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The Grad School Workout

Simple exercises to achieve physical perfection—or at least mental wellness—in a sedentary profession.
(Photo: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock)

All human things are subject to decay, and graduate school tends to hasten the process. Samuel Johnson, perhaps the most indolent scholar who ever lived, was keenly aware of the perils that attend chronic and sedentary study. Johnson's 85th Rambler essay addresses this very subject: "Almost every occupation, however inconvenient or formidable, is happier and safer than a life of sloth.... It is too frequently the pride of students to despise those amusements and recreations, which give to the rest of mankind strength of limbs and cheerfulness of heart.”

Today's scholars have new toys for dispelling sloth (“ergonomic” chair-fixtures; walking desks), yet far too many of us share Johnson's inability to follow his own advice. Six years ago, I started hearing classicists complain about “grad-student back”—a malady that in my cynicism I disregarded. Since then, I have seen the tolls of stress-reading, if not in myself then in the bodies around me. One Renaissance scholar of my acquaintance took up marathon running to regain a sense of control over his body. Other scholars that year ended up in chiropractry.

During my first two years of teaching, I held a biweekly racquetball game with four colleagues—these were, in order of height, a rhet-comp specialist, a Spenserian, a Melvillean, and a towering Blakean whom you could no more fool with a high lob than with a floor-screecher. The reach on this guy was ungodly.

But soon the rhet-comp guy had a baby, as did our lofty Blakean—both babies are marvelous, though so far untempted by racquetball—and the Melvillean moved across the country, so I began compiling a catalogue of exercises specially suited to the privacy of an academic office. I am pleased to offer them here for your practical use:

  • decline push-ups, with feet on rolling chair to stimulate the core
  • incline push-ups, with your hands resting on books of similar thickness (matching copies of the DSM; the two halves of the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary; dual commentaries on Georg Simmel, etc.; good for shoulders)
  • pull-ups with a backpack on (begin by filling the backpack with Penguin Classics; later, move to heavier and heavier combinations of reference books; your biceps will explode, in a good way)
  • squat-thrusts with a backpack on (see above for recommended contents of backpack)
  • dictionary-lunges and wind-sprints down the hall when no one is looking
  • bench-pressing your mentor [Editor’s Note: We do not recommend this last item]

These and similar techniques—sensibly adapted and taken in proper humor—will fit easily around a schedule of teaching and research. You can even do them before and after office hours, as long as you're reasonably quiet and don't break the furniture. Soon, those quick-developing lats, deltoids, etc. will basically have tenure, even if you don't. Start biking to campus, and you've got full strength-training and cardio. It feels pretty good.

There is little question that a vigorous exercise routine sharpens the mind and strengthens the spirit. In 2006, the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry extolled the benefits of “lifestyle modifications” (they mean working out); these include reduced cholesterol and stronger cardiovascular function alongside “stress relief,” “improved sleep,” and “increased interest in sex.” In 2011, the American Psychological Association suggested that doctors are still not paying enough attention to exercise as a mental-health curative, while the Mayo Clinic remains equally vocal, especially on the virtues of the endorphins and endocannabinoids that our brain releases during useful exertion.

Pacific Standard has been beating the drum here as well: We have addressed the physical and spiritual benefits of “a brisk half-hour walk five times a week,” or of hiking, or of “tangoing your way to mental health.” We've also discussed how aerobic exercise encourages “mindfulness,” and how commitment to sweat can verge on addiction, and more generally on the lamentable rate of mental illness among graduate students.

I mention my office workout not merely for its elegance and convenience, but also for its discretion: Grad students, adjuncts, even full professors can become leery of the campus gym simply because one is always bound to run into a student. Over the course of an academic year, I teach roughly 60 undergraduates—enough, even at a large university, that after several years of teaching I rarely go to the gym without seeing at least a few former prodigies. There are certain such moments that any teacher will wish to avoid, as when a journalism protegé, who also happens to be a Division I lacrosse player, bench-presses more than you while you're on the bench next to him. The slight may be unintentional, but one tends to worry about losing the magisterial hand.

Maura Cunningham (Ph.D. University of California-Irvine, 2014) wrote recently about the importance of a "rewards system" in grad school, and more specifically about the importance of balancing self-indulgence and self-maintenance. She admits with frankness that it was a hard balance to strike:

My rewards included: pizza, Indian takeout, almond croissants, caramel popcorn, peanut milkshakes, M&Ms, lattes, and Portuguese egg tarts.

My rewards did not include: a gym membership, yoga classes, or swimming lessons (all of which I considered, researched, and then decided against).

The result?

I continued to push back that “later” day when I would improve my diet and commit to a daily workout.... Of all the things I wish I had done differently in grad school, I most wish I had paid more attention to health and exercise.

As Cunningham says, our job is to turn “later” into “now.”

Inside Higher Ed has been on this beat for a while, as has the loosely affiliated site GradHacker, both of them offering the sound advice that if you've been slack in your routine, don't feel bad—just get back on it. If my program of office calisthenics does not appeal to you, fear not—a brief glance at Twitter confirms that plenty of smart, overworked scholars have developed a variety of sustainable regimens that would do any of us good.

Film writer Peter Labuza—host of the Cinephiliacs podcast and a Ph.D. candidate in Critical Studies at the University of Southern California—recommends a regular three-mile run followed by “crunches, planks, etc.” In decades yet unseen, Labuza's back will thank him for this exertion. Matt Brennan (another film writer, and a Ph.D. candidate in history at Tulane) used to play “weekly tennis with a colleague until we had a falling out; I haven't played (or exercised) much since.” (Brennan insists the disagreement had nothing to do with line-calls: “He was pretty fair on the court.”)

The tennis theme cropped up several times—one respondent achieved a rather violent catharsis on the court: “I used to just serve tennis balls as hard as I could until my frustration was gone.”

On the more exotic end of the spectrum, a medievalist colleague of mine took up Krav Maga, an Israeli program for training the military in hand-to-hand combat. In addition, she “walked EVERYSINGLEDAY studying for exams, and that helped me keep up the integrity of my reading schedule.” This colleague now has a nine-month-old boy and notes that “not being pregnant helps a great deal.” (Not being pregnant is central to my own routine.) Maggie Levine (Master’s in Library & Information Science, Simmons College) says “hot yoga & running got me through grad school,” a phrase that in more craven hands would become a bestseller in pop spirituality.

Our Twitter survey was not without its wags: “Exercise in grad school? I thought it was called bartending.” And: “Let these kids know that if they play sports the profession regards with suspicion, such as golf (gasp), not to tell anyone.” For a more serious and Johnsonian perspective, we look to Charles McNamara (Ph.D. candidate in Classics at Columbia, and a Latin speaker):

Academia is an industry of sitters, unfortunately. To counterbalance the sedentary life of a professional reader/writer, I'm always itching to lace up and run a few miles. I firmly believe that my clearest thinking happens not in the library and not even in the shower but in Central Park, around mile four or five of a solo run. That raw research material from a day spent in the library can simmer without any distractions. (The Peripatetics knew what they were talking about, I think.) Sometimes I will try to memorize Greek and Latin—short poems, irregular verb forms—by murmuring them to myself over and over on a long run.

Adds McNamara: “I probably come off as some kind of wacko or, I don't know, sorcerer to the other joggers in the park, but sometimes wizardry is what you need to learn this stuff.”

Wizardry! That must be the endocannabinoids talking.

Gore Vidal writes in a Johnsonian vein that “the more the mind is used and fed the less apt it is to devour itself.” His subject here is Edmund Wilson, but the proposition is general. By this same proposition, we can say that feeding and using the body are equally crucial for sanity, let alone joy; GradHacker has discussed the alarming and very real tendency of grad students to skip meals. Please stop doing that. You know who you are.

"Exercise cannot secure us from that dissolution to which we are decreed,” Johnson admits; “but while the soul and body continue united, it can make the association pleasing, and give probable hopes that they shall be disjoined by an easy separation." Modern medicine bears out Johnson's exhortation. Remember that anyone blessed with a “good” back must work to retain that blessing. And, given the idiosyncrasies of an increasingly hazardous academic job market, your workout remains one of the few things completely in your control.

The Classroom is a regular series on the issues facing both students and teachers of higher education.