Let’s file this under the category of “advice I didn’t follow in grad school, but should have.”
There are a lot of think-pieces surfacing these days on the mental health cost of being an academic, and rightfully so. The rise of neo-liberalism in academic institutions has put unseen pressures on academics, provided them with less job security, and has destroyed anything remotely resembling a work-life balance. Many academics have either left their disciplines to work in the private sector or have cobbled together an income from temporary contracts, accepting that they will never have steady, long-term employment at a University, despite decades of training.
But mental illnesses are only one physical ailment on the rise in academics. There are other considerations that are not mentioned as often which can dramatically affect the health and well-being of graduate students and scholars, and can exacerbate existing conditions, including mental illnesses. Below I will take you through some of these issues and some suggestions I wish I had endeavoured to take seriously while completing my graduate studies.
- Sedentary Lifestyle: Sitting in front of a computer or texts day after day takes a toll on the body that is difficult to measure. Being sedentary for most of the day can exacerbate mental illnesses like anxiety and depression, and they also increase your risk for cardiovascular diseases. The sedentary lifestyle that accompanies graduate studies and an academic career is tough to deal with as it seems to just “come with the territory,” and very real efforts need to be put into combating the “sitting syndrome”. Standing desks might help break up the routine, or keeping an exercise ball in one’s office to replace your chair once and awhile can help keep you active, even when you have to work. You should also periodically take brisk walks, even if it is just around your department. The movement is good for you and it will help refresh your mind so you can come back to your work with new insights and ideas.
- Obesity: Related to the sedentary lifestyle is the risk of becoming obese which is dramatically increased in academics because of poor food choices and a lack of physical activity. A lot of people notice significant weight gain during their degrees and depending on the length of one’s program this can have significant long-term health effects, if not properly addressed. Keep active and pack a health lunch with snacks and plenty of water daily to combat this risk.
- Heart Disease: Interrelated to all of this is the risk of heart disease which can be exacerbated by inactivity, poor nutrition and/or obesity. The excessive stress that comes with an academic lifestyle, particularly the pressures to teach, publish and research simultaneously can contribute to factors which lead to cardiovascular disease.
- Diabetes: Graduate students especially are known for making poor nutritional choices, especially eating foods that are full of sugar and simple carbohydrates. The sugar boost that people get from consuming these foods results in a burst of energy to help people push themselves harder in their work, but the subsequent blood sugar crash might render your brain useless in a very short amount of time. Over time, these poor eating habits lessen your cell’s receptivity to insulin and blood sugar, leading to diseases like metabolic syndrome and even diabetes. Opt for whole foods as much as possible and limit overtly sugary foods.
- Exhaustion: There are no surprises here. Academics and graduate students are the chronically sleep-deprived. There always seems to be one more sentence to write, another article to edit, or another book to read. And without set working hours, it can be difficult to set personal limits, especially when someone is very emotionally invested in their work. Do what you need to do to get to sleep at a reasonable hour on a regular basis. Being exhausted puts you at risk for a host of issues, including exacerbating existing conditions like anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease and so forth.
These are only a few conditions which can physically manifest when working as an academic or a grad student. And even though it can get annoying to have every single person you know is telling you to rest, take it easy, and take care of yourself: you really need to take that seriously and put your health first. Your work cannot be accomplished if you are ill, and it certainly won’t get done if you are dead. If you won’t do it for yourself, recognize that the world needs you and your work too.
Nakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. She recently completed graduate studies and work as a research assistant in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta, as well as a research fellowship on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism for The Tessellate Institute. Nakita serves her community as the Vice President of External Affairs with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC), as an advisor for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life, and as a member of the Executive Fundraising Board for the YIWCL Cree Women’s Camp. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and is currently working on a graphic novel memoir weaving her experiences abroad with her community work and research.