Working out my body… and my mind
How my fitness routine helped me establish healthy new research habits
You’ve probably seen countless exercise videos promising to help you drop 10 pounds in a month and copious articles telling you why you should start a new fitness regimen, but I’m not here to convince you to start one. I’m here to share how having a fitness routine has helped me learn and grow as a graduate student at MIT.
I have played soccer since I was six and played through undergrad, so when my competitive soccer career was cut short by the pandemic, the pandemic 15 hit me hard. As pandemic restrictions lifted, I realized that I was 20 pounds overweight and far from my idea of healthy, so I started strength and cardio training consistently. I continued to prioritize fitness when I started grad school at MIT. I fit my routine into my busy academic schedule by running to the gym, lifting, then running back to my apartment all in under an hour about 5-6 days per week. After my first semester at MIT, I realized that my fitness routine not only kept me grounded, but also helped me draw analogies to my research progress, or just the nebulous concept of “progress” in general. Here’s what I learned:
Fall back on fitness progress when research progress is slow (and vice versa).
As an experimental researcher, I would often beat myself up for not making progress in a day’s work or wasting time and resources if an experiment went wrong. Even if the day ended in failed 3D prints, I could fall back on the fact that I had just set a new personal record (PR) in deadlift earlier that day and treat myself to a feast when I got home. The main takeaway here is to invest your happiness eggs in more than one basket, whether it be fitness, crafting, cooking, or some other hobby that makes you happy, not just research. As a results-driven person, fitness provides a balance for me as I can measure my progress and fall back on progress in the gym when it feels like my research progress is trending oppositely.
There will be days when you just don’t feel up to it.
There are early mornings when I step up to the bar and my body just won’t feel up to lifting it. On those days, I take some weight off and lift what I can. It would be counterproductive to injure myself trying to lift more than my body feels up to. There are other days when my muscles need rest. In fact, rest days are arguably as important as training days as it gives your muscles time to recover, so I skip a day here or there. The same goes for research – there will be days when you don’t feel like working, and that’s okay! Recognizing when you work productively and when you’re burning out and need a break are important. *Cue the “grad school is a marathon, not a sprint” cliché.*
Making small, achievable, near-daily progress in something adds up to a lot of progress in the end, and recording that progress is helpful!
I didn’t notice much muscle gain or physique changes until at least a month or two after I first started lifting multiple times per week (muscle gain rate and appearance may be different depending on the person). Since I record my workouts, when I looked back at the weight I lifted a couple months ago, I realized that I was lifting at least 50% more weight in almost all the exercises that I trained weekly or bi-weekly. Additionally, I felt a lot stronger and healthier overall.
Employing the technique of small daily efforts helped me grow as a researcher as well. When I first started grad school, I was advised to read one peer-reviewed paper per (business) day. I managed to read a paper and write down a summary on a PowerPoint slide almost every day. I looked back at the slides I had accumulated over fall semester and realized that I learned an immense amount about my research and felt more confident when discussing my research area with peers and my advisor than I had before. Small daily progress may not seem significant, but it adds up to a lot. Recording what you do is a helpful, confidence-boosting way to realize progress over long periods of time.
Picking your battles strategically: when to “just do it,” and when to plan.
Making a training plan is important. In the beginning, I figured that some exercise is better than none at all, but I discovered a little later into my fitness journey that I could have optimized my training program to increase strength in certain areas or properly train cardio fitness. Having a training program before going into the gym proved to be valuable in reaping the maximum benefits of my time. Same goes for research – planning what you want to do before going into the lab may make your work more efficient. On the other hand, too much planning could make you feel stuck or reluctant to do what you need to do. In that case, just do it!
The lessons I learned from challenges and achievements in fitness translated well to those in research and vice versa. Ultimately, fitness and research together taught me how important it is to find balance while challenging myself to grow, especially at a place like MIT. And if this has somehow convinced you to start a new fitness routine, I hope to see you at the Z!
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