If you can’t work it out, do a workout!

A quick guide on becoming physically and mentally active for your Phd.

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You’re in the final year of your PhD and feel like you are just a few steps away from a total burnout? Your PI wants you to do more experiments to finally generate significant results after two or three – more or less – chaotic years of PhD? You want to start writing your thesis but your PI’s demanding you to finally prepare a paper draft? And, finally, your temporary employment is expiring and you don’t know if you will be able to pay the bills afterwards? Guess that sounds familiar to some of the readers!

Although the scenario described above is a little extreme, nearly every PhD student encounters one or several of these problems during the last year of the PhD. In most cases workload and stress are increasing. You’re working more hours, deadlines are loaming, you start seeing friends less, and finally fatigue kicks in. So, how can one gather upenergy and get through this intense and stressful period?

I found deflection and solace in working out! Finishing the last parts of a project and writing up a PhD thesis might feel like a marathon, but seeing myself as an elite athlete (although I’m not ;-)) training for the final stretch helped me reaching the finish line of submission. Here, I want to share some lessons that I have learnt from getting away from the everyday PhD life and by lifting weights: You can work it out!!!


Lifting lifts you up

Regular exercise is important in sustaining one’s physical and mental well-being during PhD time. Staying at your desk all day and using all your time and energy for the thesis is tempting –  but it’s counterproductive! And it might even lead to worse results and slow down the process of finishing. Instead, take the chance and move your body to refresh your mind, and let those endorphins kick in! It can be  putting on headphones and lifting weights, or meeting some mates and do a group workout– the effect for me is the same. My mood was often better afterwards and I found my productivity improving after exercising.



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When you are doing sports, you don’t need much else than comfortable athletic wear, a water bottle, and a towel to get a good workout. The key idea, that one can draw from this is to pare down to essentials, which limits distractions and keeps one focused on getting the thesis done. To combat “decision fatigue”, you can wear the same clothes or eat similar meals to leave more energy for your work. Make sure to eat nutritious food like vegetables, fruits, and grains, though, and remember that this state of things won’t last forever.


Energy is renewable

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It’s easy to burn out during this intensely stressful period. But I learnt that I was more resilient than I thought, as I was able to do heavy workouts even after already having worked 8-10 hours on my PhD thesis. The oxygen is flowing in my muscles, the music motivates me. Just  a few minutes into a workout, and my mind starts to let go the PhD thesis. My body feels surprisingly more energetic. So, if you feel too tired to continue on working out the refinements of your thesis, a workout might help you to boost your energy and get you back on track.


Pace yourself

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In the gym intensities vary. While you might start with easier warm up sets, you eventually want to do heavy lifting. However, it is not possible to keep going at full intensity all the time. It’s okay to do lighter workouts on some days or do accessory exercises or reload trainings. Give the chance to your body to recover! The same applies for your thesis: you can’t work at the same intensity every day. Do easier parts on some days, like preparing method sections or material tables, and go heavier on other days, like working on the discussion and data interpretation. The most important thing is to keep writing till you can finally submit your thesis.


Motivation is the key

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In the gym, you are following a workout plan with a certain number of exercises, a certain number of sets, and a certain number of repetitions. You are encouraging yourself to go one more rep, one more set, and one more exercise, always focusing on positivity. Negative self-talk is harmful, as you are already under stress, and there is no benefit in adding fuel to the fire! Tell yourself positive mantras, or write them down and read them any time you feel discouraged to bolster your own confidence. 


Doing a PhD is a long and hard journey, but you are almost at the end. You can see the finish line. Never give up. Enjoy! And remember: If you can’t work it out, do a workout!


Do you need more tricks and trips how to combat the constant pressure before, after and during your PhD? Click here to see, what the best stress relieving activities for us, Immunosensations, are.



Oliver Schanz

One thought on “If you can’t work it out, do a workout!”

  1. Pingback: Let it grow - urban farming as a PhD student | ImmunosensationBlog

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