for some people, the break provides a helpful recharge, as Sequined discusses below.

Take a class.

Consider learning a new skill or rediscovering an old interest and building it into your schedule by registering for it. I find it really motivating to know that at 1 p.m. I have to go meet my jogging class, so I have to finish my morning work by 12:45. When I return to my desk later, I feel like I had an actual break, and I’m (often) ready to work again. These classes have another benefit, too: social interaction. Taking a break to be surrounded by other people feels like a fun break from reading and writing and working alone, and it can lead to meeting new friends. My school has such an enormous variety of things, including running, juggling, team sports, martial arts, billiards, dance, yoga, and on and on, that I think I could try something interesting every term and never run out if I wanted. If your school doesn’t, see if there’s an affordable option in the community. Often parks and recreation districts and community colleges have extremely affordable fitness and recreation offerings, and going off campus might increase your sense of being on a break from school work.

 Be flexible.

Some people value more freedom than that, so you can do similar things with your preferred fitness method. For example, have a (dependable!) friend agree to meet you occasionally to do things at the gym or to try a fitness video at your apartment. Another method I’ve used before is to set a weekly goal–do this short routine/go to ballet/swim 3x this week–and build some flexibility into when that will happen. If you want to swim three times this week, find four possible times you think you’d be able to make it and write them down. That way, when you miss one, you’re still meeting your goal.

Ailanthus altissima: I have a friend who schedules runs with some of her collaborators. That way, they can discuss papers and research ideas while getting in a good work out. They serve as each other’s dependable friend and provide support both out on the run and in the lab. Also, can I say how much Google Calendar and its blessed alerts have saved my life?

Be creative.

You can build fitness into your routine in even smaller ways, too. I was visiting family over winter break and I had no access to a gym, a neighborhood without snow and ice on the ground, or Internet for two weeks, and I was going crazy trying to figure out ways to get activity in. I ended up writing down as many body-only exercises I could think of and doing 1-2 of them whenever I got some alone time. I ended up only doing a few minutes of fitness per day, but feeling like I’d still accomplished something.

Be nice to yourself!

Any level of activity, I think, can help you feel better about your academic work. It’s a chance to do something different, clear your mind, and, for me, to practice another skill where I see more progress than I do in my academic work. When I’m able to run at least twice a week, I can feel it getting easier–scholarship doesn’t always seem so straightforward! Most of all, though, I’d recommend being nice to yourself. Don’t make activity another gruelingly miserable part of your already busy schedule. Find something you like or something you want to try, reward yourself when you do something you’re proud of, and take breaks when you need to–in academic life and in your fitness endeavors!

Ailanthus altissima: I cannot emphasize this point enough. I make time to work out because it makes me feel better and more productive. It truly forces me to relax and think in a totally different way than my scholarship requires. If working out does not work out for you, that is OK. If working out means taking a longer walk for your morning coffee, that’s OK, too. A good work out is a treat, a bad one is hell. Be nice to yourself and listen to what works for you.

8 thoughts on “Women in Academia: Fitting in Fitness”

  1. I have such a hard time with this! The only thing that’s even marginally effective for me is having a buddy. A friend of mine will push me into biking to school with her twice a week, and we’re both on MyFitnessPal. The calorie counting can be a little problematic because I tend to take things to the extreme and be upset when I don’t meet my goals, but it does help to have someone who helps me be accountable about meeting my (very mild) exercise target. And I get satisfaction out of logging 45 minutes of Netflix-based yoga that I did in the comfort of my living room.

    That said, I have been completely off the wagon for the past couple of weeks. In my defense, I also have no clean laundry or groceries, so I’m a well-rounded mess.

  2. I definitely struggled with this when I was in grad school. Setting my schedule (as much as I could) to make exercising as easy as possible helped a lot.  I had an assistantship in my department’s office and I could basically set my own hours, so each quarter I looked at the fitness class schedule and set my schedule around it – there’s a TurboKick class at 6:30 on Tuesday so I’ll make my office hours that day from 1:15-6:15 and then go work out, etc.

    I also started multitasking. I can’t read books on the treadmill, but I can on an exercise bike, so Friday and Sunday mornings when the rec center was empty, I’d bring some reading I had to do for class and read while on the bike. When things got hectic, I’d sometimes start skipping the gym with the (true) excuse of having too much other stuff I had to get done, so this helped me feel like I was being productive for school at the same time that I was doing something healthy and productive for me.

    1. That’s a great idea! I can’t read at all on the treadmill or elliptical, but I sometimes use that time as my TV hour (or half hour) when there’s a show or game I really want to see and I feel I can’t just sit and watch TV when I should be working.

      Another kind of multitasking is I sometimes listen to recordings of the books I’m reading (for my area of study I read mostly older works that are now in the public domain, which means many of them have been recorded on Librivox and similar sites) while walking or jogging, or (more often) I’ll listen to unrelated podcasts as a way of focusing on learning something totally different and giving my brain a break, too. It turns out that this is just as useful, though, because I’ve been able to expand the kinds of resources I use when I teach writing by recommending podcasts to my students in addition to just essays and articles.

  3. I found that I had put on some weight in the last year and had no one to motivate me to go. Our program is (weirdly enough) located in the rec building on campus, and this semester I found a friend with a similarly hectic schedule. Now we go to cross fit class at least twice a week and I feel better, if nothing else. It’s easier to be motivated/productive/creative after you’ve literally beat yourself up!

    1. I think it’s so helpful to find a class that you enjoy and feel like you’re making good progress in. For me it’s a hard balance because I need to work hard enough that I’m challenged but not so hard that I’m miserable (or hurting myself!) so I’m a little bit picky about fitness classes, but I’m pretty open to trying new ones, which I guess is a plus.

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