Fit for the field, fit for me

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!

25 thoughts on “Fit for the field, fit for me

  1. Intersection of my worlds! (I teach group fitness and am a postdoc). Moving my body whether it’s in a fitness class or walking is one of my favorite ways to de-stress from work and transition from the office to home. Never mind that it’s pretty much the best thing you can do for yout health… awesome you are getting back into it!

    The only thing I would add as a suggestion: make sure you have enough rest days. For strength, you should wait 48 hours before working the same muscle because that is when the strength gains happen. Depending on your yoga class, it may count as strength as well (which basically means you will have to do your strength/yoga classes M-W-F). Even for cardio, you don’t want to over do it. I know you wrote you will be ok with 5 classes/week, and of course it depends on the intensity of the classes, but I would be exhausted if only had 1 rest day a week (I usually have 3-4). Try it out, but the biggest mistake as you said yourself, is beginners burning out and dropping fitness altogether. You want to get in the habit of something you can keep up for the long-term!

    Also, I’ve found fitnessista ( to have some good tips about meal planning, healthy eating, and getting quick but effective workouts.

    • This is great advice — I think people have a tendency to overcommit, because it feels more like you’re really, well, committed!

  2. I found joining an online support community to be incredibly helpful. The one I’ve had the most success with is 90daysgoal on reddit. I don’t really have a local fitness support community yet, so having a community of like minded people on the internet is helpful. Plus it’s great to learn more about setting reasonable goals.

    The other most helpful thing I’ve done is made my barrier to getting exercise extremely low. I happen to pass one of the university gyms on the bus, twice every day. I can no longer complain that the gym is too far away or not convenient! So I sucked it up and bought a $98 membership (semester cost for faculty/staff). Three days a week I bring my stuff with me and go for a run on the treadmill. Boring? Yes. But it’s kind of hard for an out of shape asthmatic to run outside in -20 weather during the winter. I started C25K and can’t believe how much my lungs and body overall have improved this semester. I’m hoping to transition to running outside once the morning temperatures get a little warmer. I never thought I’d be someone who exercised like this regularly, but by making it an easy habit to form, now I actually have the habit. I will hopefully end my postdoc in much better shape than I ended my PhD!

  3. I’m in the exact same position as you – fitness is the first thing to go when I’m busy and stressed, and now the summer field season is looming over me. Also eating frozen burritos and frozen pizzas every night for dinner hasn’t helped!

    I haven’t found a gym that I like near where I live, and I’m also not a runner. I’m thinking of making myself go on long weekend hikes (not really a chore) and adding weight in the form of water and/or rocks in a pack to simulate field gear and make the hikes more challenging. I did this in grad school and it meant I got more strength training/energy expenditure for the time I was putting in.

    • Have you ever tried DVD’s? I actually kind of like Jillian Michaels’ 30 Day Shred. They’re a nice mix of cardio and weights (with dumbbells), and only 25 minutes! My problem is I lack a good space to work out at home, and I do prefer to go to a gym, but if I didn’t, I’d definitely try something like that again.

      • I really like the 30 day shred too – it doesn’t take a whole lot of space, and if you play it on a laptop you can move stuff around to make the space. I agree about the gym though, once I get home it’s really hard for me to exercise because of all the other ‘home stuff’ that always comes up.

  4. Excellent post – and an important topic!
    I’m in the same boat as you. Moving countries, changing jobs, transitioning from PhD student to assistant professor and all that threw my workout schedule out of balance. Plus, my husband loves eating out. So I was getting pretty out of shape, catching my breath while running the stairs and so on.
    About a month ago, I joined the gym. I’m still fidgeting with my schedule (morning workouts? lunch break workouts? evening workouts?), but I’m already feeling (and seeing) the benefits. I’ve joined Holland’s VeganChallenge for the month of April, so my meals have been mostly very clean combinations of grains, beans and tons of veggies – what a change that makes in how I feel as well!

  5. My partner and I do Daily Burn (, which is an online program you can subscribe to for $10 a month. You can select from a number of different classes lead by trainers and stream them on a laptop or phone to work out at home, if you have space! The equipment requirement is minimal so conceivably you could do them anywhere. The class we are doing is short (~25 mins) and can be slipped into a busy academic schedule at one’s convenience which I find very helpful.

    Incidentally, don’t be intimidated by the “body builder” looking people pictured on the home page. There are classes for people of all different levels, including people just getting back on the exercise bandwagon. They people they feature in the classes are “normal” people, too, which helps alleve the intimidation factor, at least for me.

    Good luck reaching your goals!

  6. Great post! I’m a grad student who just got into athletic-ish fitness stuff in the last year or two. Your schedule sounds similar to mine: zumba twice a week, yoga once a week, rock climbing once or twice a week. I get bored easily so I only do activities that have a lot of mental stimulation (climbing is my favorite! It’s like doing a puzzle with your whole body). I’ve actually had a net gain in weight thanks to increased muscle mass, but I look leaner than I did when I started—I knew this was common but it was still fascinating to experience it.
    I agree with the the other commenters who suggested working up to 5 days a week and making sure to take rest days between any strength training! Failing to do so has led me to minor injuries not once, but twice, so I speak from hard-learned experience.

    • Agreed! I’ve had some injuries, too, and have found strength training to be a critical component of injury prevention.

  7. Strength training 2-3 times a week is a must, and it doesn’t take that much time.

    Instead of cardio, I would suggest a standing desk (possibly with a treadmill). Why spend another hour or two going to the gym if you can do the cardio during the day as you work? Standing or walking during the day will also prepare you much better for long days of hiking than running or Zumba would.

    • You reminded me that I forgot to mention that I’m getting an Ergotron to be able to stand or sit at my desk, and go back to using an exercise ball.

      Standing won’t get my heart rate up to effectively lose weight, or give me the cardiovascular workout. With Zumba, my heart rate gets up to 140-160, and I burn up to 600 cal/hr. I notice a big improvement in my fitness. Plus, I really enjoy it!

  8. Excellent post! Just one more comment – it is very important to keep to your exercise routine, even if you *think* you are too tired. In fact, it is your brain that is tired, usually not the body if you have been in the car and on the computer; exercising the body helps you sleep better and relaxes the brain and you can think better next day – many times I have found this to be true.

  9. Great post! And good luck!

    Now that I have 2 kids at home, I find that the workout time I used to find is just gone, so I have to make it part of my daily life. This doesn’t keep me fit precisely but keeps me from being disasterously unfit. It seems silly, but for me it really helps to make rules, like no elevator unless it’s at least 4 floors, no eating at the 2 min walk cafeteria etc. I have a walking commute which is great, but even without I find that I can work at least 4 or 5 mini-walks into my day without feeling like I’m exercising or losing time to exercising.

  10. Awesome post. 🙂 I can relate to a lot of the comments here! I forced myself to take a pretty long hiatus from cardio workouts to squash some lingering eating disorder-related behaviors, and it’s been tricky to get myself back on the wagon in a way that’s reasonable, effective, and healthy, especially as I get close to my defense. I’ve been working out with a trainer a couple of days a week instead to mend some old overuse injuries and was happy to see how much it’s helped change my perception of “healthy”, though. I might jiggle a little more than I used to, but I can do things that I never dreamed I’d be able to do in the weight room! I’m still working on finding a way to be content with my body and my level of fitness, but my goals have evolved a lot. I’d rather be able to do an unassisted chin-up instead of fit into my old size 00s!

    Regarding the motivation factor, there are so many good ideas here! I’m getting ready to start up a new workout challenge with my SO–we each set our own workout goals for the week, and there is a prize involving something fun to do together for successfully completing the week (and if you don’t meet your goal, you have pay for it!). I find that this keeps me in line with respect to the types of workouts I do–only 1-2 intense workouts each week, and yoga counts for a “real” workout ( podcasts are great). More recently, I started putting rest days in my schedule as workouts (since rest days are generally harder for me to do than a workout), and it’s been a huge help in keeping me away from the slippery slope.

  11. Such a relevant post! I just got back to my pre-PhD weight as I am nearing then end of my first postdoc. I had to learn that just like lab work or writing doing something is always better than doing nothing. Thanks for sharing your story.

  12. If you can afford it, consider hiring a personal trainer at your gym, for even 1 session per week. I’ve been doing that this year and it’s the best fitness investment I’ve ever made. I’d never really done strength before and now I love it. Completely personalized and tailored to my goals, all I do is show up and he’s got a plan that is varied and progressive. I can feel my muscles getting stronger and it’s moved my baseline fitness way up even without adding a lot of time on the treadmill or elliptical.

  13. As a PhD student, I think exercise is key to managing stress/maintaining mental health. And strength training makes me feel like a badass. I’ve found that is a great resource for the nomadic grad student/researcher. They have hundreds of free workout videos of different styles, difficulty levels, and durations, so you won’t get bored when you’re far away from your favorite group fitness classes.

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