Running towards a degree

I don’t enjoy running long distances. A lot of people talk about their experience in training and running marathons: most of these people describe running as “fun” or “exciting” but that is not my experience. I have come to describe my relationship with running, and exercise in general, as “mental health maintenance.” Although I didn’t realize it at the time, exercise has been part of my mental health maintenance since high school.

Running (image by John T)

In high school, I rowed for a small club team (Triangle Rowing Club in Raleigh North Carolina). I wasn’t very competitive, but it did expose me to daily exercise year-round. It was the first time I pushed myself to achieve fitness-related goals. I noticed significant improvements in my ability to focus throughout the day when exercising regularly. This spurred me to pursue swimming during the off-season and eventually to rowing in college for UNC Chapel Hill, where both my rowing and chemistry careers took off.

My rowing and chemistry careers were intertwined since I first stepped foot on campus. As an undergraduate, time was my most valuable resource. I always seemed to have too little of it. I split my days between the classroom, lab, lake, and gym. To keep up with my lab duties, I had to work nights and weekends. To maintain fitness, I had to push myself day in and day out to improve my rowing. The two fed off each other. I was mentally sharper after a hard morning workout, and desired to clear my mind after a long day doing experiments.

rowing & chemistry
Exercise and chemistry: a positive feedback loop! (images by IggyOblomov and gustavorezende)

As much as I might have liked to pursue a rowing PhD, my chemistry career ended up being more successful than my rowing career, and I found myself at UW Madison pursuing a PhD in chemistry. In my first couple months in Wisconsin, with more work to do than ever before, I fell out of a regular exercise routine. I began getting tired quickly and lost my ability to focus throughout the day. I thought I just needed time to adjust to this new environment, but after months my mental health didn’t recover. At some point during my first semester, I realized the main change in my routine was exercise, yet without the support and guidance of a team it was difficult to return to my previous habits.

After struggling on and off for a while with my exercise routine, I knew I needed to push myself. I decided the best way to get over the hump was to sign up for the Madison Marathon. If I didn’t train consistently for this race, there was no way I would get to the finish line. This challenge gave me the spark to start running. I didn’t always like it, but I forced myself to run day after day. In November, I crossed the finish line of my first marathon, and couldn’t be happier with my decision.

While I was rowing, I pursued the science behind what training plan or diet would make me as successful as possible on the water. More recently, the science behind what exercise would make me most capable of succeeding in the lab has piqued my interest. In a 2008 paper titled “Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects on brain and cognition,” Hillman and colleagues describe the specific parts of the brain that are stimulated by exercise and the benefits that research has shown regular exercise to provide.1

Knowing that regular activity can increase cognitive function isn’t always enough to get me off the couch. In a 2007 paper titled “Exercise Makes You Feel Good, But Does Feeling Good Make You Exercise?: An Examination of Obese Dieters,” Carels and colleagues describe the mental hurdles many people experience committing to the beginning of a workout.2 The authors in this study describe this mental difficulty in terms of how a negative mood in the morning could reduce people’s likelihood to exercise, or reduce the intensity and duration if they did work out. Lots of social psychology research has also addressed the challenges people face in setting and achieving exercise goals. For example, we all experience distractions, temptations, or competing goals when it comes time to put our exercise plans into practice.3

For me that difficulty didn’t present itself until I was done with organized rowing, but once it did show it became very difficult to start exercising again in the first place. After getting home I’d tell myself to get up in half an hour and go to the gym; however, when my half hour rest was over, I couldn’t get up. Overcoming this barrier required me to buy into a new program with a new set of goals. Once I embraced the marathon goal, and the need to run that went with it, I could feel the benefits almost immediately. I was able to focus for longer periods of time and often found myself in a better mood.

The stress of achieving results in academia can sometimes push mental and physical health to the back of my mind, but the added knowledge of being happier and smarter through exercise gets my shoes on a little easier.

The author running in the Madison Marathon (image courtesy of Christian Lochbaum)

Additional Resources


  1. Hillman, C.H., Erickson, K.I., Kramer, A.F. Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects on brain and cognition. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 2008 Jan; 9(1): 58-65 DOI: 10.1038/nrn2298
  2. Carels, R.A., Colt, C., Young, K., Berger, B. Exercise Makes You Feel Good, But Does Feeling Good Make You Exercise?: An Examination of Obese Dieters. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology. 2007, 29, 706-722 DOI: 10.1123/jsep.29.6.706
  3. Mann, T., de Ridder, D., & Fujita, K. (2013). Self-regulation of health behavior: Social psychological approaches to goal setting and goal striving. Health Psychology, 32(5), 487-498. Doi: 10.1037/a0028533

One comment

  1. Congrats on your accomplishment! I’m a Wisconsin Chemistry PhD and I came back to Madison to run the marathon this year as well. Grad school got me to start running and doing triathlons as a way to cope with the stress of lab. Exercise isn’t therapy, but it still helps tremendously. Best of luck with your running and research.

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