Nurturing the Mind-Body Connection

biking[This is a guest post by Meagan Timney, a postdoctoral fellow at the Electronic Textual Cultures Laboratory at the University of Victoria. She is also an avid triathlete and has competed both at the national and international level. If she's not at the lab being a computer geek, you'll probably find her in the pool doing laps, on the roads riding her bike, or running on the trails in and around Victoria. You can email her at or follow her @mbtimney.]

“To keep the body in good health is a duty, for otherwise we shall not be able to trim the lamp of wisdom, and keep our minds strong and clear.”—Buddha, His Life and Teachings

I’ve always felt as though I had a split personality. On the one hand, I identify as a scholar, but on the other, I see myself as an athlete. My sporting life has seen various incarnations: a competitive gymnast, runner, swimmer, and triathlete. Notably, there has never been a time in my life that I haven’t been simultaneously pursuing both intellectual and athletic endeavours, and I can honestly say that I don’t think I could do one without the other. As academics, we spend a lot of time exercising our brains. We also do the majority of our work sitting down. Mark Sisson makes an obvious, but poignant, point that “time spent sitting is invariably time spent not moving.” It is possible that for some, a sedentary lifestyle leads to pedestrian thought. ProfHacker contributor Natalie Houston has already written about adding exercise to your conference schedule; today, I’d like to discuss why it is important to nurture the mind-body connection on a daily basis. By engaging in physical activity, you can train your body to function like a well-oiled machine that will facilitate your intellectual processes.

If you look back in history, you will see a plethora of great thinkers and doers who understood the benefit of a harmonious balance between the physical and the intellectual. Juvenal, for example, championed the human desire for a sound mind in a sound body (the latin maxim, “mens sana in corpore sano”) in his Satire (X. 356). The teachings of Buddha and the yogic tradition rely on mind-body practice. Even Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, is famous for jogging through St. James’s Park. So, if you’re thinking of bringing more physical activity into your life, you’ll be in good company.

Here are three reasons to nurture the mind-body connection:

  • Exercise makes the mind stronger. A recent study suggests that physical activity aids brain growth in mice. Other research has shown that physical exercise increases brain function in humans and may reduce the effects of aging on the brain.
  • Staying active helps combat stress and makes you feel good. Let’s face it; academic work causes a lot of stress. Exercise increases serotonin and dopamine production in the brain. These “mood boosting” hormones have been shown to have anxiolytic effects. So exercise is good for your mood and your health. If you’re healthy and happy, then you’re more likely to be productive, too.
  • Physical activity is fun. Especially if you make it a social affair. Play some squash, go for a bike ride with a friend, shoot some hoops at lunchtime, join the department softball team. Who doesn’t like fun?

It is true that as a group we academics are incredibly busy people. We spend our lives managing priorities, juggling responsibilities, and working through piles of work that needed to be done yesterday. If you are already building activity into your daily routine, good for you! For those of you who are not, I’m not suggesting that you completely revamp your lifestyle in order to fit in some daily exercise. Even 15-30 minutes a day of light activity will help your mind feel clearer and your body feel stronger. For those of you who have yet to jump on the exercise bandwagon and are thinking about it, here are some tips for getting active:

  • Use your campus recreation facilities. Most campuses have athletic facilities available for staff use. You can often rent lockers and a towel service so that you don’t need to worry about carting your belongings to and from work everyday. Check your university’s website for pool times, aerobics, and spin classes. Also, check to see if your campus gym offers free training sessions to new members.
  • Build exercise into your work schedule. You make time for teaching commitments, writing, and committee meetings; make time for physical activity, too. Try scheduling a lunchtime run or aqua-aerobics with a friend or colleague. Your workout doesn’t have to be epic; consistency is what counts.
  • Make exercise a part of your daily routine. If you still think don’t have time for the above, then there are other ways to work exercise into your schedule. If distance isn’t an issue, try walking or biking to work a few times a week. Or, try parking further away, or get off the bus one or two stops early.
  • Determine your best time and exercise style. If you don’t relish the idea of fighting boredom on a treadmill, then don’t make it part of your workout routine. Find an activity that you enjoy and stick with it. There’s no sense trying to fit in exercise that you hate to do. Also figure out what time works best for you. If you’re a morning person, get your workout done first thing when your energy is high. If you prefer to workout in the evenings, make time after work to fit in some activity. Learning your body’s likes and dislikes can go a long way to helping you find the perfect daily routine.

My Story

As a graduate student, I found that the only way to keep myself focused was to participate in sports with as much gusto as I was approaching my academic endeavours. I most certainly would not have made it through my PhD comprehensive exams year without physical activity to help relieve stress. A competitive triathlete, I often started the day with an hour and a half swim, followed by an intensive reading session, followed by a run, a bike, dance class, or weight training. I found that I could focus on intellectual work only after some intense aerobic activity. I lived for three-workout-Wednesday, my most ambitious day, in which I spent more time training (4-6 hours) than reading. With a total of around 13-17 hours of training a week, I was certainly on the high end of the activity scale. But I slept well, ate well, and was conscious of how I was treating my body. Knowing myself so well meant that I was able to push myself intellectually when necessary, and rest when I knew I needed rest. My PhD life was a fine balance between reading, writing, training, and racing. And while I don’t suggest (or even recommend) that you follow such an intense regime, I do think there is merit in daily physical activity.

These days, I don’t devote quite as many hours to working out, but I still live for the epiphanic moments that burst through the middle of a workout. I came up with my dissertation topic one autumn day, during my Sunday long run. My brain is at its most productive when I’m swimming, biking, or running, and over the years I’ve learned that physical activity helps to turn the intellectual cogs.

So, no matter what activities you choose, remember that you are doing yourself a favour by fitting exercise into your daily routine. You might just find that even a short workout stimulates your creative juices. Your next research project might be lurking at the edge of the pool; your next great idea might be hatched halfway through your lunchtime run.

Be active and have fun!

Some links in this post are courtesy of other exercise-minded academics; special thanks to @sleonchnm and @angelaetc.

[Image in this post is of the author, courtesy of Brian Timney and used with permission.]

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