This interlude from the usual comes from having chatted with a couple friends in grad school who are interested in making some programmatic changes to their lifestyle in order to stay a bit more fit.
Grad school is very bad for one’s fitness, generally speaking. Grad students spend many hours hunched over desks, reading or typing. Many of us have appalling eating habits—I will frequently just forget to eat if I don’t have to force myself to remember due to needing fuel for exercise—and abysmal sleeping schedules. We may skip meals, eat poor quality food, stay up to the wee hours of the morning and catch only a few hours of rest, and generally treat our bodies unkindly.
I try to hit the gym every second day, eat nutritiously, and sleep at least 6 and ideally 7.5 hours per night. I have also spent a fair bit of time reading up on nutrition and fitness stuff, and also took a couple courses in kineseology during my undergrad. So I have a modest but salient body of knowledge to draw upon in advising my fellow grad students on how to stay/get fit and healthy.
First, try to get at least 7 hours of sleep per night and perhaps more, depending on your individual sleep needs (they vary). Do not compromise on this. Take naps if you have to make up a deficit, but really don’t go several days on just 6 hours per night or less. I mean, some people need less sleep than others, but generally speaking, being chronically underslept will mess you up in so many ways.
Second, be a lot more rigorous in your eating habits. I’m just going to list some principles (yes, not tips; principles) to guide you in this:
- Don’t skip breakfast. Don’t skip lunch. Don’t eat dinner too late so that you’re going to bed on a full stomach and unlikely to be hungry in the morning. Basically, do not skip meals. It may take some adjustment to ensuring that you have access to food throughout the day if you’re running around from place to place, or if there aren’t many good food options on campus. But make those adjustments.
- Eat fewer sweets. Eat fewer things made from rice or wheat flour, which is in a metabolic sense basically like eating fewer sweets. Refined or simple carbs are not your friend, unless you’re an endurance athlete in which case why are you reading this?
- Eat more protein. Especially chicken breast and tuna, if you enjoy the delicious flesh of dead animals, along with lots of eggs and cheese. Don’t worry too much about cholesterol in the eggs or saturated fat in the cheese unless you’ve been specifically warned by your doctor.
- Eat more fibre. Apples are a great source of fibre. I eat at least one per day. Other veggies are great for this too. Generally eat more veggies. Other good sources of fibre come from slow-digesting carbs like oats, bulgar wheat and quinoa, yams and sweet potatoes.
- Don’t snack. If you absolutely have to eat something small, try to make it something relatively heavy in protein and fat so that a small amount will satiate you for a while. And definitely don’t munch.
Finally, we get to exercise. What you do here will vary depending on your ‘fitness priorities’: do you want to lose weight, gain muscle, or improve your capacity to perform certain tasks in a more specific sense? While you might be able to do all three at once, you should ideally prioritise. Nevertheless, your number one priority should be:
- Mobility and back health.
Yeah, above all you want to be able to sit for long hours and maintain good posture, and also to be able to move around and lift things without hurting yourself. The grad student life tends to diminish your ability for both. There are plenty of good ways to improve and maintain mobility and back health. You can do some of your own research, but even better would be getting a personal trainer for a few sessions. It’s worth the cost. Make sure that they’re qualified though.
Now that I’ve impressed upon you this first priority, I can suggest some more particular ways of structuring your exercise. Unless you’re training for a particular sport, or are so horrendously out of shape that you need to work your way up to any exertion greater than jogging—and if that is so, do remember not to be discouraged but to take action now, because you would be surprised how quickly you can get into better shape when you’re at rock bottom—then you should probably aim to hit the gym every second day, ideally, for an hour. Here is what I suggest:
- A warmup, with some bodyweight squats, some pushups, some lunges, and some other exercises to get the blood flowing, the muscles warm, and your body limber. (5 minutes)
- Some weight-lifting, where you pick exercises (one or two, usually) that engage large and multiple muscle groups, like bench or overhead presses, pullups, squats and deadlifts. When you do these with proper form and with intensity, you will improve mobility, lose weight, gain muscle, and generally become better at life. Provided you are getting adequate rest and nutrition. Either do a specific programme—more on that in a moment—or aim to do 5 sets of 5 repetitions at a weight heavy enough so you could probably manage 6-7 reps on the first set, but not more than that. (40 minutes)
- Some high-intensity cardio, like sprints, burpees, kettlebell swings, rowing, skipping, mountain-climbers, or something similar. This will vastly improve your cardio-respiratory health and aid you in the archeological dig to excavate your stomach muscles, hidden as they are by the ‘sands’ of the fitness-desert that is the academy. Generally speaking these sorts of high-intensity things, if you have the capacity to do them—and most people actually do have to work their way up, starting with something gentler like running—are better than slower, ‘steady-state cardio’ like jogging or distance biking and rowing. (10 minutes)
- Stretch! (5 minutes)
Let me give you my routine as an example. I have been following Wendler’s 5/3/1 programme for almost a year, and it’s working well for me, though progress is slow. This means that I have four main ‘lifts’, bench, squat, deadlift, and overhead press, and each day is devoted to one. Usually I do sets of pullups between sets of the main lift. I start by doing a few sets of very heavy lifts, then I ease off considerably and do several sets at a much lighter weight. Usually I manage to do some conditioning, but sometimes I skip that if I’m too tired and do it the next day.
I’m not especially fit, but I can sprint for a bus or run from place to place if I’m going to be late (this happens so often). I have good posture and no back issues. I can pick up a thing from the ground that weights about twice as much as I do. And I can see my abs. When the light is flattering. Ahem. I’m pretty good about keeping up with my nutrition, though my sleep is rarely what it should be. This is about as much as I could hope for, given my other commitments, and as I live quite close to the campus gym, getting myself there every second day is not too difficult when the whether isn’t nightmarishly horrible.
I’ve deliberately been pretty vague overall with the specifics of exercise especially. This is because individual variance is particularly significant when choosing exercises, and also because frankly it’s probably the last thing you should worry about, coming only after your rest, nutrition, and basic mobility stuff. But since I know a little bit about what exercises are likely to work for people, I can always provide more information on that front.
 For squats and deadlifts especially, make sure to have someone who knows what they’re doing, ideally a trainer, show you how to do them properly