Fitness Journey: How not to suck at grad school
During my summer schedule, I typically take a break between 12 PM and 2:30 PM to go to the gym, take my dog for a run, and shower. And like most obnoxious exercising types, I announced that I was going to the gym on my twitter feed (@Shawpsych). One of my twitter colleagues, Karim R. Lakhani (@klakhani) wrote: “I am waiting for @Shawpsych to write the book on academic fitness – like Art DeVaney’s diet book!” That sounds pretty cool. Unlike DeVaney (an economist who developed the framework for the popular paleo diet), I am not that sure I know enough about fitness to write a book. However, a blog post seems appropriate.
Academics tend to be remarkably fit group. On my twitter feed and in real life, I know academics who are mountain climbers, bodybuilders, power lifters, triathletes, rowers, swimmers, roller derby skaters, jujitsu rollers, weekend basketball players, and a lot of marathoners. My own research lab consists of a volleyball player, marathoner, bodybuilder, dancer, hockey coach, soccer player, and generally evidence that my grad students are staying in good physical shape. But I am just a guy. If I were in the Avengers, then I would be Middle-Aged Man: A walking example of dad bod.
My fitness journey is typical of a middle-age person in academia. I played and enjoyed all sports as a kid and generally sucked at all of them. Then I had one of those weird late bloomer things where I went from scrawny and uncoordinated to athletic over what seems like a one week period when I was 16 years old. My new 40-yard dash times, vertical jump, and bench press caught the attention of the football and basketball coaches; but I honestly had no idea how to play football or basketball. I played soccer in high school and in an under-19 team while in college; and my roommate got me involved in martial arts. But when I was lucky enough to be accepted to graduate school, I stopped everything physical. Very long days of studying, little sleep, poor eating habits, too much alcohol, and limited physical activity were the norm. Then I got married, got a job, had kids, and got fat.
At age 48, I read about this thing called a Spartan race and it sounded like a lot of fun. I also had a sabbatical year. This was the perfect opportunity to get back into physical condition with the Spartan race as the final exam. Every day I wish that I had not stopped exercising and I paid for 25 years of sloth. Training hurt every day. Stretching, running, doing burpees, and learning the basics of an obstacle course (e.g., climb a rope, get over 8 foot walls, run muddy trails without falling). I finished the Spartan race, but had torn my rotator cuff during the training — and that was unpleasant. That injury took about a year to heal.
When my young daughter wanted to try martial arts, my wife (who had long trained in Aikido) and I encouraged it, and I drove her to class every week. After a few years, she got good. When her instructor finally encouraged me to join the adult judo class, all I could imagine was semi-permanent pain, severe injuries, and being required to wear orthopedic tweed sport coats forever (good thing Canada has a quality health care system). My dad encouraged me to hit the weight room and do yoga to reduce the severity of judo injury (“it isn’t if you are going to be hurt, it is how often and how severely“). He is a shockingly good athlete. Dad is 79 years old, I am still not sure if I can bench press more than him. A combination of my dad being correct with the training idea and having a first-rate judo instructor (who excels at teaching falling with skill and confidence), and I have returned to being a pretty good judoka who competes well with younger, bigger, stronger, and more athletic people. My favourite complement was after a difficult, but fairly even, randori (i.e., sparring session) with a bigger and more experienced partner, I asked my daughter how I looked. She said, “he is better than you, but you look more like a fighter.” (Yes, she is sweet.)
When compared to my far more athletically accomplished and knowledgeable academic peers, I am not an expert on fitness. But as a middle-aged man I understand how to keep motivated, grind, find time, nurse injuries, be disciplined, and take great joy in being physical. I do not take it for granted. Exercising is physical, psychological, and spiritual therapy during difficult times. I also find that I am much sharper mentally than I was six years ago. I can work longer and with more intense concentration than ever. My recommendation is for graduate students to do something physical at least three times a week and to make that one of your high priorities. In my lab, students are required to write two yearly wellness goals. These wellness goals can be anything from spending time with friends and calling your mother to improved diet to exercising. I encourage regular exercise, even if it is long walks. Do not make the mistakes that I have made. Getting back in shape as an old man is far harder than maintaining good physical condition. I appreciate the fitness journey.
Motivation is not hard for me now. I became very good at going to the gym regularly after my wife became ill. It was an important form of therapy during her long and challenging treatments. That therapy has turned into a habit. We often stretch or go to Tai Chi classes together as she is healthy, but still regaining her former strength and fitness. Hard workouts are excellent at keeping depression at bay or at least minimizing the bouts. It is also motivating to look and feel stronger.
My plan is to have my exercise mesh with my work schedule as closely as is possible. I like to try new things and new techniques to avoid overuse injuries and simply to keep the exercises fresh. I always modify programs and ideas to take account of my physical limitations. I divide the calendar year into three segments with a long winter break thrown in. The fall is difficult because grant proposals, teaching, training and orienting new students, heavy administration loads, and writing large numbers of letters of recommendation make maintaining a routine difficult because of the long days/nights and frequent deadlines. The winter is a little bit smoother, but data collection projects demand a lot of time. The summer is the writing term, which involves flexible hours but a lot of solitary writing time. About 75% of writing takes place during the summer. My workout schedules designed to fit this approach.
I steal a lot of specific workouts from www.bodybuilding.com. They have several great programs and a library of videos to help with form. I am also comfortable checking with trainers/partners at the gym to ensure that my form is solid and reduce the chance of injury. I like to work fast and do not want to loiter. I am on the weights for 35-45 minutes and cardio is a 26 minute session. I have become good at the habit working out. Now if only I could improve my diet with some consistency….I should check with Dr. DeVaney.
Fall (Sept 1 to Dec 8) (Goal: keep the momentum going–60-70% of one rep max)
Monday – pulling muscles (back/bicep)
Tuesday – evening judo
Wednesday – off
Thursday- evening judo
Friday – off
Saturday – pushing muscles (chest/tricep)
Sunday – legs/abs
Winter break (Dec 9 to Jan 6) (Goal: change of pace)
Monday – pushing muscles
Tuesday – cardio and judo
Wednesday – yoga
Thursday – legs/abs and judo
Friday – yoga
Saturday – cardio
Sunday – pulling muscles and judo
Winter (Jan 7 to April 30) (Goal: strength increase with a 5 x 5 program–80% of one rep max)
Monday – gym
Tuesday – evening judo
Wednesday – off
Thursday – evening judo
Friday – gym
Saturday – yoga/cardio
Sunday – gym
Summer (May 1 to August 31) (Goal: weight loss and flexibility)
Monday – yoga/pulling muscles/cardio
Tuesday – yoga/pushing muscles/cardio
Wednesday – off
Thursday – legs/abs
Friday – yoga/pulling muscles/cardio
Saturday – tai chi/pushing muscles/cardio
Sunday – legs/abs