Personal health and wellbeing can be easily overlooked when you’re a PhD student, especially in your final years. U. Ejiro Omomake talks about living the healthiest life you can during your PhD journey…
Wellness is a Process
Another long week has come to an end. Your days have been filled with hours chained to the desk spent writing (or pretending to write); attending meetings and teaching. You’ve promised yourself that starting next week you’ll go to the gym, get more sleep and eat healthier food. These are unfulfilled promises left on your to do list for over three months along with other things you feel are less than pertinent to your life as a PhD researcher. But I’ve got news for you — a healthy lifestyle is beneficial to your research life. In fact physical and mental wellness are essential components of a successful PhD journey. For years I’ve focused on wellness but it’s become more crucial in my PhD years. The three areas of focus are: food, physical activity and mental breaks.
Eating healthy can include a range of things including adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet; eating out less and reducing processed foods and sweets. I focus on eating ‘clean’ 70% of the time. For me this means lots of water; no processed foods; whole grains; organic fruit and vegetables; and grain-fed/free-range meats, etc… One or two weekends of each month I spend one day cooking meals in advance. Cooking is one of my passions yet some days the last thing I want to do after a day of writing is cooking. The key is to make healthy eating easy and compatible with your schedule. Eating higher quality food will help you physically and mentally. If you’re eating rubbish your body can’t function on the high level which research requires. Eating better doesn’t have to be a drastic or an exercise in perfection-small changes to your diet can go a long way. It can be as simple as eating healthier meals three times a week.
We do a lot of sitting around as researchers and our bodies were not meant for this. To combat physical inactivity we need to infuse more movement into our daily routine. A regular exercise schedule as well as a little movement every few hours is necessary. While you work, you can set a timer to take a walking/stretching break every 2 hours or so. As for a workout schedule — think about exercising four times a week. The key is to find things you like to do. If you don’t choose exercises you like you’ll be less likely to do them. On average I exercise 5-6 days a week. I’ve practiced yoga on an off for 19 years and some months I am on the mat daily while others months it is far less. My more recent weekly workouts include daily yoga stretches and four days of strength training. Years ago I was a gym bunny but nowadays I like the ease of rolling out of bed and working out from home; this way I have no excuses for not working out. Additionally I have some constraints due to previous injuries so I modify exercises to work around these injuries. As with food, physical activity is about knowing yourself and finding exercises that work for you.
As PhD researchers our job is to think. Literally, we spend a great deal of time thinking about our research from hundreds of angles; about how to teach complex subjects in a simple way; networking; publishing; writing; and our career plans. We think from the minute we wake up until the minute we fall asleep. But at some point we have to turn off all those thoughts. I like to call turning off all the thoughts and chatter, a mental break. Taking a mental break can be anything from meditating, taking a short walk or listening to a song you adore. The key to taking a mental break is to just be in the moment and take a step back from the sea of constant thoughts. I recommend finding time to do this every day — when you wake up, on the way to campus, during a break; at night; anytime. My mental break is found through meditation or listening to a song or two. I know that having the time and space to switch off everything else is not always easy but it is well worth the effort. Mentally taking time away from your research is actually one of the best things you can do for your research. By turning off those thoughts we’re actually able to relax and approach our work and life in general with a more relaxed attitude.
Cultivating a healthier lifestyle is best viewed as a process rather than an end goal. As researchers many of us view things as all or nothing and this attitude creates another level of pressure. Give yourself time to ease into wellness. If you start doing everything at once it will seem like just another set of tasks to add to your your already hectic schedule. So begin by testing out things you like and doing research. We’re great at research and investigating ways to live healthier is the most important research we’ll ever do. Also connect with other people and work on supporting each other. Any step towards wellness is an improvement, so get started today. Not only will you feel better but this change will also reflect in your work.
U. Ejiro O. Onomake is in the last year of her PhD programme based at the University of Sussex’s anthropology department. She is also a Sussex Research Hive Scholar. Her research explores Nigerians’ agency in relationships with Chinese counterparts in business and educational spheres. As a two time ambassador for the international health and lifestyle challenge #SexyShred, Ejiro dedicates this article to her #SexyShred family..
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