As graduate students, we spend a lot of time putting our brains to the test. From carrying out experiments and analyzing data, to preparing for lab meetings and keeping up with the latest publications, the mind is in constant overdrive and this can be incredibly taxing. In an environment where there are always more tasks that need to get done, it may seem logical to make sacrifices in other aspects of life to dedicate some more time to our academic pursuits. However, this can often lead to stress and burnout, along with habits that, down the road, may actually be more detrimental than beneficial to performance and productivity.

Exercise and physical activity were not always essential parts of my life. My journey into fitness began just 5 years ago, when I was doing exactly what I described above: allotting extra time to studying, eating whatever food was quickest, and always putting sleep on the backburner. There came a point when both my mental and physical health were suffering, and I knew that I had to start paying more attention to how I was treating my body. The transition was not an easy one and I am still by no means an expert, but I am constantly making new discoveries on this journey and it is one that I am beyond grateful to have started.

Find the Fun

There are so many options when it comes to exercise — rock climbing, kickboxing, dancing, etc. The possibilities are truly endless. I knew that I wanted something that was exciting, would get my heart pumping, and give me a good sweat. Enter, weightlifting. Weightlifting was perfect for me because every workout could be structured differently. I could target various parts of the body and never got bored. This made me eager to learn, which I believe was key to helping me stick with it.

Another great option is group classes. I recently gave hot yoga a try with a fellow lab mate and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Do some research (you’re already a pro at this), sample different exercise types, and find ones that you will enjoy doing routinely.

Making it a Priority

Exercise takes up time — that’s unavoidable. Naturally, at the beginning there was that sense of guilt; time was supposed to be used for hitting the books, right? My outlook changed when I recognized what a positive impact regular exercise had on not just my physical but overall wellbeing. Working out gives my mind a chance to take a break because, in the gym, all I have to concentrate on is one thing and one thing alone — moving the object in front of me. In addition, the physical exertion improved my sleep which led to feeling more alert, enhanced focus, and cheerier moods during the day.

Go Anyways

In an ideal world, I would be able to go to the gym for a full session, 4 to 5 times a week, but we often have other commitments and sometimes thirty minutes is all that can be spared. At moments like these, that tiny voice in your head is probably whispering, “Is it even worth going?”. Yes, go anyways. Getting a good workout doesn’t mean you need to spend two hours in the gym everyday, a little can go a long way. High intensity interval training (HIIT) is fantastic for those strapped for time. As the name suggests, it is a form of interval training with short bursts of high intensity aerobic exercise. A full HIIT workout takes just 15-30 minutes! No excuses.

There is never a Perfect Time to Start

Like any new habit, getting started is the biggest hurdle. Starting a new regimen can be daunting but those first few steps (literally) are what will make all the difference. When it comes to reaping the benefits of exercise, Nike knows a thing or two: you just have to do it.

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Sharon Ling

Sharon is an MSc candidate within the lab of Dr. Rae Yeung in the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto. Outside of the lab, Sharon enjoys watercolour painting, working out, and grabbing weekly dim-sum with her grandma.

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