Active Academics: A Student’s Back-To-School Guide To Staying Fit

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, learn how a grad student balances work and much-needed time outdoors.
Brianna Traxinger Brianna Traxinger
Pathobiology PhD Student
September 17, 2019

As a nearly 30-year-old PhD student, I’ve become a master at balancing academics — and their drain on finances and time — with a life outdoors, a lifestyle that often demands a large amount of temporal and monetary privilege. I’ve found that with some prioritization and mental reframing, it’s always possible to play outdoors, regardless of your budget or schedule. So as we head back to school this fall, I’m sharing what I’ve learned so that my fellow students (or anyone who is just plain busy) can spend more time outside.

Reframe your fitness as a priority, not an extravagance

When I began graduate school, I was forced to prioritize my life. I decided I would focus energy on four fundamentals: school, relationships, my dog, and fitness in the outdoors. I’ve found that exercise, particularly in the mountains, keeps me sane, combats anxiety, and increases my studiousness. In giving myself permission to prioritize workouts and the outdoors, I found that trading an hour of study time for a climb or run resulted in a net gain, not loss. In my productivity hierarchy, that makes me a better student. If the outdoors are important to you, I encourage you to write out your priorities and rank your fitness at the top without feeling guilty! 

Embrace a (morning) routine

I’m not sure if I’m naturally a morning person or if many years of 6:30am jazz band in high school forced me to become one, but give me an obscenely early workout and a strong coffee and I’m ready to crush my day. I’m able to better focus on work when I exercise beforehand, and sweating in the morning frees up my evenings for other things. Additionally, following a rigid wakeup schedule holds me accountable to a reasonable bedtime, something that inevitably suffers when I know I don’t have to wake up at five. While I love to preach the morning workout gospel and suggest that you try it, I know they aren’t accessible for everyone. You can reap the same benefits by reserving a consistent part of the day for your fitness, which helps you treat exercise as non-negotiable instead of an indulgence.

Join a training group or schedule standing workouts

If your looming 50k isn’t enough to scare you into training, the fear of disappointing your friends will! The Pacific Northwest is ripe with free and inclusive training groups that meet weekly or daily, often before or just after work. My personal favorite are the Territory Run Co. sunrise runs, monthly runs to the Discovery Park beach timed with sunrise! If large group workouts aren’t your vibe, schedule a standing training session with a friend. Maintaining even just one weekly session you can’t skip will bolster your training momentum. You can even cut out the headache of coordinating schedules by convincing a few colleagues to join you for workday lunch runs, rides, or walks.

Commute by bike or on foot

Almost everyone has a twice-daily commute, so why not merge it with your workout? A daily bike ride may seem daunting, especially during the rainier months, but commuting by bike (or by running/walking) every day for a few weeks will cement a habit you soon won’t be able to forego. I always get off my saddle happier than when I got on, even when it’s pouring or I’m lacking motivation. Although I don’t rely on commuting to completely maintain my fitness, my rides still contribute extra cardio while whisking me to work without the carbon emissions, gas expenses, or bus fares! If you prefer to run, save yourself the awkwardness of shuffling down the street wearing a giant backpack and bring double lunch and a change of clothes the day prior. Unfortunately, not everyone is in a position to bike to work, but incorporating a little biking into your commute — say to your carpool spot or the train — really adds up. You can also replace a regular trek to the gym or grocery store with a ride and build in a few minutes of daily outside time. You’ll feel better, and be fitter, guaranteed.

Cross country ski commuting during Snowmageddon 2019. 

Prioritize frequent, local trips over “exotic” vacations

Everyone fantasizes about the dream vacation to the Alps or the beach, but in Washington you don’t have to travel far for an amazing getaway. As a student on a budget, I recently took my first international, multi-week trip in four years, yet I never feel vacation-deprived because I get out to our local mountains almost every weekend! It’s always exciting to save up time and money for an exotic holiday, but I challenge everyone to reframe their idea of a “vacation” and enjoy more frequent, less expensive, and shorter local trips. In the PNW you won’t sacrifice quality for quantity: we’re fortunate to live amongst some of the world’s greatest outdoor treasures, and vacationing locally drastically reduces your carbon footprint. Washington is home to many beautiful urban parks, so your weekend getaway could simply consist of a satisfying trail excursion within city limits!

Become an outdoor advocate

It’s now alarmingly clear that if we’re making time to play in the outdoors, we must make time to protect the places we love. A great way to stay connected to the outdoors is to become an outdoor advocate. This may mean volunteering with a local nonprofit or regularly calling and emailing your district representatives to urge them to support environmental initiatives. Don’t forget to thank them when they do! Likewise, volunteering with The Mountaineers, Washington Climber’s Coalition, Washington Environmental Council, or Washington Trails Association as an advocate or for a stewardship day is a free and low-commitment way to connect with the outdoor community, get into the mountains, and reinforce that our local gems will be here when we have the time to enjoy them. 

Lobbying at Washington Environmental Lobby Day 2019. 

For those of us in school, parenting, or just working the grind, getting outside can present a serious strain on our finances and schedule, but it doesn’t need to. I hope that these tips will show you that you can spend time in nature and stay fit, regardless of your income, career, or work load. From one mountain-loving nerd to the rest, stay in school, get your sleep, and play hard in our beautiful backyard!


This article originally appeared in our Fall 2019 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.

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