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Staying Fit During Your Doctorate: Everything You Need to Know

Succeeding in your doctoral program is about more than academics. Prioritizing your fitness during your PhD can make all the difference in your academic and mental wellbeing. This guide will show you how.

Written By

Emily Kelley

Last updated

Jan 29, 2024

As a doctoral student, it’s clear you aren’t afraid of responsibility. You shoulder the heavy weight of research, coursework, teaching obligations, and a mountain of other academic and personal pressures without batting an eye. And although these responsibilities accumulate quickly and loom large, you manage them all. Doing everything to succeed in your doctoral program, however commendable, might also mean you’ve let non-academic tasks like exercise fall by the wayside.

Sound familiar? As a busy student, it is likely to ring a bell. But what if we told you that exercise could help you carry this metaphorical weight more easily? Well, it can. Existing research proves exercise’s virtues — which include improved cognition, more energy, and less stress — time and again. But you’ve got plenty on your plate without having to sift through this research yourself. In this guide, we’ll break down not only how the positive effects of physical activity can trickle down into your academic pursuits, but how to make it a regular practice. We’ll also walk you through various exercise options and some valuable resources available to help you pursue them. Let’s jump in.

Explore the Benefits of Exercise for Doctoral Students

Although exercise may not currently rate highly on your list of priorities, its immense benefits for PhD students mean that it probably should. Besides improving your physical health, it can also boost your mental function and help you manage stress. Read on to discover these and other ways that exercise can help you achieve the highest level of academic success.

Better Quality of Sleep

According to studies summarized by Johns Hopkins, exercising for at least 30 minutes a day can lead to immediate improvements in sleep quality. Although the exact mechanism is unknown, this physical activity leads to an increase in slow-wave, restorative sleep. And, according to research published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, slow-wave sleep is a critical component for learning and retaining new information (like your course material) because it boosts memory reactivation and consolidation.

Enhanced Cognitive Function

Experts at Harvard Medical School report a strong link between physical activity and improved cognitive function, which is obviously an important consideration for PhD students who are doing high-level thinking. Studies show that in only six months, exercise stimulates growth factors that can lead to healthier, more abundant blood vessels in the brain, which are critical for optimal cognitive function. This research also reveals that exercise increases the volume of brain regions that control thinking and memory.

Higher Energy Levels

Earning a doctorate requires an immense amount of energy. And although it might seem counterintuitive, exercise is great for generating this necessary energy. One study performed through the University of Georgia found that participants in all groups — including healthy adults, cancer patients, and those with chronic illnesses — experienced greater energy levels and reduced fatigue as a result of exercise. This is likely due to the fact that exercise increases norepinephrine and serotonin, which work together to boost energy and alertness.

Improved Resilience

Stress is a major part of any PhD student’s daily life, as you likely know all too well, and the ability to rebound from setbacks is crucial to success. Fortunately, students can manage this stress and improve their mental resilience through exercise. In fact, a 2013 study conducted by Princeton researchers revealed that exercise reduces the effect of stress on the brain by preventing stress-triggered neurons from firing. The study also showed that exercise prevented anxiety from interfering with normal brain function.

Increased Productivity

Due to the heavy workload required to earn a doctorate, an unproductive student is an unsuccessful one. However, there is plenty of evidence that regular exercise can boost productivity to help students get it all done. The Brookings Institution summarizes this research, which shows that exercise makes people happier, staves off the slowdown of neurogenesis (the process of new neuron formation), and stimulates the development of new mitochondria (cellular organelles that produce energy). This combination of effects promotes productivity by boosting mental energy and creating a more favorable headspace overall.

Get Started: How to Build Exercise into Your PhD

If you are not already in the habit of exercising, figuring out where to start can feel overwhelming. So, to help you along, we have outlined everything you need to kickstart your fitness journey. Continue reading to get the lowdown on how to make exercise a regular part of your life.

Acknowledge Challenges & Setbacks

The first step in your journey is to outline the roadblocks that you currently face or may face in the future so that you can make a plan for overcoming them. If you need help getting started, the American Heart Association and the CDC both provide advice for tackling some of the more commonly reported barriers to fitness, including lack of time, motivation, and social support.

Be Consistent

Although a single workout can provide immediate benefits, such as a temporary boost in mood and energy, consistency is the only way to see long-term positive effects and physiological changes. In an article in Psychology Today, a fitness expert says that the key to consistency is scheduling your workout like an appointment and keeping it every time — even if it’s not always perfect.

Consult an Expert

As Harvard Medical School explains, there are several types of experts that you may need to consult when you are considering beginning an exercise routine. For example, if you have physical issues or limitations, you should consult a doctor to make sure your chosen exercise will be safe for you. Other experts, such as personal trainers, can help you design an effective workout routine.

Find the Kind of Exercise That Works for You

Finding an effective form of exercise is about striking the balance between what you are currently able to do physically and what is challenging. The American Heart Association provides helpful guidelines for assessing whether a potential exercise will be a good fit. Aside from all of this, make sure you will enjoy the activity — this will make you more likely to stick with it.

Work Around Your Schedule & Preferences

Try time mapping to see if you can find any free time in your schedule to dedicate to exercise. More importantly, make sure that the free block you find fits your natural tendencies — early in the day if you’re a morning person, or sometime in the evening if you tend to be a night owl. You can also try weaving physical activity into your existing routines.

Social Exercises: Get Fit & Make Friends

An article published by Iowa State University outlines the many reasons group exercise can be more effective than exercising alone, including positive peer pressure, greater accountability, and increased motivation. So, if you are interested in cashing in on these benefits, here are some exercise options that will allow you to socialize your way to fitness.

Dance Classes

If music moves you, a dance class could be a great way to motivate yourself to consistently engage in physical activity. There are many options based on various styles and traditions, including Zumba, belly dancing, salsa, swing, and much more, so you’ll be sure to find something you love.

Group Fitness Classes

A group fitness class can be organized around nearly any type of physical activity, so your options are practically limitless. Some of the possibilities you may find at local gyms include spin (indoor cycling), HIIT, aerobics, pilates, and boot camp workouts. Once you start looking, you will likely be surprised at just how many options you have at your fingertips.

Running Groups

A running group, or running club, is simply a group of people who get together to run and participate in running-related activities, such as races and marathons. Some groups are relaxed and open to all while others are geared toward specific ability levels. If you can’t find an existing group on or near campus, you can always try starting your own.

Mindful Exercises: Move Your Body & Calm Your Mind

Mindfulness is the practice of being fully aware and present. Its benefits include reduced anxiety and stress and a better ability to appreciate the moment at hand. If this is something that appeals to you, check out the following exercises that hinge on this practice.

Aikido

Aikido, which means “way of harmonizing energy,” is a Japanese martial art that focuses on self-defense without causing harm to one’s opponent. The physical benefits of Aikido include aerobic conditioning, increased strength and flexibility, and improved posture, coordination, and balance. Practitioners of this art also report better focus, greater body awareness, and an increased sense of relaxation.

Tai Chi

The ancient Chinese practice of tai chi involves a combination of slow, gentle movements, various physical postures, and controlled breathing. It is a low-impact exercise with little risk of injury, and offers many benefits, including pain reduction, lower blood pressure, stronger muscles, and greater flexibility and balance.

Weightlifting

Weightlifting is a form of weight training that involves (as you might expect) lifting free weights. Its main goal is to build larger, stronger muscles, but it also has other benefits, including increased bone density, stronger joints, and reduced body fat. Cultivating a mindful weightlifting practice can prevent injury and make your movements more precise.

Yoga

Yoga combines specific poses with various other practices, such as breathing techniques, chanting, and meditations. There are many types of yoga, all of which fall into one of six branches; the combination of elements varies depending upon the specific style but because yoga emphasizes the mind-body connection, mindfulness is a consistent feature of all styles.

Outdoor Exercises: Stay Active & Connect with Nature

Although every type of exercise is sure to enhance your life and academic performance, taking it outdoors provides many additional wellness benefits, such as improved thinking and reasoning, higher levels of vitamin D, lower levels of cortisol, and reduced feelings of depression. Consider trying one of the following outdoor activities to take advantage of the health benefits nature has to offer and get the most out of each workout.

Cycling

If riding a bike is in your current skill set, cycling could be a good fit for you. Although it is a low-impact exercise, it is great for strengthening all the major muscle groups as well as the bones. It also decreases stress, anxiety, and depression.

Hiking

The American Hiking Society defines hiking as “walking in nature on a surface that is not a road or a sidewalk.” As long as you can access a good hiking trail or two, it is very simple to get started. Just make sure to check weather conditions before you go, wear appropriate clothing, and bring a few essentials.

Rock Climbing

Because rock climbing (safely) requires quite a bit of specialized knowledge and gear, the best approach to learning is to take some classes. If you’re up for the challenge, you can reap all the health benefits of this sport, which include a stronger body, better cardiorespiratory fitness, improved working memory and cognitive ability, and fewer symptoms of depression.

Running, Jogging, or Walking

Walking, jogging, and running are all excellent choices for outdoor exercise because they require very little equipment or instruction. All you need is comfortable, weather-appropriate clothing and the right shoes. If you have never run before, experts recommend starting with walking and working your way up from there. However, even if you never run, walking and jogging are still immensely beneficial exercises.

Swimming

If you have regular access to an ocean, lake, or outdoor pool, swimming for exercise is a great low-impact, low-risk way of spending time outdoors and improving your fitness. Swimming provides a full-body workout and is accessible to every body type or fitness level —it is even a suitable activity for people who suffer from painful physical conditions like arthritis.

Resources to Maximize Your Fitness

If you are eager to begin your exercise journey, there is no scarcity of resources available to help you get started. Check out the ones we’ve linked below to get an idea of what’s out there to help you optimize your fitness.

Resources for Students

  • Discounts at Local Gyms – Many gyms offer discounted memberships to college and graduate students to encourage them to take better care of their physical health. For example, Crunch Fitness, a national gym chain, offers a discount to college students. Gyms don’t always advertise student discounts, however, so it is worth calling or visiting local gyms to verify their availability.
  • Intramural Sports Clubs & Teams – Intramurals sports and tournaments allow students to compete against other students from their own college or university rather than playing against teams from other schools. Most universities offer a variety of intramural sports, which usually welcome individuals of every skill level. Rockhurst University, for example, offers ten different clubs and teams, including soccer, dodgeball, tennis, and kickball.
  • University Fitness Facilities – Most universities have well-equipped fitness facilities on campus that are open to students around the clock. The best part? The cost of using these facilities is often included in tuition. For instance, Penn State’s facilities are open to current students who have paid the Student Initiated Fee for the semester. Other students may access the facilities by purchasing a membership.
  • Virtual Personal Training & Guided Workouts – Working virtually with a personal trainer can be just as effective as meeting with one in person. In addition to guided workouts, working remotely with a personal trainer provides the accountability and guidance you need to avoid injury and get results. Your trainer simply observes your workout via video conferencing software and provides real-time feedback and advice.
  • Wellness Workshops and Seminars – Wellness workshops and seminars are mini learning sessions aimed at helping students navigate a variety of health-related issues. These workshops can take many forms. For example, the sessions at Cal State LA are held in person, the University of Tennessee Knoxville offers them as a video series, and NYU holds theirs via Zoom.

Online Resources for Everybody

  • AllTrails – Also available as an app, this website helps users explore the best trails for hiking, camping, and running. There are several ways to begin searching — users can select a trail category (such as hiking, running, dog friendly, or wheelchair friendly), or can use the search bar to enter a city, park, or trail name. Results contain descriptions, maps, pictures, user reviews, and more.
  • Livestrong – Livestrong.com is a website that publishes hundreds of articles each month on the topics of health, nutrition, and fitness. Each of these articles is reviewed for accuracy by experts such as doctors, nurses, certified personal trainers, and dieticians. The site is searchable and offers a free email newsletter.
  • Nike Training Club – The Nike Training Club is a free app that contains workouts, advice from professional athletes and trainers, guided meditations, healthy recipes, and more. Its progressive exercise programs combine workouts with nutrition advice and recovery and mindset tips. Users can schedule workouts and use the casting feature to view and follow them on a bigger screen.
  • Strava – This app syncs with phones, GPS watches, and head units to record performance metrics during workouts. Its Beacon feature also allows users to share their real-time location with a safety contact. Strava’s other features include a trail-locating resource, clubs and communities, and a social media component that allows users to share pictures and workout details with friends and family.