Healthy Living for the Graduate Student – The Basics

Where were you for the last four hours?  Most graduate students will answer, “In the lab” or “sitting at my computer.”  With the focus required for literature review, data analysis, writing manuscripts and bench research, it is unsurprising that our health often drops down the priority list.  Previous posts in this blog have discussed the importance of fun and making time for yourself, but this is a reminder that your physical health is important.  Lack of care for your lab instrument or computer leads to an inability to conduct research.  So too will lack of attention and care for your body and mind.  In this post, I will write some general comments about starting a health routine.  In future weeks, I will follow up with more details of nutrition and fitness requirements.

food bike

So what is important to know?  Nutrition and physical activity are both necessary.  Hate running? Or can’t find the time for that gym class? Go take a 10 minute walk around campus once or twice a day.  Run up and down the stairs in your building a few times. Maybe invest in an exercise ball “chair” or a standing desk for your office.  Try a few things to figure out what will work to give your body a little energy boost a few times a day.  There are numerous studies that show physical activity improves mental stamina and acuity and is, therefore, critical for a graduate student to maintain a steady pace of work.

Now about nutrition.  We all have our quick fixes and our special comfort foods that may not be the best fuel for our bodies.  So it is key to find balance in your food choices.  Eating the same things all the time is not desirable as you may be missing key nutrients, so add variety in fruits and vegetables, in your meal preparations and in your protein and fat sources.  Also, eating sweets and processed foods or quick snacks is ok if those times are occasional and balanced by nutritious, real food the rest of the time.  Consider your food intake as fuel – so will a protein and vegetable stir fry or a greasy pizza produce more focused, sustainable work energy?

It is easy to write about nutrition and exercise routines, but much harder to put this into practice.  Two ideas have helped me to find a sustainable routine.  First, try to prepare ahead of time – prepackage meals and snacks at the beginning of the week so you can just grab a portion each day on your way out the door, like this blogger does.  This requires a little planning on the weekend but makes it easier to make healthy choices during the week when you are busy.  Likewise, plan your exercise times ahead of schedule so you don’t have to think about it during the week.  Book the time and stick to it to make it a habit.  Second, be forgiving as you are starting a new routine.  It takes time to make habits and sometimes you fail with one system before finding another that works.  Keep trying until the habit sticks.

As we start this semester, I encourage you to consider your current nutrition and exercise habits.  How well are they fueling your studies?  Try the USDA Healthy Eating Index to determine the quality of your diet and take a look at the Let’s Move initiative for information about physical activity requirements.  What changes do you want to make?  What changes are reasonable to make this semester? I am eager to hear your plans, so comment below with thoughts and questions!

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