Maintaining Physical Wellness as a Grad Student

By Gary Qin |

The journey towards and achievement of a graduate degree is a significant life milestone, but it should never come at the expense of your health. As graduate students, we typically have sedentary lifestyles, hunched over a desk or lab bench like with many professions nowadays. We might also take shortcuts in our diet and nutrition, choosing convenient meals, which often means sacrificing substance. We may feel okay now, but it’s important to know that physical wellness is not the absence of illness and injury but a proactive process of developing and maintaining habits to keep you healthy. Developing healthy habits now can pay off for our long-term mental health, physical health, and productivity as a graduate student and beyond. While I am no expert on physical wellness, I would like to share a few habits that have helped me that I hope can help you as well.

1. Take a (movement) break from your work.

During one of my long commutes, I came across this podcast series that introduced a research study conducted by NPR and a team of researchers at Columbia University Medical Center on 20,000 participants who took regular movement breaks – walking five minutes after every thirty minutes sitting – to counteract the harmful effects of a sedentary and screen-filled lifestyle. They found that in participants, “fatigue was reduced by 25%...[and] feelings of positive emotions increased, and their feelings of negative emotions decreased” (Source). After large meals, movement breaks reduced blood sugar spikes by 58% compared with sitting all day (Source). I have been trying these movement breaks and can attest to the benefits on my productivity and energy levels throughout the day. While the researchers found five minutes out of every thirty was the optimal activity level, any frequency of movement breaks was better than sitting all day. Give it a try!

[Image Description: Mike Wazowski from Monster’s University struggling to run on a treadmill]

Caption: It’s time to get moving!]

2. Any amount of exercise is good as long as you can stick to it.

Continuing with this theme of moving more and sitting less, I have been focusing more on whether I am exercising rather than how much and often. This is not to say I don’t try to work out a good amount, but I am more forgiving of myself when life happens, and I cannot work out as much as I would like. According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion’s Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, any level of physical activity and exercise is beneficial; there is no lower threshold for benefits from physical activity, although exercising 150-300 minutes per week is optimal. This guidance means we should not get stuck on the notion that there's no point if we aren’t working out five days a week. Be realistic about your limits and find even a little time during your busy weeks to exercise because regardless of how much and how often, exercising is better than not exercising. Take advantage of on-campus classes and exercise facilities; even if you work from home, try some light calisthenics or pilates in your living room. Anything helps!

3. Trust your gut when it comes to your gut.

For some, proper diet and nutrition means rigid control – planning the specific foods you will eat, a calorie level to reach (and not exceed), or even eating at certain times. And if this works for you, that is great, and keep doing what you’re doing. For others, this is an intimidating and prohibitive affair and can turn us away from eating healthy altogether. I started on my fitness journey with strict calorie counting, and while it was helpful initially, it became too tedious and stress-inducing, and I started seeing food as ‘good’ and bad.’ I would feel terrible if I didn’t meet my nutritional targets or ate what I perceived as ‘unhealthy.’ Then, I came across intuitive eating (IE). According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, IE is not just learning to eat when hungry and stopping when full but also identifying the specific cause of hunger and responding with awareness and intention. It is learning to respect and appreciate your body and the food that you eat. Since adopting the IE approach to eating, it has reduced my stress and guilt when it comes to eating while still allowing me to maintain my fitness goals. If this resonates with you, I encourage you to look further into IE and see if it is the right approach for you.

[Image Description: Patrick Star from Spongebob Squarepants eating a Krabby Patty]

Caption: Food is meant to be enjoyed (in moderation)]

Being a graduate student is stressful and takes up much of our lives. Still, if we dedicate some time and thought to maintaining our physical wellness, it will help us complete the graduate school marathon in one piece. Feel free to implement what I’ve shared in this blog in your daily life, adapt it, and explore what works best for you!