Your body is as important as your mind

Paul T. Corrigan finished his PhD in English at the University of South Florida after six years in the program. He now teaches writing and literature at Southeastern University (USA). You can look him up at paultcorrigan.com.

At twenty-three, I stood in front of a mirror. After working out strenuously for months, I was in as good physical shape as I had ever been. But I knew for the next couple years I would get to exercise less, much less. I was about to start a PhD and start teaching full time. And my wife had just given birth to our second child. So I sighed, smiled, and accepted the inevitable.

I was prepared to make a tradeoff. Since I couldn’t do it all—degree, job, family, fitness—I figured I’d put my body on hold while I worked on my brain. Sure, I wouldn’t be in my early twenties anymore when I got back to exercising. But, given all the fitness I’d banked, I should be alright, right?

As it turned out, grad school cost my body more than I had anticipated.

I stopped exercising, stopped sleeping well, and (to my great surprise!) stopped metabolizing as quickly as I had. I started sitting in a armchair for hours and hours every day (reading, writing, grading) and started stress eating, especially French fries. I ate lots and lots of French fries.

I told myself, this was all temporary, just for a little while. Soon enough, I’d get through the degree and get back to the gym.

One year turned into two. Two years turned into three. Three years turned into four.

Somewhere along the way, I sat on a panel giving advice to incoming grad students. I had a whole list of suggestions: 1. Don’t have kids. 2. Stay physically active. 3. When you figure out how to stay physically active, let me know what the trick is. I haven’t the foggiest . . .

At the end of my fourth year in the program, I finished my qualifying exams, one of the most stressful experiences of my life. Afterward I went into minor depression, I believe. Though I already had a clear idea of what I wanted to write for my dissertation, it still took me that entire next year to write a prospectus. In the past, I had once written over two hundred pages for one course in a single semester. But in that fifth year I produced less than a page a week.

What happened? Part of the picture is that, for the first time in my life, I had put on a few pounds. (Did you see this coming? Did I mention the French fries?) The weight itself isn’t my point—not my weight and certainly not anyone else’s. My point is that in my case gaining weight was part of generally not taking care of my body. Not exercising led to being tired; being tired led to not exercising. This cycle exacerbated the stress and depression. And all of that cut into my productivity.

In The New Science of Learning, Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek cite Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey to make the following point: “Getting adequate exercise, especially aerobic exercise, is ‘the single most important thing a person can do to improve their learning.’” Also on the list: get more sleep.

How could this be? How could an hour of walking be more useful for learning than an hour of reading or writing? It’s simple.

Your brain is part of your body. When you neglect your body, you neglect your brain. When you take care of your body, you take care of your brain.

At the end of that hard fifth year, I realized my faulty tradeoff—brain over body—wasn’t working. So I changed what I ate. I started walking every day. I started running a little. I bought good jogging shoes. I started running a lot. I worked my way up to a 10k. I lost a good bit of weight. I put a lot of time into this renewed effort to attend to my body. What I knew now, though, was that it was not time taken from my studies.

It was part of studying.

And it paid off. Feeling much better, in my sixth year, I proceeded to write and defend my entire dissertation, nearly 300 pages. That’s about six times as productive as the year before.

I don’t want to pretend any of this is simple. If I could start over at twenty-three, I don’t know whether I’d manage to do things differently or whether I already did the best I could while I could. That’s all anyone can do. I have no prescriptions or judgments for myself or for anyone else. My point is simply that there’s no such thing as ignoring the body to attend to the brain because in the long run—and PhD programs are always a long runbody and brain aren’t separate things.

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28 thoughts on “Your body is as important as your mind

  1. Great blog and so true – today I submitted my PhD thesis – but yesterday – when I was still in a minor panic re checking a few little bits and pieces – I still went and did an hours pilates as I knew that would relax me later, make me more productive (avoid the kids tea time – ok that was quite a strong reason!) and sleep better when I finally went to school.
    My advice too is keep exercising!! – Cycling (or another active commute means) to work / your office is a great way as you get your commute and your exercise rolled into one – I find the time on the bike is good for working through issues / brain blockage / reconsidering how to approach an issue / digesting the data or feedback you’ve just received.

  2. Lol, I’m reading this having just decided to poke from the gym this morning! Might have to take the joggers for a lunch time stroll…

  3. I had quite the opposite experience when I started PhD. Call it a sudden burst of motivation upon getting into the program or sad disappointment when I looked at my new ID card picture, I started exercising regularly and eating right. Exercising first thing in the morning gives a sense of achievement even before you enter the office.

  4. I can so relate to this but I am determined not to let my regular exercise regime slip despite work, PhD and kids. One year in and so far so good. Exercise is my guaranteed down-time and I look forward to it every day. I actually workout harder now than I ever have before just to escape my stress and tiredness. I also find it helps me sleep better as I’m otherwise prone to waking up in the night and thinking about work.

    I can recommend boxing class to anyone in the midst of a PhD. Punching something repeatedly and really hard is a great relief after a hard day. It feels amazing to let it all out!

    Wish I could say I’m also on top of healthy eating…but sadly I’m not. I do not even want to think about the quantity of chocolate consumed in the past year.

  5. Could not agree more. I survived my PhD with two things: yoga 3-4 times a week & a dog that required waking twice a day. They both got me moving, out of the house, and I had some of my best mental breakthroughs while on the mat. I still put on weight, thanks to my other pasttime of procrastibaking, but I found mental and physical release.

  6. Thank you Paul
    This is exactly what I needed to hear!

    I’m only in week 13 of my PhD and I decided to put myself on a diet and I have the next 7 weeks off from teaching so I’ve planned a huge kickstart back into old workout ways (like you I lost my motivation a few years ago before the PhD … called the Masters).

    So with this post in mind I now wont feel guilty that I’m working out and not in front of a text or computer.

  7. Thank you so much Paul, this is just what I needed to hear at this moment in my phd journey… have been thinking about movement a lot lately and weight and PhDs and sore bodies etc… cannot tell you how much I appreciate you sharing your experience around this 🙂

  8. University life at all levels champions the life of the mind over the body – to the great detriment of our bodies, and soon thereafter our health and well-being. One day this will need to change. Working to this level, or any level, shouldn’t require ‘survival’, as many of us write on this site. Academic work of all kinds should be conducted with a whole-body mindedness, where NOTHING happens at the expense of our health, be it our emotional, mental or physical health. Can anything other that this really be considered true education, or a true way to do work of any kind?

  9. This is something I have been thinking of alot lately. I’ve been hopping on the bike for a short race around the local streets in the middle of a work day and I’m feeling much better. It is an absolutely necessary break for all the enforced sitting.

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  11. Couldn’t agree more! I’d add that for some people like myself, group and competitive sports are even better exercise – you meet new people, socialise with friends, have fun AND happen to be exercising, which really is great for productivity e.g. for me, it’s racket sports like badminton and squash, and rock climbing. I’d suggest sports like these (others would be football and running) for those that want the social aspects alongside exercise for keeping you sane!

  12. After years of being a slob, I’ve become a gym junkie in the last year (touch wood) of my PhD. I don’t believe I could maintain a punishing study/writing regime without a gym session before starting and a long walk in the late afternoon. Mind you, I was twice your age when I started mine, Paul, so not as confident about having the time to put my body on hold!

  13. This is a realization that I’ve just come to myself. I’m around the age that you were in front of that mirror and lately I’ve been feeling better – but I spent many years in school feeling sluggish and stressed without really understanding why. Your post was a great reminder to keep up the cardio. Thanks!

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  16. I had similar experience while doing my undergrad and master. University in Italy is crazy and chemistry is much more than everything else. Attendance to lecture was compulsory and we had to stay in the lab after lectures. At the end of my five years I was at my heaviest. Thn, I started my PhD and decided that working out would have been a priority. I have never been so thin and such in a good shape.
    I also started my blog to motivate people in doing the same!

  17. Great post! All these simple things that you’ve mentioned, such as sleep, are key to studying and health, as well as fitness. I also have a busy work schedule, but I find that working out or going for a run actually helps me accomplish more than if I carried on working. Thanks for sharing your experiences! 🙂

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