Sometimes it can seem hard to find the time to stay active, especially during graduate school. Honestly though, it seems as if in any occupation, health can be a difficult thing to prioritize. Our culture glamorizes long work hours and high stress lifestyles. We all tend to compare ourselves to the people around us wondering if we're being as productive as they are, or maybe feel better about ourselves because we work harder than someone else. When I was in undergrad I definitely thought highly of myself for being busy all the time, always working, always studying. Part of the reason was because I did love learning, but the other part was because it was a type of lifestyle that had become culturally ingrained.
However, I know now from experience and how my body reacts to stress and a sedentary, studious lifestyle, that maintaining my health should be a top priority. I know it can seem difficult to grasp because time spent exercising, resting, or cooking something healthy at home is time away from writing, working at the lab bench, analysis, and emails. It can be tempting to work late and grab something quick to eat on the way home because we've grown accustomed to the idea that this is how it has to be if we want to graduate or meet a deadline. But the effects of these daily decisions in the long term are detrimental to both our health and our productivity. And let's face it, a few more hours at work isn't going to help us graduate or finish that project any time sooner when we're in no fit state to work optimally.
In contrast, we only have one body and one mind and we have to put taking care of it at the top of our to do lists. Eating healthy and staying active have a plethora of benefits including (but not limited to) increased energy, improvements in memory (in the case of cardio), reductions in pain, reduced risk of injury, elevations in endorphins following a workout that lead to improvements in mood, reduced anxiety, etc. But how is it possible to integrate exercise and improved diet into an already hectic routine? You may be reading this and you absolutely hate running, or don't like going to gyms, or thing healthy food tastes awful. But the trick is to find things that you truly find enjoyable. When it's something that is fun then it's much less of a chore to get up and get moving.
So then what? I've listed a few tips from my own experience to develop a more active lifestyle:
1.) Find something you enjoy. Sometimes when we envision exercise we just picture running endlessly on a treadmill or benchpressing our little hearts out. When I arrived to grad school, I was a cardio queen. I had run competitively when I was younger and cardio was really the only thing I felt comfortable doing. I had a little bit of a yoga practice that I had developed during undergrad as well, but it hadn't really taken off. At UM, we have to pay a fitness center fee unless we choose to waive it, so I ended up paying it and mostly using the gym to crank out half an hour on the elliptical or the treadmill. Occasionally I went to a yoga class, but I didn't really branch out. Limiting ourselves can be the biggest barrier to finding a workout regimen that we really enjoy and get addicted to. It wasn't until my second year that I started dabbling in weight training and high intensity interval training (HIIT) classes. Once I started doing HIIT, though, I was hooked. The more time I spend lifting weights, the more I noticed changes in my physique and strength which are both incredibly rewarding. I even tried pilates and Zumba a few times, but though they are nice workouts, they weren't my cup of tea. Experiment a little bit with different types of workouts and start with things you actually enjoy doing. If you like dancing, give Zumba or barre class a shot. If you like cardio, try cycling. Maybe you absolutely hate the gym and you like being outside- give hiking or kayaking a try. Sometimes it can be a little bit of trial and error to find things that really click with you, but once you do, it makes exercise enjoyable and something you actually look forward to.
2.) Prepare meals ahead of time. I'm pretty sure my entire first year was spend eating pizza, pasta, or grilled cheese. It was fairly easy, but not exactly the most nourishing. Preparing large amounts of healthy food makes preparing lunches and dinners so much easier and requires less effort. You essentially can spend one day a week cooking and then you have enough to last you through the week. Half of the time, I just make some quinoa or rice or meat to throw on top of some mixed greens with carrots and peppers and voila! Salad that actually has some flavor and nutritional value. Now if you hate salads, I'm not saying just eat salads every day and torture yourself. But one of the keys is to include foods that actually contain nutrients that are going to bring you energy and vitality. Maybe make a side of your favorite veggie along with the rest of your meal or add a couple pieces of fruit to your lunch bag. Small changes add up and the more consistently you eat healthy foods, the more appealing they are. I tend to stick to taking salads or stir fry for lunches along with a good serving of fruit and a protein bar for dessert (or an afternoon snack if my fruit fills me up). By now, I've been eating these types of meals consistently enough that if I have normal desserts it actually makes me feel a little queasy because of how sweet it is. Our bodies adapt to physical and dietary changes pretty rapidly.
3.) Find the time. In grad school our schedules can get pretty crazy and it can be really hard to find the time to squeeze in a workout. I usually leave work between 5-6 pm to go work out and this gives me enough time for an hour workout and to have a solid bedtime routine so I'm adequately rested for the next day. To some of us in grad school, the idea of leaving work at 5 pm seems absolutely ludicrous. Maybe you can exercise a little bit later in the day or squeeze something in in the morning before work. But if time is the primary excuse, I honestly encourage making time. Sacrificing your health for a little more time at work is going to end up doing more harm than good. Show yourself a little love and care by taking the time out of the day to prioritize yourself and your healthy and well-being by doing something to lift your mood and get your blood flowing.
Maintaining an exercise routine and eating well have both improved my mood and made my anxiety easier to manage, but it gives my mind time to unwind from the day and the stresses it holds. I can spend time checking in with myself to see how I'm feeling and see what my body and mind need to live more happily and intentionally. It took me a while to let it sink in that it's well worth the time it takes to spend just an hour doing something active and letting myself just play and have fun and sweat my worries away. I hope that if you're reading this you'll also realize the worth in taking time for yourself to prioritize taking care of yourself because you are so so worth it.