I’m out of shape. Like many people during graduate school, my health often took a backseat to my work. I made some progress on this during my postdoc, but the first year of my faculty position has seen me backslide. I stress eat, I forget meals and then make bad choices as my blood sugar tanks, I grab something quick and easy to eat when I’m short on time, or use food and alcohol as a soother for a stressful day, and the gym is one of the first things to go when my schedule gets tight. I have a driving commute, and I sit in front of a computer all day. All of these things add up to too many calories and too little movement.
As a consequence, I’ve gained weight. My cardiovascular health has declined, and I get winded much more easily with just a little exertion. I have less energy overall. I’m more stressed. My body and joints ache. I get more migraines. I know that I feel better– physically, and about myself– when I’m active and making good food choices. I know that I have more energy, less pain, and can better manage depression and anxiety when I’m active. Somehow, this knowledge hasn’t been enough to motivate me to change my habits, to make better choices, and to make my health a priority.
Starting this summer, I’ve got some physically-intensive fieldwork coming up, and it’s been causing me a lot of anxiety. I’ll be bringing students into the field, and I need to be on top of my game. More than that, I need to prioritize fitness; not just for my work, but for my work-life balance. Like DrMsScientist, I feel like I’m failing as a new prof these days. I think working out regularly will help me get back into a routine in the other areas of my life, and reduce my stress levels overall.
In other words, I need a plan. I’ve got three months to get my act together, physically. I know what works for me — it’s just a matter of actually coming up with a strategy and committing to it. I thought I’d share my plan, as someone who has struggled with fitness in the past. I’ve never really thought about my fitness in terms of getting ready for the field season, but the fact that I’ve got some physically demanding expeditions in the next year or two is making me rethink things (plus, “I need to train for an expedition” just sounds so much cooler than “I need to get in shape because I’m getting winding going up two flights of stairs.”)
Here’s what’s worked for me in the past:
1) Meal planning. Picking healthy, quick meals for the week and shopping for those has been one of the most helpful strategies I’ve ever applied. In grad school, this helped me save money by targeted and smart shopping, and I wasted less food. It also helps me avoid making poor food choices, because when I got home I didn’t have to think about what to eat; I just picked a meal off a list.
2) Calorie counting, to keep from mindless eating and to nudge me to make better choices. I use a phone app to balance calories and exercise, and set it at a reasonable goal (1 or 2 pounds a week). Since I’ve had some disordered eating (binge and emotional overeating) in the past, calorie-counting is really helpful for getting me back on track in terms of reasonable portion sizes, healthy snacking, and accountability.
3) Strength training. As someone who’s struggled with fitness in the past, weight training has been immensely helpful. It’s reduced my the joint pain brought on by carrying extra weight on my frame, and increased my resting metabolism. Given that I’ll be doing lots of fieldwork involving core muscles and hiking, this is going to be a critical part of my fitness plan. I’ve found group strength classes at the gym to be especially helpful, because they push me harder than I tend to push myself. I find that even just two classes a week are pretty effective, so I’m going to start there.
4) Cardio. I hate it, but it’s important. Running isn’t a great option for me until I get a bit more fit (I need low impact right now), and I tend to get really bored on machines (they also just don’t seem all that effective for me). The most effective exercise I’ve ever tried? Zumba. It’s fun, the time flies, and you burn a crazy amount of calories. Because it’s dancing, you don’t feel like work. As you get more fit, you can scale up your effort as you dance. I’m going to go to Zumba classes twice a week.
5) Yoga. This is super important both for stress reduction and for stretching. There are tons of types of yoga out there, so you can find something that works for you. Some emphasize fitness, others have more of a spiritual or meditative feel. Most places have classes for beginners, too. I find yoga is most effective if you go twice a week, but I’m going to start with once a week.
6) Walking and hiking. To train for the fieldwork I’ll be doing, there’s no substitute for getting out there and actually just doing it. I’m going to pick a trail every weekend to hike with my partner.
With this schedule, I’ll have five days a week of classes, plus a weekend day with some intensive outdoor exercise. This gives me a day of rest. That’s definitely do-able, and gives me room to add more work if I feel like I need to (I may add walking to the strength days, or a spinning class as I get back in shape– spinning is a great low-impact cardio activity, but it kicks my butt if I’m not ready for it).
I also wanted to share some things I’ve learned in the past, as I’ve worked to build fitness into my life as an academic:
- If you’ve never been to a gym, it can be an intimidating experience at first. Bring a friend, if you can. Be prepared to feel uncomfortable, just like you might in any new space. After you go a few times, that feeling goes away.
- You don’t want to overcommit yourself, so if you’re new to fitness, it might make more sense for you to try just one or two days a week, and build up from there.
- Don’t be afraid to go out of your comfort zone. I thought I’d hate fitness classes, but it turns out I love them! I actually feel less self-conscious in a class than I do when I’m working out alone.
- Having the right gear helps. Get a gym bag to keep your shoes, water bottle, headphones (get something specifically for athletics — they don’t have to be expensive, they just need to be comfy and not fall off. I like these.), sports bra (Title Nine has a great selection, rated by barbell for support– up to 5 barbells!), and other gear in.
- Rent a locker. It will make your gym experience so much more pleasant. If you decide to work out before work, you can shower and get ready right there. Otherwise, you can keep your bulky stuff (yoga mat, towels, bathing suit) in one place, or store all your other gear if you work out in the evening.
- Decide whether you’re okay with having your students, teachers, or colleagues see you in the gym. I’m okay with having my students see me working out (I figure the worst they can think is, “hey, my professor likes doing the same stuff I do!), but I’ve decided not to shower in the gym. This has made me transition from morning workouts to evening ones, and I go home straight after.
- Hydrate (a lot!) and bring a snack. Eating a little something within ten minutes after a workout will reduce your fatigue and pains later. I learned this the hard way.
- Be prepared to be tired at first. In grad school, I worked out at 7am, and it was exhausting. This wasn’t working for me, ultimately, and I’ve been really happy since shifting to evening workouts. But no matter what, you’ll be tired as your body adjusts. Water and snacks can help.
- Wear a heart rate monitor. I love my Polar FT4 monitor. Calorie-counting apps are notoriously bad for reporting accurate calories burned when you work out (I’m looking at you, ellipticals!), and knowing your heart rate can help you keep up a good pace when you’re doing things like Zumba. Plus, you get all this cool data, which means you can make nifty charts, and who doesn’t enjoy making a fun graph?
- Work out with a friend. Accountability is really effective, and having someone to laugh with as you try to figure out the newest Zumba move will make things much more fun.
- Make it fun. If you’re doing something you hate, you’re setting yourself up to fail. If you don’t like running, don’t run! Try biking, or swimming. Try running with a friend, or training for a Tough Mudder or a Zombie Run (obstacle courses are about the only thing that would get me excited about running!). There are a lot of different activities out there. Pick the ones you WANT to do, not the ones you think you NEED to do.
- Stay balanced. You don’t need to eat crappy diet food, abstain from all the things you love, and kill yourself in the name of fitness. This isn’t about reaching some Hollywood ideal, it’s about reducing stress, being healthy, and getting fit enough to do the things you need to do (like go out into the field!). Ignore the fitspiration blogs, the diet hype, and places and people that fat-shame. This is about adding healthy activities, not cutting out happiness.
Come July, I know I’ll be grateful for anything I do now to make it easier to hike that gear to my field site and do the physical labor of fieldwork. In the meantime, I know from experience that I’ll sleep better, work more effectively, and enjoy my life more if I make fitness a priority.
What’s worked for you? Are you thinking of getting fit? Are you a fitness guru with words of wisdom to share? Keep it body positive, please!