Combining research with an active lifestyle

How do you succeed as a scientist? Do you have to be really smart? Well… I would not say it is as much about intelligence as about the ability to keep banging your head against a problem until you happen upon a solution. But it is true, this job does involve a lot of thinking (or at least trying to think), and it is not always easy to stay focused.

Just like so many others, I have been working from home for over a year now. I have seen the same four walls every day, and – apart from my wonderful wife, our neighbours, and some rare exceptions – I have only talked to other people through video calls.

I am well aware of the importance of separating work and leisure, allocate areas of the home for different things, don’t write your thesis in bed, etc. (CGP Grey has an excellent video about this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=snAhsXyO3Ck). Still, it isn’t easy to get into such good habits. One piece of advice, however, I have managed to follow is to exercise regularly.

There are many different benefits of exercise, but it is worth noting that they are not only physical but mental as well.

A Norwegian study (http://hdl.handle.net/11250/2452391) gave free gym membership to about 400 university students, and there was a significant increase in academic performance compared to the control group. In my personal experiences, exercising your body is a splendid way of letting your brain rest. And if you do a workout so exhausting that you can only think about how tired you are, you cannot think about your research simultaneously; Mindfulness through pain, if you will.

The tricky thing with good (and bad) habits is that they are easier to change together with other changes. If you move to a new town, you might take up a sport you haven’t tried before. If the gyms are closing down due to a global pandemic, you might quit working out altogether because you don’t know any good alternatives. But there are loads of things you can do at home, and if you manage to force yourself to work out according to a certain schedule, it will be natural to keep going after a few times.

My sport of choice is a martial art called Taido, and our kitchen floor is a sad substitute for a dojo. But I have been able to keep going by holding space-adapted online workout sessions for anyone interested. That way, if I know others are joining, I can keep up my own motivation and not lose the habit.

So, if you are struggling with research or studies, take 15 minutes for pushups, squats or a run around the block. Maybe the easing restrictions will be enough change to make it a new habit. Likely, you will then solve the problem you have been banging your head against as soon as you get back.

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