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Lessons on Health and Well-Being for Academics
March 10, 2011 - 7:30pm

My university has one of the worst health records around. In the past five years, four colleagues and two staff members have died due to coronary heart failure and stroke. There are also quite a number of workers who have suffered heart attacks. The succession of deaths (and the rate of hospitalization for others with chronic illness, particularly borderline diabetes) was so alarming that HMOs have to charge us more than a 100% increase in our annual group premiums. In the university corridors, conversations are ripe with stories about ailments and the variety of over-the counter herbal remedies that have flooded the Philippine market in recent years, touting anti-oxidant and other disease-busting properties.

This sobering condition owes much to the stress of commuting 2-3 hours a day to get to work from the city to our Miagao campus, the office-bound work, the unbreakable Filipino habit of carbohydrate-rich snacking in between meals, and the addiction to Coca Cola and other sugary drinks. Up until recently, we had a Coke concession in the office making the product readily accessible to thirsty colleagues. To this day, a trusty lady (Manang Deding) unerringly makes afternoon rounds of snack treats for sale, which many find irresistible. People take jeepneys, tricycles or trisikads--all manners of motor or human powered conveyance-- to go to and around campus. None except those willing to brave the sweltering heat and with stamina to go up and down the campus’ famous hills would walk or climb. Once settled in the cocoon of their air-conditioned offices and connected to the campus wi-fi, few are inclined to get up from their desks.

Few changes have been instituted to encourage personnel health and well-being. A mini-gym was put up in the main administration building (alas, still too inaccessible for those working in other buildings); offices have ditched the Coke concession in favor of a hot-and-cold water dispenser; an aerobics class was organized 30 minutes prior to office closing; and public utility vehicles can no longer drop people off at their office’s doorstep forcing all to at least walk/climb the extra 100 meters. New green spaces have just been created, hopefully engendering outdoor interest among constituents.

As I enter my middle age, I have become more aware of the downsides of academic life to my physical well-being and have taken small steps to correct it:

  • Rather than eating whatever or whenever it is convenient, I bring my lunch, snacks and 1/2 liter water to work, my food preferences and portions carefully controlled by my maid at home.
  • I jog most mornings before taking the 1-hour commute to our campus;
  • I walk up a hill to get to the furthest bus stop from my office on the return trip.
  • I told the snack lady not to peddle her wares to me;
  • I keep tea or brewed coffee, sans sugar, for my day-time caffeine fix and saltine crackers for hunger pangs.
  • While travelling, I keep packets of oatmeal (for fiber), saltines, coffee/tea bags, my Nikes and leggings.
  • I run, walk, do stretches in my hotel room while at conferences or field visits. Whether at a resort in Bangi (Malaysia), Chulalongkorn U (Bangkok), Salzburg Seminar (Austria) or Gadja Madah U (Yogjakarta), I hit the gym or the campus pavements for a morning exercise.
  • Buffets are still a test, but I have learned the strategy of tasting in small portions to serve my curiosity and to stay away from the temptations of dairy and protein-rich food (more difficult in Austria; easier in Japan and Indonesia).
  • I have limited my salty-snack and Coke binge to one day just before my menstruation.

I have gone down three dress sizes since making this life-choice a year ago. I am still struggling to meet both work and well-being demands within my congested schedule of teaching, administrative work, research and writing.

I found two lessons worth keeping: one must make rather than find time to exercise, and that it is tough to go at it alone.

In accepting intervention from my maid (and my husband who constantly sends me links to better kidney care to force me to get a good 7-8 hours of sleep), I am taking the path that hopefully will not make me a morbidity statistic in my home institution.

The Visayas, the Philippines

Rosalie Arcala Hall is a Professor at the University of the Philippines Visayas and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.


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