How to Hack Graduate School with Fitness

By: Rebekah Esmaili, University Recreation & Wellness Group Fitness Instructor
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Grad Terps in action!

recent article in Quartz regarding graduate student mental health cited some alarming statistics: 47% of graduate students suffer from depression and 10% have contemplated suicide. If you’re struggling, UMD has free mental health and counseling services on campus. Even if you don’t have a clinical mental health issue, stress, anxiety, and hopelessness are bound to be a barrier to your success at some point.

Regular exercise and a strong support network are effective ways to overcome these challenges. As a graduate student and group fitness instructor, I know exercise is a great way to take time for yourself, tune out problems, and decompress. It can also be a great way to connect with other people. Heck, during my first year I started crying in the middle of squats in a Bodypump class after a tough exam. Yes, I was embarrassed, but I needed to get it off my chest (and quads).

Fitness became a way for me to bounce back and hack the system.

I recently interviewed fellow graduate students and post-docs about fitness challenges they face and how they overcome them. Here are some common themes from our conversations:

  • I’m intimidated by the gym. You might be a language nerd or a math whiz but have never set foot in a gym. Start with small, achievable goals. EPPLEY IS HUGE, but do not despair, they offer free orientations. If you’re still nervous, bring a friend and a make a plan for your workout before you show up. When in doubt, drop into a group fitness class! We design the class, so all you need to do is show up. You can also try YouTube workouts at home to give your confidence a boost (Fitness BlenderPop Pilates, and Yoga with Adriene are my favorites).
  • I’m too busy. There’s an unhealthy work culture in graduate school, and your physical well-being may seem extraneous compared to your “real work.” However, studies have shown that taking breaks and engaging in exercise are good for your brain. One interviewee made a good point: “The irony is that when I have too much to do and am stressed I don’t make time to work out, but that is when I need it the most.” Here are some ways to carve out a little extra time for yourself:
    • Make a schedule. Find a reasonable time that works for you and make it a habit, even if you don’t feel like it. I really wish I didn’t exercise today, said no one! Graduate students tend to have unstructured days – making a workout schedule can break up the monotony of the week. If you live by deadlines, sign up for a race – I know I am most productive before a meeting and conferences.
    • Stay flexible. One post-doc said: “I tell myself I only need to do 30 minutes a day and have multiple options. If I have a lot of extra time, I go to the gym. If I don’t and the weather is good, I go on a run. Short time, bad weather? Yoga at home. I give myself lots of options and try not to stress if I miss a day.” Having a plan B (or C or D…) will ensure that you are successful in fitness and beyond.
    • Ease yourself back into your routine when the going gets tough, (e.g. quals, grading, conference, etc.). “The good thing about making it a habit is that even when things do get extra crazy and I don’t work out as much, it’s much easier to get back into the swing of things.”
  • I hate working out. Exercise doesn’t have to be a WORKout. If you hate running on the treadmill, then don’t! Some respondents have really interesting hobbies: traditional dance, martial arts, hula. The gym just might not be your thing, so try an alternative: hike in the beautiful Shenandoah National Park, or try another outdoor activity through the RecWell Adventure Program. Join an intramural team or organize a volleyball or ping pong game in your department. If it’s fun, it won’t be a “chore” and you’ll want to do it.
  • I have kids. Going for family walks or bike rides is great way to combine motion with quality family time. Also, the daily movement of carrying and playing with your child adds up and can be a workout too!

Nobody expected graduate school to be easy, but take time for yourself. You are more than your CV, grades, fellowships, and papers. You are you!

Please share your tips for fitting in fitness as a graduate student in the comments section below!

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