Kayla P. Solinsky is a guest author who is currently a fourth year PhD candidate in Hispanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pittsburgh. You can follow her on twitter at @kayla_paulk or on her blog: http://crackthetower.wordpress.com .
Please allow me to state the obvious: graduate school is one of the most mentally and physically taxing experiences ever. Breaking a mental sweat while writing the dissertation proposal, applying for fellowships, and grading papers is a normal occurrence for most grad students. Unfortunately, breaking a literal sweat is not as common, but it really should be.
For many students, college is a place for having a fabulous body and sweating hard at the gym. Lucky for me, I was never a victim of gym culture peer pressure. My younger self always complained that the gym was always too far and far too sweaty. Working out was nowhere near my mind in my junior year, when I was diagnosed with severe depression. It seemed normal for the therapist to prescribe pills for the depression and other pills to counteract the side effects.
Five years later, after gradually weaning myself off of medication, I am in graduate school. The stress of constantly performing under pressure, dealing with frustration and self-doubt can potentially depress anyone. After a day of feeling particularly down, I found myself in the gym staring at the elliptical machine. I was surrounded by young, fit undergrads who could smell my fear and self consciousness. Despite my hesitancy, I hopped on the elliptical. Much to my disbelief, I pumped and sweated for a full ten minutes. Once a month turned into twice a week. Ten minutes evolved into twenty and thirty minutes. Now, I (the grad student formerly known as “Anti-gym” girl) am now running three miles or more on the treadmill without breaking too much of a sweat. My grad student husband can even tell a difference in my overall mood and self esteem. I reach for coffee less because my energy levels have increased since hitting the gym. I wish someone told me that feeling this good can come from working out. I wanted to fly back to California and shake my therapist.
Randomly wandering into the gym worked for my first workout, yet this may not happen for everyone. Here are 5 helpful tips for getting into the gym and (hopefully) returning:
1. Just DO it: In grad school, it seems that there is never enough time. The reality is that like anything you have to make time and prioritize your health. Unlike non-academics, there are many free gyms on campus that exist specifically for student wellness. Take advantage of these free workout spaces. If sweaty machines aren’t your thing, take advantage of the cheap (sometimes free) fitness classes that universities offer such as yoga, pilates, yogalates, boxing, swim class, Zumba, Tai Chi, etc. Hesitant about going alone the first time? Ask a fellow grad student or a friend to join you. The mutual accountability could be that necessary push to get you sweating.
2. Set aside fifteen minutes: There is no magic amount of time for working out. For graduate students fifteen minutes  is a reasonable amount of time to step out of the library and get your heart pumping. Eventually, your body will let you know when to increase the amount of exercise time.
3. Write a workout journal: Keep track of each workout, how long you spent, what you did and how you felt during/ afterwards. You can even note your weight, BMI, and body fat percentages. I prefer alternating between Runkeeper and the notepad function on my ipod. An electronic or paper journal could also be helpful if you’re interested in adding even more detail including your overall emotional wellness pre and post workout.
4. Build a reward system: Everyone likes rewards . Perhaps your sweaty workout has earned you an episode of Seinfeld or a mini golf game. Whatever the reward, you should attach some positive reinforcement for your hard work.
5. Create clear goals: Look up activities that you can train for such as a 5k or a half marathon. This will ensure that you are consciously preparing your body to continue the workout habit.
As for working out, it continues to make me feel great. My personal battles with depression are on-going and always will be. Working out helps alleviate my burdens, which is a good enough reason to continue sweating on the elliptical.
Do you have experience working out in grad school? What other workout tips would you suggest for busy grad students? Leave your thoughts below!
[Photo of courtesy of Flickr user Ed Yourdon via Creative Commons license.]