“Everyone talks about the Freshman Fifteen, but no one tells you about the Post-Grad Thirty.”
That was a joke I remember telling years ago when I was hanging out with some fellow students. I, like many others, sometimes made healthy eating and fitness secondary during my grad years. I got into some bad habits like snacking and drinking a beer or two while reading a book for comps. As a result I put on about 15 pounds during my comp year. No, that’s not devastating at all, but for someone who always exercised regularly it was a step back for sure. So we all have moments where we sacrifice our health for our work.
But the fact is that maintaining your physical health is important in grad school. There is a lot of concern for mental health among grad students, and rightfully so. But for me at least, physical activity is tied to mental health. If I go a few days without exercising, I feel anxious, depressed, moody, and overall lousy. Staying active helps me clear my head and handle stress much more constructively. So that’s why I always put a lot of emphasis on exercise, and it helped me stay in relatively good shape throughout grad school.
I know many other grad students have similar feelings. They know they should exercise and eat better, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day with what they’re already doing. In my experience, though, it’s definitely possible to find the time to workout regularly in grad school with the right strategies. And since fitness is on my mind because of my recent video about historical workout routines, I thought I’d share some of my experiences on staying fit in grad school. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I’m happy to share the strategies that worked for me through 6 years working on a PhD.
**Note that I’m not accounting for people with injuries, conditions, or disabilities that preclude them from exercising with this post. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for not exercising. Unfortunately I’m not qualified to give them advice on staying fit since this post is just about my own personal experiences.
1: Make it a Priority
I know this sounds deceptively simple, but it’s probably the most important first step. If you don’t make something a priority in your mind, how can you follow through on it in your day to day life?
It’s very powerful when you mentally commit to something. When you prioritize something, you start planning your day around it, not vice-versa. You start thinking, “After I get my workout done I’ll do this reading,” as opposed to, “I’ll get to my workout if I have time today.” You can see the difference. One is a priority and the other is an afterthought. Which one do you think you’re more likely to follow through on?
For myself, I prioritized getting a workout in at least 4 days a week. What that means is that it was on my To-Do list along with my readings and essays. I won’t pretend this wasn’t tough. I sometimes had to get up earlier than I wanted to or drag myself out after having a hard day. I didn’t always reach my commitment. But more often than not I did. And the fact that staying active was a priority for me was a major reason for that.
So if you’d like to start taking your health more seriously, start by making exercise a priority. Plan your day with a gym session or a run in mind, and you’ll be a step closer to following through on it.
2: Consistency is More Important than Intensity
Although I’m in pretty good shape, my workouts aren’t especially intense. Lots of people workout harder than I do. I’m never in the gym for more than an hour. Usually it’s more like 45 minutes. But I’m consistent. Unless I’m sick or hurt, I don’t let a week go by without exercising, and I’ve been that way for years. In my experience, this keeps me in much better shape than a super intense workout less regularly.
When you’re just starting out, you might be tempted to workout as hard as you can until you can barely walk. Resist that urge. Exercising that hard unsustainable. I’ve seen many people burn themselves out after less than a month because they started too hard and couldn’t sustain it. So my next piece of advice would be to prioritize consistency over intensity. Don’t go as hard as you can for a month and then take a 2 month break. Instead, start exercising in 30-minute increments a few times a week and only scale it up gradually.
You also don’t need a gym to exercise. There are all kinds of things you can do at home. Look on YouTube for yoga or aerobics videos. I know people who never walk into a gym but are in great shape by just doing a few videos every day.
You can also stay active without “working out,” per se. Sometimes if I feel antsy, I just stroll back and forth around the room while the TV is on. It’s not a lot, but it’s motion. You could also get a cheap set up dumbbells and do some arm workouts on the couch. Again, not a lot, but better than nothing. If you do little workouts like this, over time you’ll start seeing results.
The main point is to stay consistent with it. If you’re tired, do a lighter workout or just go for a walk. Anything to get yourself moving on a regular basis.
3: Use the 10-minute Rule
I forget where I first heard this, but it’s some of the best fitness advice I’ve ever seen. Basically, the 10-minute rule says that if you’re not feeling like exercising, force yourself to do it for 10 minutes. If you feel okay after that time, keep going as long as you can. If you still can’t get into it after 10 minutes, then at least you exercised for 10 minutes — that’s better than nothing.
It’s based on the logic that once you start moving, it’s easier to stay moving. You get your momentum going and warm your body up so after the first 10 minutes, the workout becomes much easier. Often, if you can get through 10 minutes, you can get through the whole workout without forcing yourself.
I’ve had success using this strategy. For myself, I know the hardest part of working out is getting myself off the couch and through the gym doors. Once I get there, I think, “Eh, I’m already here so I might as well finish.” Once that momentum got going, it just seemed like more work to stop than just keep going. So if you’re not feeling it one day, try the 10-minute rule for yourself. At the very least, you’ll get a 10 minute workout, and that’s more than you would’ve done otherwise.
4: Take Advantage of What Your School Offers
Working out is easier if you have partners and a community. There are communities like this on many school campuses, and you won’t know they exist if you don’t look for them.
Look into the services, clubs, or facilities that your school has for its students. There might be a lot more there than you expected. Many schools offer free gym access for their students and only require your ID to get in. (Note, I appreciate that some grad students who teach might feel uncomfortable running into their students at the gym. Don’t worry, there are other options.) At my university, the graduate student association has a chartered fitness group that meets regularly to do some aerobics or other activities. See if your school has one of these and join up.
And if your school doesn’t have these resources, why not do it yourself? Start an informal fitness group with your fellow grad students. Commit to meeting once or twice a week to exercise together. Petition your graduate student association or the administration for a chartered exercise club. Do what you can to build a community and support your fellow students who are trying to stay in shape like you.
I’ll admit I never took advantage of what my school offered, for several reasons. First I don’t really like working out in groups. My workout time is “me” time. And I also didn’t live especially close to campus so traveling there to use the gym or go to a workout class would’ve been out of my way. But if you do like working out in groups, then your school’s resources are a great thing to look into.
5: Don’t Forget about Walking
Honestly, one of my favorite workouts isn’t even technically a workout. I started walking regularly years ago when I had a knee injury that left me unable to run. I just wanted something to keep me moving while I healed. By the end of it, I was hooked. I now go for a walk multiple times a week, usually after dinner. Sometimes I walk instead of going to the gym if I’m not feeling into it that day.
A brisk walk for 30-60 minutes is a good calorie-burner. Certainly not as much as running or swimming, but walking regularly helped me keep off weight while my knee was injured.
But I think the biggest benefits to walking are mental rather than physical. As I said before, exercising and staying active are great for my mental health. If I were to pick one activity that improves my mood most, it’s walking. I can put on my music and forget about the world a little bit. Or sometimes I leave the music off and let my mind wander. As an added bonus, I almost always come up with writing ideas while I’m walking. It’s like my version of shower thoughts.
So if you don’t have the time or energy for heavy workouts all the time, walking is a great replacement activity. Try increasing your step count throughout the day, or putting aside some time for a long walk.
6: Watch the Snacking and Drinking
Okay, I’m a bit of a hypocrite here. I like drinking beer. Especially heavy imperial stouts that are probably about 300 calories a pint. My drinking is well in moderation, but I still enjoy a few drinks per week with an occasional weekend splurge.
But the fact is that alcohol adds a lot of calories, and I’d definitely lose a few pounds if I cut it out entirely. Even light beer has 50-100 calories per drink, which adds up. So if you do drink, keep it in moderation. If you’re not a light beer fan, stay away from sugary drinks with a lot of mixers. Just using seltzer as a mixer cuts out a ton of extra calories.
The same goes for snacking. I know the stress-eating takes hold, especially when you’re doing your final papers or reading for comps. A trick I always like when snacking is putting my snacks in a bowl rather than taking the package with me. It’s easy to absentmindedly eat a whole bag of chips if you’re not paying attention and the bag is in front of you. But if your snacks are in a bowl, you stop eating when the bowl is empty. When the snack isn’t right in front of you, it’s harder to overeat.
So those are some of the strategies I’ve used to stay in shape through my grad career. If you’re in the dark about how you can start prioritizing your physical fitness in grad school, I hope some of that advice helps!