In your final year of your PhD and feeling like you’re one step away from total burnout? Jenny Mak found exercise helped her stay the course when the process felt extra tough. She offers five lessons that she learnt from the spinning bike…
You’re in the final year of your PhD but you feel like you’re one step away from collapsing from stress and fatigue. You’re revising your chapters in a mad rush, implementing corrections from your supervisor(s), not seeing friends, working through weekends, and dreaming about your thesis at night. The submission deadline looms ahead. How can you muster up your flagging energy to get through this intensely stressful period? If you’re living away from your family and home country—especially as an international student—this can feel insurmountable.
I went through this myself but found solace from spin class (or indoor cycling). Writing a PhD thesis can feel like a marathon, but seeing myself as an elite athlete training for the final stretch helped me get to the finish line of submission. Here are some lessons I learnt on the spinning bike. Settle into the saddle and strap in your shoes—it is just you and your thesis now.
Lesson #1: Get on the bike
Regular exercise is important in sustaining your physical and mental well being during this time, even if the temptation is to stay at your desk all day and use all your time and energy for your thesis. But this is counterproductive. Instead, take the chance to move your body to refresh your mind, to let those endorphins kick in, and to be around people. I often found my productivity improving after exercising.
Lesson #2: Simplify
When you’re spinning, you don’t need much else other than comfortable athletic wear, a water bottle, and a towel to get a good workout. The key idea is to pare down to essentials, which limits distractions and keeps you focused on getting your thesis done. To combat “decision fatigue”, you can wear the same clothes or eat similar meals to leave more energy for your work—Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are two famous examples. Make sure to eat nutritious food like vegetables, fruits, and grains, though, and remember that this state of things won’t last forever.
Lesson #3: Energy is renewable
It’s easy to burn out during this intensely stressful period. But I learnt that I was more resilient than I thought as I rode along to the pumping music with other spinners. Maybe it was the oxygen flowing in my muscles, or maybe it was the upbeat rhythms, but as my legs worked at the wheels, my body felt surprisingly more energetic. In other words, as you keep “spinning” at your thesis with other PhD students, even though you might feel like you’re too tired to continue, there’ll be moments where you’ll feel a burst of energy again that’ll help you keep going. Stay with it—you’re made of stronger stuff than you think.
Lesson #4: Pace yourself
A spin class is varied in its intensity—you do sprints, hill climbs, flat roads, stand/sit in your saddle, increase/decrease your resistance and pedal speed. You’re not expected to keep spinning at the same pace and it’s okay. The same goes for your thesis: you can’t be working at the same intensity every day. Write slower one day, and faster in another day—there’s nothing wrong with that. The more important thing is to keep writing or “spinning” till you submit your thesis.
Lesson #5: Be kind to yourself
In my spin class, the instructor consistently encourages us, especially during challenging segments. You’re doing so well! You’re almost there! Negative self-talk is harmful and you’re already under enough stress, so why add fuel to the fire? Tell yourself positive mantras, or write them down and read them any time you feel discouraged to bolster your own confidence. Those digitally inclined can download podcasts like Affirmation Pod to keep their spirits up.
Final words: Doing a PhD is a long and hard journey, but you’re almost at the end. You can see the finish line. Never give up. Dig deep and keep spinning.
Do you exercise regularly? How has exercise and sports helped you throughout the PhD process so far? What lessons have you learnt from your own sports activities that have helped you stay the course during your PhD? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.
Jenny Mak is a PhD researcher in the English and Comparative Literary Studies department at the University of Warwick. She is also a qualified aerobics instructor. Her research looks at embodied experiences of globalisation in contemporary world literature. She has a background in creative writing, journalism, publishing, and sports training.