Life of the Mind – and Body

Ah, Summertime… that magical season when the New Year’s resolutions we made so many months ago to eat healthier and get more exercise become infinitely more feasible (and enjoyable), and when our motivation to do so is exponentially increased by the very real chance we will be wearing a swimsuit in public.  The weather in Colorado has been beautiful these last couple of weeks; the glorious morning sunshine seems perfect for a run, and the fantastic afternoon thunderstorms beckon me to throw the windows open for the fresh air and natural yoga soundtrack.  My husband, the man who loathes (and I mean loathes) exercise, is suddenly super-jazzed about P90X—such is the power of summer.

“But wait!,” you say—“Kelli, this isn’t a fitness blog!  What does exercise have to do with studying Romanticism?”  Stick with me; this isn’t just a tangent based on my (ahem) slightly greater desire to be outside on a bike than working on my prospectus.  It’s actually inspired by some advice from one of my faculty advisors.  Our university had been bringing in several potential new hires for job talks, and we happened to be chatting about the incredibly demanding schedule facing the candidates.  We joked for a minute about training for interviews like training for a marathon, and suddenly she got serious and said, “I’m not kidding.  In the time leading up to interviews is not the time to stop working out.”  At first I was surprised by this, but after pondering it for several weeks, it makes complete sense.  We might think we live the life of the mind, but the truth is, our schedules and work habits can be quite taxing on our bodies—and taking care of our bodies can indeed make us better at our jobs.

Now, I don’t have to tell you that academia and fitness don’t exactly go together like peas and carrots.   We all know that we spend long hours hunched over computers, books, and stacks of essays.  Chances are we also tend to over-caffeinate in order to make it through those long hours, and as a result might have trouble getting good sleep when we finally hit the sack.  If we commute long distances or have to eat in a hurry, our food choices will probably not be great,  and at the end of a day like that, exercising and cooking real food might be the last things we want to do.   Yet it’s exactly these propensities that make building fitness and nutrition into our habits all the more crucial.

Let me be clear: though we all like to see a chili pepper or two next to our names on RateMyProfessor.com, this isn’t about looking hot (though if you’re lucky, hotness may be a side effect).  It’s about taking care of ourselves so we can meet the demands of our profession, both now and long into the future, while feeling strong, happy, and more balanced.  In case you need convincing, Let’s explore some of the ways good nutrition and exercise can directly affect our careers for the best:

  1. Energy. Dynamic teaching, mindful grading, attentive research, and mind-blowing writing/revision all require energy!  So do patience, friendliness, and gregariousness, qualities bound to shine through in job interviews and administrative duties.  Both the tangibles and intangibles we get judged on in our work can only be improved by our having more energy–and real, long-term, sustainable energy comes from fueling our bodies with nutritious foods, and strengthening them with basic fitness.
  2. Brainpower. I don’t know about you, but I come across a LOT of studies exploring how children’s diets can affect their performance in school.  What we may not think about as often, is that food and brainpower are still connected when we grow up!  Check out some of the research HERE.  None of it is particularly surprising; eating a variety of whole grains, fruits and veggies, lean meats and dairy, good fats, and not too much sugar seems to be best for both brain and body.  Exercise has repeatedly been shown to help too, including breathing, stretching, and meditation (yes, I’m counting meditation as an exercise).
  3. Greater ability to prevent and combat repetitive stress injuries. Better posture, muscle tone, and overall body awareness might seem like nice but inessential little things, but they can help combat some of the most common ailments facing people in our line of work: repetitive stress injuries to the back, neck, wrists, elbows, and knees.  We get these injuries from slouching over our computers for hours at a time, and for regularly carrying around bags laden with laptops and books.  You can train yourself to recognize when you’re straining your body, and adopt some basic preventative measures. The stronger muscle tone you develop from regular exercise means you’ll have the strength to sit up straight and carry your backpack properly.  All those in favor of avoiding slipped disks please say “Aye.”
  4. Greater ability to connect with the realities of Romantic-period life. Okay, maybe this is a stretch…but I just got back from a research trip to England, and I must say that some of the greatest moments of connection I’ve felt to Romantic-period writers came while hiking in the Lake District, or tromping across miles of public-access pathway in the Midlands. Middle- and working-class folk of the Romantic period walked miles every day, a reality hard for us to connect with unless we do it once in awhile.  Our bodies will learn things our brains alone cannot.  Of course, we don’t need to live exactly like someone in the 18th-century to understand or appreciate the conditions in which they wrote (thank goodness!), but if we get the chance to feel, with our own feet, what it’s like to walk from village to village, or across a moor while avoiding sheep-dung, or up a rugged granite peak in the rain, we want to be ready for it!

Of course there are myriad other benefits to good nutrition and exercise, and you probably hear about them often enough that you can chant them in your sleep.  Chances are, you already have some sort of fitness regime that appeals to you, and some goals in mind.  However, I know I always like suggestions, and since minimal investments in equipment and gym fees are a must for graddies on tight budgets, here are a few effective things you can do on the cheap!

  1. Walk more. Park further away from your destination.  Take the stairs.  Even talking your “evening constitutional”, as one friend calls it, around the block will help clear your mind, get your blood flowing, and burn a few calories.  Enjoy the natural world around you—it’s summer, for crying out loud!
  2. Take advantage of your university’s or community’s rec center. Some U-recs offer free classes to faculty and staff (if you happen to fit in that category), and in any case, whatever fees they charge are probably cheaper than your local gym.
  3. Find a friend to work out with, or make friends while you work out. If you know you’re meeting up with someone, you’re far more likely to fight the impulse to skip.  If you can’t find a workout buddy, taking a class can be an excellent way to meet people and make friends—combatting feelings of isolation that can sometimes accompany folks in our line of work, especially when we feel it’s taking over our lives.  Jogging groups and community or club sports teams abound; check out your local Craigslist, or community rec centers.
  4. Find an activity you enjoy! Yoga might not be your thing, but you may love racquetball or swimming or hiking.  If you think it’s fun, chances are, you’ll keep doing it!  All the better if it’s free.
  5. Find things that you can work regularly into your schedule. This is where walking makes a lot of sense, but check your local library or Goodwill for workout DVDs, and look for free workout videos on YouTube or HULU.
  6. Make a goal – do something you never thought you could! Confession: after finishing my Master’s, the combined stress of school and the termination of a sad relationship saw me quite overweight.  I hated running (hated!), but decided I would sign up for a 5k.  And you know what? I did it!  And I felt so proud of myself that I signed up for another!  My next nemesis to conquer was biking; I was terrified of it!  But I made 2007 my “year of the bike,” and started small by taking a spinning class (mostly so that when jumping on a real bike, I knew I could make it to the top of my street).  I’m a terrible swimmer, but In 2008 I did my first mini-triathlon, accompanied by my 66-year-old mother (and by ‘mini’ I mean shorter than sprint-distance).  These things have built up a whole different side of my confidence, including my confidence on the job.  They were hard, but SO COOL.  Also a bit addicting.  Believe me, if I can do these things, you can too!  Races can be expensive, but they give you a concrete goal with a deadline, a built-in cheering section, and something awesome to post on Facebook when you finish, so you may find them worth the occasional investment.
  7. Find ways to eat right. This is really such a personal issue, and I’ll be the first to admit I’m not always very good at it.  We all have different habits, and foods that we like or dislike, or ethically oppose, or can’t digest.  Still, it is imperative that we find ways to eat healthy and nutritious foods that fit our needs even on a busy schedule. That schedule is probably never going to change, right?—at least not if we get those jobs we’re working so hard to prepare for.  Thus, we must take stock now of the ways we eat, and improve them (ideally through lifestyle changes rather than diets).  Do your research!  There are plenty of online resources to aid with this, but one little thing that helps me a lot is to make sure I pack easy, healthy snacks with me when I head to campus.  To me, “easy” means minimal preparation, and “healthy” means that the food provides nutrients, fiber, protein, and not too much sugar or saturated fat.  Nuts, seeds, fresh fruit, dried fruit, raw veggies, string cheese, yogurt, and bars with easily-recognizable ingredients and not too much sugar make good candidates.  If you balk at spending $1.50 on a Larabar, and have access to some form of blender or food processor, look up a recipe and make your own!  Good times.

Ultimately I’m no fitness guru, and my own beach body will still be staying far away from a bikini, thanks.  For sound, research-backed advice on fitness and nutrition, you’ll definitely want to look for better sources than this blog!  However, I don’t have to be a superathlete to know that when I’m exercising and eating right, I feel happier, stronger, and sharper, and I have a lot more energy (except, you know, after a workout when I drag my sweaty, red-faced, frumpy body back to my house and lay face-down on my floor because I can’t make it to my bed).  I also (minus aforementioned moments) feel a lot more attractive, even if my appearance hasn’t changed.  Whether or not I still have pounds to lose is beside the point; exercising and eating right means I have increased energy to do my very best, greater capacity to remember what I study, and more confidence to look people in the eye, flash a brilliant smile, and know I’m worth paying attention to—in my teaching, my research, my writing, and my job applications.  Win, win, win.

I hope you all have a great summer getting out into the sunshine (or into an air-conditioned gym), and working on your own resolutions! If you have a fitness/nutrition tip that has made your academic life even a little bit better lately, please share it in the comments below!  Then, pat yourself on the shoulder for doing something that’s good both for the mind and the body.  Way to go, superstar!

-Kelli