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Mastering Your Physical Health: Fitness and Exercise for Busy Master’s Students

Master’s students have demanding schedules, which can make it feel impossible to prioritize fitness. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. If you’re a busy master’s student, use these three steps to make exercise part of a new and improved healthy you.

Author: Quinn Dannies

Editor: Staff Editor

A smiling young woman in sportswear sits comfortably at a home desk, interacting with a laptop in a sunlit room filled with plants.

If you’re a master’s student — whether primarily online or on-campus — you likely struggle to balance the many competing demands on your time. And often, that can mean relegating your health and fitness routine to the back burner. But science suggests that making time to exercise may actually improve your grades. This study, originally published in the American College of Sports Medicine, reveals that students who worked out vigorously at least three times a week, on average, had a 0.4 higher GPA than those who did not.

You probably already intuitively know that incorporating movement and healthy habits into your day can reduce stress, support sleep, and help with focus. But here’s research suggesting a legitimate correlation with improved grades!

So, it’s time to prioritize self-care — for your mind, body, and grad school success. To that end, we’ve put together this guide to help you get moving and meet your health and academic goals. Inspired to take the next step? Let’s do it!

Step 1: Make Yourself Move More

Deciding where to begin can be the hardest part of developing a health and fitness plan. But committing to small changes will make it seem less like a massive project. Start by determining your short-term goals for this newly prioritized journey. Before you commit to a long-term workout regimen, try exploring where you’re at now, your future goals, and the types of movement you enjoy to develop a sustainable exercise practice.

Find a Physical Activity You Enjoy

Tons of people feel like the only way to get in shape is to run for miles or pump iron at the gym. But you have limitless options when it comes to feeling healthy and breaking a sweat. Try out different workout classes or YouTube videos to see what you enjoy. Don’t rule out “fun” things like dancing or roller skating as effective workout options.

Start Slow and Assess Your Fitness Level

Plenty of us feel a burst of energy and commitment when we set a new goal. But unfortunately, when it comes to health and fitness, this can lead to burnout or injuries. On the other hand, when you finish your workout eager for more, it’s easier to show up for your next session. So set yourself up for success by building up your fitness over time.

Set Short- and Long-Term Goals

Maybe you want to run a marathon. That’s awesome. But if you’re not a regular runner, it will take a while to be ready for the big race. Setting short-term goals, like running a 5k next month, means you’ll be able to celebrate victories along the way. Keeping your long-term goal in mind will motivate you to go for that training run when you’d rather nap.

Celebrate Achievements and Milestones

If you feel like you’re progressing, you’ll be more motivated to keep going. So celebrate your wins. Did you crush it in yoga class? Post that selfie and brag about it. You can also set up incentives to help you reach big goals. For example, maybe you’ll be more likely to finish your tenth CrossFit workout if you know that victory tacos await.

Take Advantage of Student Resources and Discounts

As a student, you probably have some hookups when it comes to workout classes and gyms. Does your campus have a gym? Use it! Eager to scale a wall at that cool new climbing gym down the street? It probably has a student rate. If you don’t see special rates posted, it never hurts to ask.

Step 2: Make Fitness a Lifestyle

When you’re a student, there isn’t always a clear separation between school and home life. This can be especially true for online students, who often find themselves glued to their desks at all hours. If this sounds like you, there’s hope: You can make simple changes in support of your health and fitness goals. Here are some easy ways to glow up your home life to help grow a healthier routine.

Cultivate Healthy Habits

Take a deep breath and remember: You don’t have to change your whole life in a day. Small habits add up. A quick walk around the block between assignments might help you get moving and clear your head. Tossing some pre-cut veggies into your shopping cart might help you incorporate healthy snacks into your diet. Start with easy upgrades and go from there.

Take Advantage of Digital Resources

  • Couch to 5k – If your goals involve running, this is an excellent place to start. These running programs are designed for brand new athletes. You can also download their free app for guidance on the go.
  • DARBEE – Each day, this website features an exercise of the day that can be completed in just a few minutes. For more intensity, you can access full fitness programs for free. The best part? No special equipment is required.
  • Live Love Party – This YouTube channel features one-track-long, high-energy Zumba workouts. Party to a single track for a quick break or queue up a playlist for a longer workout.
  • Nerd Fitness – If you have a question about diet or exercise, Nerd Fitness has probably covered it in great depth — maybe even using a Yoda GIF to illustrate the answer. They’ve also put together a host of fun, free workout plans.
  • Yoga with Adriene – Adriene’s free online yoga videos are insanely popular, and for good reason: She has programs for everybody at every fitness level.

Create a Learning Environment That Promotes Physical Activity

Do you feel like your studies are tying you to your desk? It doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, you can move and work at the same time! Consider a standing desk or exercise ball chair. Or commit to taking a five-minute movement break every hour. These exercises for computer users might be a good place to start.

Schedule Active Breaks into Your Day

Sometimes our best work happens when we’re not working. Regular breaks in the day to work out, go for a walk, or do some stretching can give your brain time to process everything you’re learning. Once you start including a few active breaks into your day, you might be surprised how much more efficient your work time becomes.

Invest in Fitness Equipment

You don’t have to build a Planet Fitness in your apartment, but investing in a few pieces of equipment might make your fitness routine more fun or easier to maintain. Your home gym doesn’t need to be expensive or take up a ton of space to be effective, as long as it suits your program and goals. Depending on the space and funds you have available, consider some of the options below:

  • Limited Space and Money – Bodyweight exercises are the name of the game. Yoga mats can be purchased cheaply at many discount stores and give you a nice space to work out. In addition, resistance bands are an affordable way to up your workout’s intensity.
  • Moderate Space and Money – Consider a few upgrades to the setup above. A yoga ball is excellent for strength and stability workouts and doubles as a desk chair. You might consider a few free weights to expand your exercise options.
  • Open Space and Money – With no constraints, you’re free to develop the perfect gym for your goals. Depending on your workout style, you might consider a treadmill, weight rack, rowing machine, or other versatile tools.

7 Everyday Challenges Exercise Can Cure

Sometimes, movement can be the best medicine. Incorporating healthy habits into your day can help you manage stress, improve your focus, and generally feel your best. But we get it: You’re swamped with schoolwork, so heading out for a walk is the last thing on your mind. To help overcome those overwhelming obstacles facing you, here are seven challenges we hear from grad students on a regular basis, and the reasons exercise may be the very best medicine. Maybe you can relate to one (or more?) of the following:

Problem: I lack concentration and struggle with brain fog.

Arguably, most grad students live in a near constant state of brain fog. With so much on your plate, it makes sense that you might struggle to focus on a single task. And often, the higher the stakes, the harder it is to buckle down and concentrate.

Solution: Try taking a 20-minute break to get moving. It sounds counterintuitive when you’re crunched for time, but studies show that exercise helps blood flow to the brain and stimulates neurons that improve focus and learning.

Problem: I’m experiencing a lot of stress and anxiety.

More than 75% of grad students report experiencing stress or high stress during their studies. Managing assignments, reading, and research or teaching responsibilities is just the half of it. You may be trying to adjust to a new city, care for your family, or just navigate daily life on top of everything else.

Solution: According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, as little as five minutes of aerobic activity can measurably reduce stress and anxiety. Moving for a few minutes reduces muscle tension and releases mood-boosting endorphins. You might feel like even five minutes is a lot to spare right now, but trust us, you’re worth it.

Problem: I have trouble sleeping at night and wake up still feeling tired.

All of that stress and anxiety we just talked about can severely affect your sleep. Plus, as a student, you are getting a lot of screen time and might not be on a regular sleep schedule. All this can add up to some rough nights.

Solution: You might be thinking, “how can doing something tiring, like exercise, make me less tired?” And that’s a fair question. “Exercise-tired” is different than “study-tired” because moving releases chemicals in your brain that promote relaxation and change your body temperature temporarily, which can contribute to restful sleep.

Problem: I’ve been feeling lonely and isolated because I’m so focused on my studies.

Especially if you’ve moved to a new city or are studying online, it can be hard to meet new people and make time to socialize. Perhaps your school doesn’t offer many activities for grad students to connect, or maybe you just don’t have the time to branch out.

Solution: Since you’re planning on making time for regular exercise (right?), why not make it a social event? Recruit a friend to be your gym buddy so you can catch up while breaking a sweat. If you’re interested in making new connections, try taking a new class, joining a meet-up group, or signing up for an intramural sports team. You’ll get social time PLUS the motivation to keep going — win-win!

Problem: I struggle to find the motivation and energy to keep up with my studies.

Burnout in grad school is real. Nothing is more frustrating than knowing you have a million things to do, but you can’t find the will to start working. If you’ve been grinding hard, you might need a reset to jumpstart your productivity.

Solution: If you feel like there’s nothing you can do to get motivated. Try moving around a little. You don’t even have to leave the house. A quick stretching session or bodyweight workout can get your endorphins flowing. Once those chemicals start flowing, you’ll feel unstoppable in no time.

Problem: I’m embarrassed to go to the gym because I’m out of shape.

If spending all your time at your desk job has you feeling a tad sloth-like, you’re definitely not alone. Gyms and fitness classes can be intimidating when you don’t feel your best. And many people avoid exercise because of their insecurities.

Solution: First, take a minute to feel your feelings. It’s ok to be nervous, intimidated, or anything else about the gym. Now, go pick out your most confidence-inspiring workout gear and do it anyway. The big secret is that everyone at the gym is focused on their own workouts (and mastering those dramatic grunts!); we promise they’re not worried about what you’re doing.

Another option is to skip the gym altogether: Go on a hike, ride a bike, or work out at home. The best setting for working out is the one that makes you feel the most comfortable.

Problem: I don’t have any spare time to fit in exercise – I’m already swamped with my schoolwork.

If you’re a grad student, you’re busy. There’s no denying that fact. And it can be hard to justify adding another obligation to your schedule. For many students, their health and fitness practices are the first things to go when they’re feeling overwhelmed.

Solution: You know that urge that tells you to keep studying, even though it’s clearly work-out-o-clock? Ignore it. Even just a few minutes of movement is going to reduce stress, help you sleep, and improve your concentration. By taking a few minutes out for yourself, your work will feel less overwhelming.

Step 3: Find Exercise That You Enjoy

Now that fitness is part of your daily routine, it’s time to figure out what kind of exercise you love. This is the key to sticking with it and ultimately giving fitness and exercise equal weight to your studies. An active body feeds an active mind, and you might as well have fun while doing it! Here are 20 exercise suggestions that you can do from pretty much anywhere, organized by type.

The best thing you can do is to mix it up and do a variety of different exercise types each week. This helps keep it interesting and prevents your body from adapting to the same routine. Try a little bit of everything until you find what you love, what makes you feel the best, and what is most sustainable for you. Ultimately all movement is good movement, but keeping fun in mind will take you a long way towards consistency.

Cardiovascular and Aerobic Exercise

Doctors and fitness professionals place a heavy emphasis on aerobic exercise as part of a healthy, active lifestyle. Getting your heart rate up, even for just a few minutes can help you manage blood pressure, reduce stress, and build strength.

Recommended Exercises: Jump roping, dancing, running

Strength and Resistance Training

Even if you don’t aspire to a hulk-like physique, you can still benefit from strength training. In fact, some studies suggest that just 30 minutes of strength training a week can help you live longer. Plus, incorporating some strength work into your week can help address some of the aches and pains associated with sitting at a desk all day.

Recommended Exercises: Free weights, resistance bands, bodyweight exercises

Flexibility and Stretching

If you’ve been feeling like the Tin Man lately, you’re not alone. Typing, hunching over your screens, and sitting all day can leave your muscles all tied up. Gentle stretching, even if you’re not flexible, can help you unwind physically and mentally, improve your sleep, and prevent overuse injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome

Recommended Exercises: Yoga, Pilates, foam-rolling

Balance and Stability Training

Exercises that test your balance are an underrated option for maintaining joint health. Plus, taking a few minutes out of your day to try a balance trick. — and maybe even fail a few times — can be a fun way to blow off some steam.

Recommended Exercises: Tai Chi, slacklining, single leg calf raises

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

HIIT workouts are a super-efficient way to get in a full body workout. The exercises combine the best parts of cardio, balance, and strength building into one very tiring package. Another benefit of HIIT programs is you can get a crazy good workout in without any extra equipment. There are tons of awesome bodyweight-only programs available for free online.

Recommended Exercises: TRX workouts, burpees, CrossFit routines

Low-Intensity Steady State (LISS) Cardio

Low-intensity cardio is a great, low impact way to clear your mind and get in a mellow workout. While you should still be doing some work, the goal is to maintain a steady pace and consistent heartrate rather than to go as hard as possible.

Recommended Exercises: Walking, biking, jogging

Interview with a Fitness and Exercise Expert

Carrie Morgan

We interviewed Carrie Morgan, SPT (Student of Physical Therapy), who lives in California and is in her final year of her Doctor of Physical Therapy program at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences, San Marcos Campus. She weighs in on the importance of physical activity and how to integrate it naturally into your everyday life. She enjoys snowboarding, running, mountain biking, and spending time with her husband and dogs.

Can you tell us about yourself and what brought you to physical therapy?

It’s interesting because before I started PT school, I had never had any personal experience with physical therapy. I’d never had to see a PT for treatment. A lot of people come to the field because they’ve been through some type of injury recovery. For me, I knew that I wanted to work in healthcare. I was drawn to PT specifically because it’s a really noninvasive way to help people get better. You get to work with people from all walks of life and really focus on all of the factors that contribute to their health and mobility.

What has it been like trying to balance your physical needs and the demands of graduate school?

It’s difficult to manage. Because of what we do as physical therapists, we have to practice what we preach. And having a physical outlet outside of work helps manage stress so we can stay focused and healthy. I try to spend a lot of time being active outdoors. But I have to find ways to do things from home to stay well-rounded or get some quick movement in. I use a meditation app and try to get deep rest. I try to incorporate mental health and mindfulness into my definition of fitness to make sure I’m addressing my or my patients’ needs holistically.

What strategies do you see students using to make sure they are staying active?

My classmates and I talk about this all the time. Everyone is trying to make sure that they are keeping up with their work, but also trying to find time to exercise. Some of us go to the gym and do set workouts throughout the week. A few of my classmates play recreational team sports. They like that they can be social while getting some stress and energy out.

What would you say to students who struggle to prioritize fitness?

It’s really easy to say you don’t have time. Being in grad school is a lot, and you have to put a lot into your work. But putting yourself first is so important. Grad school is intense, but I think everyone can find 30 minutes to get in some movement. It doesn’t have to be a crazy workout to be worthwhile. Anything you do is going to help you reduce stress and help keep your body working.

Do little changes matter?

Definitely. Movement is medicine. When I talk to my patients, I always tell them, “I get it. You’re tired, you want to sit down and watch TV or whatever.” but you can still find ways to move. Do 20 crunches on commercial breaks. Practice your balance by standing on one foot while brushing your teeth. Take a walk around your building between classes or after lunch. Making small changes to move more is so good for your stress and focus.