Let me start by giving some background: I am a 7th year PhD student in Engineering. I love what I do in my lab (research and teaching), yet I can’t wait to graduate. I am sure a lot of graduate students will agree with me; no matter how much we love our exciting graduate work, we can’t deny the mental and physical toll it takes on us. Those of us in graduate school (taking night classes, trying to find and perform unique research, teaching and grading classes) know that each day is a deadline, each day is crucial, and exercise is the first thing we put on the back burner. We continue to hunch over our desks and lab benches, and stress out about experiments, thesis writing, and multiple responsibilities we are trying to juggle. So exhausting! Until recently, I did exactly the same.
I knew I needed to change something. With my love for dancing and the urge to get fit, I got certified and started teaching BollyX. This high-energy, exhilarating workout has not only gotten me moving, but has enabled me to engage in additional workout activities. There are so many benefits to having regular exercise be a part of my graduate student life. Here are the top 5 reasons I make exercise (BollyX included) a priority in my life. It is what will help get me through this last stretch of my graduate school.
1. It’s a distraction.
Sounds like a bad thing, doesn’t it? But it’s really not. With a jam-packed schedule, we could use a distraction from the routine of grad school. I noticed myself staying late in my lab almost every day, and somehow convincing myself that I need to work weekends as well. “If I stay an extra 1 hour, I bet I can finish this analysis”, but that 1 hour very quickly became 5 and before I knew it, I was sleep deprived, tired, unhappy, and overly stressed out. But now, I have a distraction. After a long day of research and work, when it’s 6:00 pm, my phone reminds me that I have BollyX scheduled. I no longer have the urge, or the option, to skip the workout because I have students waiting for me at the gym. The outcome – it gets my mind off the stressful thesis work, and distracts me for just long enough to make my return to the lab fresh and productive.
2. I am happier.
We have all heard this one before; exercising stimulates the release of “feel-good” hormone in the brain, called endorphins. As a graduate student, you can’t help but see days filled with guilt for choosing anything over research, feeling of self-doubt, and frustration due to poor time management. In times like that, we can use some release of “feel-good” hormone. Also, as an instructor, watching the students sweat, smile and express how much they enjoy the workout, also contributes to my happy mind. There’s no better feeling than diving back into your graduate school work with a fresh, happy and motivated mind.
3. I am more productive.
Exercise also increases the production of biochemical in the body and brain related to mental function; whether it’s focus or memorization. My hours in lab have decreased, but the amount of work I get done per hour has increased. In addition to the biological reasoning for that, I find myself being productive because of better time management. Knowing that I have a date with BollyX at 6:30 every Thursday and Friday, gives me no choice but to get the most done between the hours of 8 am and 6 pm. Without that, I felt like I had all the time in the world, so why rush? And that was keeping me in lab for endless hours, reducing my productivity, making me unhappy, and increasing stress (also, I didn’t get to see and spend time with my husband, which was unpleasant). I am happy, that’s no longer the case.
4. I am healthier.
No, I haven’t lost tons and tons of pounds, but I feel stronger and healthier. I have come to realize that exercising is not just to fit into a particular size jeans or weigh a certain number. Instead, for me, it is about feeling good, feeling strong, and forming an active lifestyle. Teaching BollyX has given me the confidence to pursue additional workouts like kickboxing that has helped me build strength and Pilates that has taught me how to align my body and use my core to lift and move. I am no longer sore even after three back-to-back BollyX classes. We all have to start somewhere, and for me – who had no fitness background or experience – becoming a BollyX instructor was the ideal catalyst to bring a change in my lifestyle. I have educated myself, and gained confidence to try out classes and workouts I would have otherwise been too intimidated to try out. And a combination of all these diverse classes are keeping me healthy, happy and productive.
5. I have met new people.
While people in my field may share their expertise and offer me a helping hand, people outside my PhD life help me see how me and my PhD fit in a broader spectrum. For instance, people I meet through BollyX and other classes are almost never interested in the details of my research, they are interested in what I want to do with that knowledge. These people from diverse social, professional and academic backgrounds commend me for my efforts to teach BollyX while pursuing my PhD, they listen and appreciate my PhD work from a different perspective, and therefore offer me a different level of confidence, motivation and increased level of self-worth. That re-focusses things for me when I return to my lab. I am reminded of the broad focus and perspective of this PhD journey, instead of having an extremely specific focus on making an experiment or a code work, meeting a paper deadline, or impressing my adviser.
I know what you might be thinking. Sure, it all makes sense – we know exercise is good for us. But the bottom line is: graduate school is hard. It almost feels impossible to commit to something other than school work, research or teaching. So how do I do it?
1. Schedule it.
Plan it out and put it on your calendar. Treat working out like a very important meeting with your advisor or thesis committee member.
2. Find others.
Find friends or colleagues who will go with you so you are less likely to bail. Don’t just seek close friends as workout buddies, offer to workout with those you barely know. Knowing that you have someone planning to go with you will make it harder for you (and hopefully them) to cancel.
3. Find something you love.
Especially, if you are looking for that initial motivational spring board to bring about that change you need in your graduate student routine. When you find something you love and truly enjoy, you will find the motivation to go regularly. Once you start, you will find the drive to try many other workouts.
4. Make observations.
Not about your weight or what size clothes you are fitting in, but about how you feel, how much work you got accomplished, how well you were able to manage your time, how productive and/or focused you were at work while researching, teaching, studying etc. Watching your progress and the positive effect of your workout routines on your grad life will further motivate you.
5. It’s okay to love something as much if not more than your thesis.
Don’t feel guilty for loving something outside your lab, thesis and grad school. Remind yourself that your graduate school work and your life outside the lab are equally important and serve different purposes, and each of those actually help each other. Exercising will help you focus and be more productive; more productivity will help you meet deadlines and leave more time to try new workouts.
6. Get certified.
Become a certified instructor yourself. You can’t miss a class if you know there are people waiting for you to show up and lead them through a killer workout.
Author Charles Duhigg, in his book Power of Habit, calls exercise a “keystone habit” – a habit that is correlated with other good habits. So, not just to the graduate students out there, but to all of those, who have said “I am too busy to exercise”, know that finding that time in your busy schedule to prioritize exercise will reward you with several other good habits, like better self-regulation and time management. Furthermore, adding exercise to your weekly routine will overall help you reduce stress which will help make you even more productive. Ready to make that change today?
About the author: I was born and raised in India, moved to California in 2003 with my family, and am currently pursuing my PhD in Engineering in Philadelphia. Thanks to the constant encouragement from my parents, dancing has been one of my favorite hobbies (other than travelling, cooking and comic books) which I closely share with my sister. Dancing is also what brought my amazing husband into my life (we used to choreograph and perform Bhangra together during college). Needless to say, it holds a special place in my heart. Teaching BollyX gives me the opportunity to continue dancing, stay in shape, be among a rockstar community (of instructors and students) and motivate others to do the same. By day, I am a researcher and teaching assistant at Drexel University, but by most evenings (and weekends), I am rocking out to Bollywood tunes and BollyX moves to keep myself happy and healthy.