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Self Care in Academia: How going to the gym keeps me sane in graduate school

Today, in our new series on Self Care in Academia, I have the pleasure of inviting Alice Violett. Alice is currently in her second year of a history PhD at the University of Essex about the public perceptions and personal experiences of only children, c. 1850-1950. She blogs at

I’d like to start with a disclaimer: I’m not what you would call ‘sporty’. I hated school PE lessons so much that when I was 14 I literally got the lowest score in the entire year group for ‘effort’, and the whole experience of embarrassing team sports and muddy cross-country runs put me off exercise for a long time afterwards. The circuit-based gym I go to markets itself to women like me, who want to be fit and healthy but are intimidated by competitive, often narcissistic ‘traditional’ gyms. Although I’m by no means a ‘gym bunny’, it is an important part of my daily routine and helps me stay relatively sane whilst doing a history PhD.

In a normal week, I go to the gym six times, incorporating four half-hour circuits and five classes ranging between 15 and 45 minutes. I usually go first thing in the morning, for a couple of reasons. The first of these is that, by using the gym’s optional ‘appointment’ system, or going to a scheduled class, I have to get out of bed. I am naturally lazy, so without the gym I could end up staying in bed very late (‘just five more minutes’) and getting very little work done in the morning. The second reason is that it ‘gets me going’. I can’t claim the gym completely takes my mind off work on weekdays, but while I’m on the machines I’ll be thinking about what I want to do during the day, and by the end of the session I feel ‘pumped up’ and ready to tackle my workload.

Going to the gym is also beneficial because it gets me out of the house. My work often involves activities I can do from home – coding data, reading books I’ve brought home from the university library, or doing research online, for example – and it’s likely to get even more home-based next year, when I start writing up. I sometimes work on campus, but I often find home more convenient and conducive to study, as I have easy access to all my notes, it’s quieter, and I don’t have to wait ages for the bus. Having the gym to go to ensures that I go out at least once a day. This brings further benefits: part of my ten-minute walk takes me through woodlands and past an old millpond, so not only do I get fresh air, but I get to enjoy some natural beauty too. At the gym itself, of course, I get to see other people, which is also important in staving off the isolation so often associated with doing a PhD in the humanities.

Finally, exercising in this way gives me a ‘project’ outside of my studies. I have the basic goal of going as often as I can, and I feel rather proud of myself when I resist the seductive charms of my duvet and go for a workout even though it’s cold outside and I don’t really feel like it. There’s also something immensely satisfying about being able to increase the difficulty setting on one of the machines, or find an exercise or class I initially found hard getting gradually easier. In short, alongside maintaining less physically-demanding leisurely activities such as reading for pleasure and going out with my friends, going to the gym prevents me from being completely consumed by my PhD.

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