Women are told to lean in when it comes to capturing leadership roles, especially in STEM fields where gender disparities are even wider than they are in the humanities. However, it is becoming clear that women in academia should also lean in on matters related to their cardiovascular health. Although we usually hear about cardiovascular disease as it relates to men, after menopause and the accompanying loss of estrogen, the rates of this disease actually climb in women and surpass rates in men.
There are, of course, many lifestyle risk factors that can contribute to poor heart health, like a sedentary lifestyle, lack of physical exercise, and mental stress. Women of graduate school - it is not too late! There are ways to counteract this, which require us to make a more conscious effort in our daily lives. Unsurprisingly some graduate student tendencies overlap with cardiovascular disease, and risk factors include:
Limited time to exercise: Although we think of graduate students as young twenty-somethings, the reality of graduate education is that there is a diverse range of enrollment, including many mature students. As we age, women do not respond the same way to exercise interventions as men of similar age. The adaptations seen after a training program are not as great, suggesting that estrogen mediates the positive effects of exercise in women. You can think of exercise as the stimulus and estrogen as the facilitator, instructing your cells to adapt and perform better. Without estrogen the signal is lost in translation. To counteract major declines in exercise adaptations, Florianne Jimenez offers some tips on making time for exercise and suggests that if you are limited on time to try out HIIT (high intensity interval training) workouts.
Lack of sleep which often leads to poor nutrition choices: Sleep deprivation has a number of established health consequences with increased heart disease risk being among them. There is no way around it: adequate sleep is essential for optimizing health. When it comes to nutrition, preparation is key. Allocate time on the weekend to cook up enough food for the week, that way there is no room for poor choices. Or consider investing in a trusty slow cooker to get the job done during the week. A mediterranean-style diet that is high in polyunsaturated fats, like olive oil and salmon, as well as nitrate-rich foods, like beets and spinach, can lower risk of cardiovascular events. Consuming beets in particular has been shown to be beneficial for cardiovascular health, exercise performance, as well as brain health. Consider casting beets as the star role of your next smoothie or juice, for example.
Prolonged sitting is something that comes with being a graduate student and is especially inevitable with paper/thesis/grant writing. Getting in regular workouts and eating well is encouraged to lower cardiovascular disease risk, but these activities may not be enough to override the time spent sitting in grad school. Studies have shown that in young, healthy people who sit for long periods of time, patterns of blood flow become disturbed and can cause acute damage to blood vessels. Breaking up your sitting with walking and even periodically fidgeting can help to counteract these adverse effects. Maybe less practical, but one study showed that local leg heating while seated improved blood flow and mitigated the damage done from sitting. Perhaps graduate programs should include leg heaters with our yearly stipends.
Mental stress from performing a difficult balancing act with varying responsibilities in grad school (e.g. teaching, research, administrative duties) can, over time, lead to serious physical health consequences. Chronic mental stress can result in elevations in blood pressure and increased risk of heart disease and stroke. You may consider keeping a journal to help manage your tasks, that way they do not appear as daunting. Imposter syndrome is widespread in academia, particularly among graduate students. Constant thoughts of inadequacy can be debilitating and result in tremendous mental stress. Adopting strategies to banish imposter syndrome is critical in maintaining both mental and physical health.
So what should should women who are young and estrogen-replete do now to prevent these issues down the road? Lean in now. Women will live a third of their life with post-menopausal status so taking action now to prevent a more perilous decline in heart and vascular function is the only option.
Do you feel that there are changes you can make in your day to day graduate student life that can help improve your cardiovascular health?