Eight Lessons for Academic Life Gleaned From Exercise

As an academic, it’s no surprise that I have great childhood memories of being ensconced in a big chair reading a book I couldn’t put down. Perhaps less predictable is that I gained as much joy from being physically active. I have many happy childhood memories of playing hopscotch, kickball, tag, or spud; of bike riding or ice skating on the local pond. Fast forward a few decades, and exercise remains critical to my self-care, my sanity. When I step onto the trail or dip into the pool, I am still the academic, and I find myself pondering lessons I’ve learned from my experience with physical activity that apply to the academic life. 

1)    Put it on the Calendar: Long ago, I started putting exercise on my calendar. Once the time was set aside for exercise … I did it. Much later, I’m realizing the benefit of doing the same with writing (duh!). If I’m in “writing time” on my calendar, I turn email off, close my door, and write.

2)    No Regrets for Doing the Hard Work First: Once I had children, I found that if I didn’t exercise early, I was less likely to do it. I’d get pulled away to other things, get tired or hungry, and end up putting it off. So, I started setting my alarm very early. Sometimes I didn’t (and still don’t) want to get out of bed. But I never regret doing so once the workout is done. The same principle applies to the work tasks I find hardest. When I can tackle them early, the rest of day is better.

3)    Some Days are Great, Others are Tough: Sometimes, I feel energetic for my run or swim; other days I struggle. Perhaps it’s the weather, how well I slept, or if I’m stressing about a problem at work. Similarly, in my teaching or writing, some days things flow and some days I drag. I remind myself to enjoy the good days, and remember that the tough ones won’t last forever.

4)    Learn from Others … but Don’t Compare Yourself to Them: I have learned much about swim strokes, running endurance, or yoga postures from people “better” in the sport. By learning from others, I’ve improved. But if I compare myself to them in terms of speed, mileage, or other metrics, I’m discouraged. When I compare “me” to “me”, I can focus on the goal to learn and improve. When I can do that in my academic life, I enjoy the journey with fabulous academic teammates and less angst.

5)    Patience and Persistence Pays Off: I’ve never been an especially fast or strong athlete, but I am old enough to see that regular exercise throughout my adulthood has made a difference. Similarly, I’m not naturally astute at all components of academic life, whether preparing a class, absorbing complex literatures, or putting my ideas on paper in a way that resonates with reviewers and editors. At times, I feel certain mentors or collaborators have wished I could turn over work more quickly. But part of “me being me” is that I work at my own pace, physically and intellectually. Sticking with the work pays off over time.

6)    It’s Good to Take Breaks: Academics are high achievers with high expectations. We also have high expectations placed on us: excellent teaching and production of scientifically sound, groundbreaking research presents a high bar. It’s easy to work constantly to manage expectations, to keep one’s head above water! Exercise teaches me that it’s ok to take breaks, slow down, catch my breath if needed- so that I can exert myself again over another stretch of the workout. I’m still learning to apply this lesson at work, but if I take a break to stretch my legs, clear my brain, and do something non-work related, I find renewed energy and greater efficiency for the task at hand.

7)    There are Seasons: There’ve been times I mostly run, others that I mostly swim; yoga and weight training have entered at different seasons of life. I am a fair-weather runner, so I increase indoor swimming or yoga during the worst of summer and winter. Likewise, there have been seasons to my work life. Teaching or administrative duties have sometimes overwhelmed, but I am able to prioritize writing at others. (I keep a little running and writing going at all times, so that I don’t get completely out of shape.) And when it comes to many optional but exciting things, what I passed up in one season of life (e.g., accompanying students abroad when children were young) has been replaced by other opportunities in later seasons.

8)    Policies Matter: This one might seem like a dive into the deep end…but it might be the most important arena where academia and sports connect. I was an early Title IX beneficiary. I started middle school when schools were creating girls’ sports teams. I started playing soccer after school, and was hooked on sports as a form of physical activity. I became a three-season high school athlete, and later competed for some Division III college teams. I didn’t see myself as an athletic kid, but these opportunities taught a “nerdy” child that physical activity was fun and doable. The experiences accumulated to make me a more physically active and confident AARP member. Without the early chance to try soccer, lessons #1-6 might have been lost. What are the parallels in our academic life? What policies are needed to help people – whether children or academics – overcome self-doubts, take on new challenges, and envision the possibilities for what they might do, and enjoy? As academics, we should look for ways – in our departments, institutions, disciplines, and communities – to be great team players and make opportunities broadly available for all.


Christy M. Buchanan is a Professor of Psychology at Wake Forest University, where she has also served as Associate Dean for Academic Advising. She is currently an Associate Blog Editor for SRA. Her research addresses adolescent development in the family, examining how adolescent-parent relationships, parenting practices, and adolescents’ well-being are influenced by factors such as family structure, parents' and children's beliefs and expectations about adolescence, culture, and ethnicity.


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