It’s World Health Day! Celebrated on the 7th of April every year, this day was designed to raise awareness for pressing public health issues and is sponsored by the World Health Organization. The theme this year is Depression: let’s talk. We’ve written a lot about mental health issues in the past months, covering survival strategies, support services available at UofG, and PhD self-care – and keep an eye on the blog for more content on mental health in the coming weeks. But today, I’d like to take a closer look at how to remain physically healthy as a busy PGR!
The main factors our bodies need, ranked in order of importance based on what will kill you fastest if you are deprived of it, are oxygen, water, nutrition, sleep, and physical activity. Luckily, most of us don’t have much trouble breathing, but a healthy balance of the other four seems to be much more difficult to achieve. Lack of time, busy research schedules, working at irregular times and odd hours – there are lots of reasons why PGRs may have trouble adhering to a healthy lifestyle. But with a bit of planning, it’s certainly not impossible! I’d like to go over the benefits of keeping fit and provide simple hacks to live more healthily to maintain, and possibly boost, your research output.
We all know that above funding, supervision, and tears, the driving force behind postgraduate research is coffee! But as much as I love caffeinating and having a tea break, my PGR work often interferes: my office is based in a laboratory, which means we cannot eat or drink there (because flying chemicals and all). This seems trivial, but stepping outside for every sip of water in the day can really disrupt your work – thank God that Health and Safety allows us to at least breathe the very air we do experiments in! I am sure that other laboratory-based PGRs have similar issues, as well as those of you on fieldwork in wild places (or the library) or handling expensive equipment that could be damaged by spillage. Even just being busy and caught up in work (because deadlines!) can make you forget to hydrate. This can severely impact on your productivity, though, as even mild dehydration can cause headaches and make you light-headed and sleepy.
Drinking enough is therefore key for PGRs, and to keep track of your intake it can help to fill up a bottle of water in the morning and finish it by the close of day. If you don’t like the taste of plain water, add some fruit slices or use fizzy water to make it more interesting. Be careful with sodas – you’re trying to hydrate, not load up on calories – but note that also seemingly healthy fruit juices, smoothies, and sport drinks can be deceivingly high in sugar. The same goes for fancy coffees with cream or flavoured syrups. If drinking enough is a challenge for you: watery vegetables and fruits can also hydrate your body and contain lots of minerals and vitamins as a bonus! In addition, they contain fibre that make you feel satiated and keep your bowels happy, so munch away on those cucumbers, tomatoes, and watermelons.
Having a busy PGR life can easily impact your diet. We all know the importance of eating healthy, but when keeping an eye on what circulates on the internet it seems as if what a healthy diet actually is changes day by day. Having studied Nutrition & Health at uni for five years, I can assure you there’s really no need to stock up on superfoods and neutraceuticals and nootropics (or whatever else people come up with these days to sell supplements that will boost your brain function – but really don’t). Keep to whole grains, lots of fresh veggies, some protein, a bit of fruit, go easy on the biscuits and cake, and you’re well on your way.
Eating healthy seems to correlate inversely with being busy, as it takes time to shop and cook, while grabbing a take-out is quick & easy. But did you know that symptoms of poor nutrition include tiredness, getting ill more often, poor concentration, and low mood? Ain’t no PGR got time for that! Apply your PGR time management skills to your diet: by optimising the vegetable cutting, veggie frying, and starch cooking, almost any vegetable-based stir-fry or pasta can be made within 15 minutes. Make a bigger serving and you’ve got lunch covered for the next day. If you live with other people, alternating shopping and cooking responsibilities can save you time as well as present a chance to nourish the soul, too, with some good conversation and socialising.
We all have different habits – I’m sure some of you simply cannot stomach more than a coffee in the morning, while others may happily polish off a full Scottish breakfast! You need to keep with a rhythm that works for you. Used to working late and too tired to eat properly at night? Flip your meals: a hot lunch with a large serving of veggies, and something simple (bread, yogurt) at the end of the day. A wee bit of planning goes a long way, as you’re more likely to give in to the vending machine or make unhealthy choices at the shops when you are already hungry. Best to anticipate. Good news? Lots of healthy snacks also happen to be quick and easy, such as fruits, veggies, and nuts. Though tasty, it’s best not to opt for sugary snacks. They’ll give you a quick sugar rush, but once your body compensates you’ll end up with low blood glucose again and more sugar cravings.
My point is: invest some time in finding out what works for you and I’m sure this time investment will pay itself back by making you feel more fit and in better spirits.
Sleep is, in my opinion, the most underrated component of health. Though it seems terribly unproductive to waste a third of our days in a comatose state, sleep is imperative for PGR alertness. Unfortunately, working late and PGR worries may significantly interfere with a normal sleeping pattern. An important factor is that most of our work involves computer screens that emit bright blue light, which is mistaken by our bodies as sunlight and induces signalling cascades to keep us awake. That’s why you often read the advice to put your phone away at night. Though I appreciate that advice, it’s kinda hard to reconcile that with our current digital life where your phone is your newspaper, mode of contact with family and friends, and general window to the world. Thus, bring on the hacks! A great application is f.lux, which is an app that makes your computer and phone screens adapt to the time of day, with brighter colours during the day and warmer ones at night. And for those researchers like myself that need to analyse images or do other color-sensitive work and worry it might interfere, no worries – you can disable f.lux for a specific task with a simple click.
No matter whether your research takes place in a laboratory, the field, the library, or at home – chances are you spend prolonged stretches of time in the same position. A sedentary lifestyle has been linked to lots of health problems, but it’s good to remember that this can be combatted by exercise and even just moving around regularly can make a huge difference. To find out more about the benefits of being active, and how PGRs could build some more exercise into their busy schedules, I had a chat with the Sport Development Manager at the University of Glasgow, Jenny Beedie. She recently started working more closely with the PGR Development Office to try and encourage more PGRs to adopt active lifestyles whilst they undertake their research! “In case readers are unaware, the Sport and Recreation services exist for students on campus at the Stevenson Building and at Garscube Sports Complex. Both of them offer memberships of just £100 a year, which gives you access to over a hundred fitness classes a week, twelve different Drop In Sports, fifty different Sport Clubs, swimming, and court bookings.”
Jenny gave me the following advice about exercise, maintaining a healthy posture, and getting a good night’s sleep to help us study better and achieve more during our PGR: “Exercise doesn’t just benefit our health, but can also help achieve better sleep, increase our energy level, and give our minds a break from other things going on in our lives.” She recognises that this is not always easy for PGRs, though: “Due to the demands of their studies, PGRs are often sitting or standing in the same position for long periods. This can have very detrimental health effects on its own, but has also been shown to encourage us to eat and drink products high in sugar. Moving around regularly will get our muscles active, help improve postures, and prevent long-term chronic pain caused by sitting for long periods. A simple tip I give people is to set a 30-minute reminder on your computer or phone. But it is important we don’t just ignore it! Even if all you do is get up shrug your shoulders and sit back down, it will help!”
Sports are not just beneficial for physical health, though. They can also contribute to our mental wellbeing and many sports have a social component, too! Jenny explains: “Another reason why I believe we need to encourage PGR students to get active is to help ensure that people do not start to feel isolated or let stress get on top of them to a point where they feel helpless. Exercise can help clear your mind and focus on something different, but it is also a great way to make friends or chat to people in similar circumstances who might be feeling exactly the same. Having exercise as a part of a weekly routine will help students to take breaks regularly and gain natural energy boosts through the release of endorphins, which should help prevent them from reaching for those sugary snacks and help them feel better about themselves! Something I encourage students and my colleagues to do is to put appointments in their diaries at lunch for when they would like to attend a class, or get out for a walk, so that others know they are busy and don’t put meetings in for then. I also find routine helps people to stay active!” If you’d like to give it a try, you might want to join the lunchtime walk & talk for researchers that was recently started – just meet them at the flagpole at the South Front of the University at 1pm on Tuesdays for a 30-45min walk and chat!
Finally, if you have trouble sleeping, Jenny advises that some low-impact exercise can help as well, such as swimming, yoga, or walking. The sports facilities at campus are open until 10.30pm mid-week, but these sports don’t necessarily require you hitting the gym: just stretching at home before bed can help clear your mind and release muscle tension that has been built up during the day.
Key to success: plan
As this comic demonstrates, the more we are concerned with deadlines and PGR work, the more likely we are to make poor food choices, skip on sports, and get less sleep. Still tired and less fit, the next day will be even harder, and before you know it you end up in a downward spiral. It may seem like a drag to keep healthy when busy, but I hope to have convinced you that the side effects of poor hydration, diet, sleep, and activity will ultimately cost you more in lost productivity.
I hope some of these tips were helpful to you, get in touch if you have any health hacks of your own to share in the comments or over on Twitter (@UofG_PGRBlog)! If you would like to chat to Jenny about any of these issues or find out more about how to get active during your studies, get in touch with her or check out the University Sport’s Website.