Staying Physically Healthy in Graduate School

It’s that time of the year again, and Twitter is full of questions asking grads and recent PhDs to give advice to incoming graduate students. If you are unfamiliar with the format, the conceit is — if you could go back and start all over again with the knowledge you have now, what would you do differently; what would you do the same?

There are great suggestions already out there, like don’t be afraid to go to a counselor or you should definitely join your union. (I particularly recommend this thread that reminds graduate students that, in fact, everyone isn’t your competitor in graduate school. [Editor’s Note: Look for Clio & The Contemporary’s post on this topic, “Supporting Your Cohort,” coming soon!]). In addition to these important suggestions, I wanted to offer my own advice on staying physically healthy in grad school.

I think that taking care of your body is one of the most crucial aspects of graduate school. Without getting into the details, my graduate career (and now post-graduate career) was plagued with a lot of physical pain, stemming in part from a running injury, then from too much sitting, then from muscle imbalances, and finally from a long-undiagnosed case of TMJ. I would have had some of these problems without graduate school, but the combination of stress, heavy workload, and the inability to control my own schedule really exacerbated a lot of my issues. I want to share some of the knowledge that I have accumulated over the years to help with the stress and physical toll of graduate school. Here are some tips that can help you take back some control over your body during periods of peak stress (…comps) and help ensure good physical health.

(The obvious disclaimer and bad joke are now incoming: no, I’m not that kind of doctor. If you can, always check with a doctor about the course of your own healthcare.)

Protect Your Posture

Without a doubt, this is the most common issue for everyone, from professors to graduate students to undergraduates. Bad posture puts pressure on your shoulders, can give you headaches, and hurt your lower back. (Check out the first four minutes of this video about the health consequences of bad posture.). Grad school is unfortunately a perfect storm for developing bad posture. You’re constantly sitting, reading, and typing, and even if you do get to the gym for an hour every day, it can’t completely counteract the other eight to ten hours you spend working. 

You can make some simple (and free!) adjustments on your own: 

  1. Be conscious of your posture. This is the simplest and cheapest option. Stand in front of a mirror and look at the way your neck, shoulders, and back are aligned. An excellent way to test to see if your shoulders are rounded is to look at the position of your hands. Stand normally with your hands by your side and look at your thumbs. If they point towards themselves instead of sitting parallel (with the thumbs facing the wall in front of you), you need to work on your posture. 
  2. Avoid the temptation to work in bed. This is bad for your back, full stop. 
  3. Get up and move every half hour. It can actually be more productive to focus on a task for twenty or thirty uninterrupted minutes, and then give yourself a five minute break–to get up and stretch, for example–than to chain yourself to a desk for three hours without moving. 
  4. Do preventative exercises and stretches. There are thousands of videos on YouTube that can help you. Seriously, take fifteen minutes a day to do some shoulder squeezes, stretch to open up your chest & shoulders, add some wrist stretches, stretch to prevent Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, and/or do a minute plank (sitting really weakens your core). You can do half of these while you’re walking to class or shopping for groceries.        

Another necessary step is to carefully design your working environment:

  1. Frequently switch which hand you use for a mouse. Muscular imbalances can be really nasty, and even if you don’t realize it, always using your right hand (or left hand) can make you slump slightly to one side, give you knots in your shoulder, or cause tension in your arm. Switching your dominant mouse hand every day can be extremely helpful. 
  2. If possible, don’t use a laptop as your primary computer. It is incredibly difficult to use a laptop with good posture, especially because most experts recommend that you keep your monitor at eye level to prevent strain on your neck. Purchasing a desktop, of course, is the more expensive option (although an investment worth making early in your graduate career if you can). If you can’t afford a desktop, you can buy a good keyboard, USB mouse, and cheap monitor and simply use your laptop like a desktop. I did this for years. You can pile up a bunch of books to put your laptop screen at eye level and just unplug everything when you need to take your laptop to school. 
  3. Purchase a cheap book stand. Right. Now. I have this $8 one from Amazon. This takes pressure off of your neck when you’re reading and when you sit down to take notes. It also can take some pressure off your shoulders because you’re not having to hold the book for long periods of time. (I recommend you buy two if you have an office at home and on campus!) 
  4. Use an ergonomic mouse instead of the touchpad on your laptop. Hunching over your laptop is really bad for your back and neck, and buying a good, USB mouse can allow you to sit up straighter. (I use this $36 one). 
  5. I know it is a cliche, but a convertible standing desk is actually a really useful addition to your office. The cheapest way is to just build a desk out of books and cardboard boxes, which I did for a few years, but I recently purchased this $85 desk and have no complaints (it even fits my dual monitors!). It may take some getting used to (and I know this is not accessible for many people) but I find that standing the majority of the day really improves my mood and my mind feels less foggy after a full days’ work. Another option is to put your laptop on a counter or another high surface for thirty-to-sixty minute periods. 

Help Your Body 

No amount of preparation is going to erase the fact that you’re working a lot, and that kind of constant work and stress is going to take a toll on your body, either in the shape of tight shoulders or a sore back, or maybe even with tension headaches or teeth clenching. What’s important is that you give yourself space every single day to help your body recover from the academic grind. 

  1. Eat well. Y’all don’t need me to tell you this. But here’s a pro-tip for eating more healthy: invest in good spices and seasonings and learn how to make a couple staple sauces. This easy peanut sauce, for example, is good on everything. Additionally, did you know you can make a salad dressing by just adding some water to your favorite hummus? Also: put hummus on everything. 
  2. Cut out caffeine. We really fetishize caffeine, both inside the academy and out. The reality is that caffeine is often more trouble than it’s worth–I cut it out because it really exacerbated my anxiety–and as improbable as it sounds, after you wean yourself off caffeine, you’ll perhaps find you don’t really need it. (NB: I did not raise children during graduate school)
  3. Listen to your body. This is related to the two points above. One mistake I made time and time again in graduate school was ignoring what my body was trying to tell me — that it was hurting, that I needed to go on a walk, that I needed a day off the computer, or even that I wasn’t hungry so much as stressed. Taking three deep breaths and finding a moment of stillness actually helps you reconnect to your body’s needs. 
  4. Wear out those shoulders. I know what you’re thinking, your shoulders are probably already pretty tired and tight from all that stress. One of the most useful things I’ve learned from seeing a DO regularly (which I also highly recommend if you can find one that practices manipulation) is that often times, the best way to fix a tight muscle is to wear it out. That is, to reset it by pushing it to fatigue. The simplest thing to do to wear out those shoulders is to just do shoulder circles for 3-5 minutes, or until they’re on fire. I also absolutely love this video to help reset my tight shoulders.
  5. If you take up running, don’t forget strength training. This was a mistake I made in graduate school, and a mistake I hear from my PT that a lot of people make. A lot of graduate students choose some kind of cardio, especially running, to help cope with stress. Just keep in mind that if you have a muscular imbalance, running and sitting will both exacerbate it and cause you problems down the line. Even simply investing in a few resistance bands and doing regular hip strengthening exercises can go a long way to ensure you don’t end up with an injury.
  6. While we’re at it — strength train. I’ve come to realize that strength training is not an optional form of exercise in grad school, it’s absolutely crucial to ensuring your body’s good posture and overall health. You don’t even have to go to the gym — you can do a ton of strength training from home, either by purchasing some weights for an at-home gym, or just by using body weight. I got a lot of mileage from the Fitness Blender YouTube channel before I finally joined my school’s gym. If you want to work out at the gym, there are tons of guides online to help you find a program that can teach you the basics of safe weight-lifting. (I used this program). Your gym probably offers the services of a physical trainer as well. 
  7. Netflix and foam roll. Resist the urge to conclude the day that you’ve spent sitting and staring at a screen with an activity that keeps you… sitting and staring at a screen. Invest in a foam roller (this is mine for $18) and pull it out at the end of a long day while you’re watching something to wind down. I highly recommend regularly foam rolling your hip flexors because they can get very tight from sitting and actually cause low-back pain. 
  8. And yes, you should actually do yoga. Let me just say this one thing about yoga: its effects are cumulative. That means that perhaps you won’t feel crazy different after one session, but after thirty, you won’t believe how tight your hips used to be. I have to plug EkhartYoga, an online Yoga studio that only costs $12/month. (That is, it’s less than the price of one yoga session at most studios). They have literally hundreds of videos for everything you could possibly want. I’ve recently found this video for opening your hips and back — it’s a game changer. 
  9. Get a massage at the end of the semester. Massages are treated like a luxury when they are actually a really good “tune-up” for your body. I recommend a massage therapist that specializes in myofascial release. 
  10. Buy a couple of tennis balls. This is the cheapest and most effective alternative to a massage. You can stand up against a wall and literally roll everything from your shoulders to your hips and get at those pesky trigger points. I honestly do this every morning. Bring a tennis ball to your office at school and give yourself a mini-massage at lunch. 
  11. Help yourself relax with a microwavable eye mask. These things are wonderful if you carry a lot of tension around your eyes or in your neck. I use this $14 one and sometimes will put it over my eyes right before bed. A real life hack, especially if you get a really tight neck (which we all do), is to flip the mask upside down and wear the mask like a headband. That is, the warm part sits at the base of your neck behind your head, and the velcro straps wrap around your head like a sweet ‘90s headband. (This technique is great for headaches and migraines.) 

I hope you find some of these tips helpful and that you can integrate them into your daily routine. Graduate school is going to be hard on your body, but it doesn’t have to do long-lasting damage. The most important thing to change is your mindset. No matter how busy you get, you should always take time to protect your body. It’s the only one you’ve got. 

PS. If you are interested in knowing more about how your body works and what kind of exercises you can do to alleviate or prevent pain, I would highly recommend the YouTube channel of Bob & Brad, two delightful physical therapists. 

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