One in three graduate students are at risk of developing a common psychiatric disorder, and half of graduate students will experience psychological distress. Here’s how Rachel Frisbie helps manage the stress of graduate school.
As a graduate student in astrophysics, I know graduate school can be a stressful experience. By some estimates, about half of all graduate students will experience psychological distress, and approximately the same number won’t finish their degree program. Academics, teaching, and research present significant challenges, and many of us turn to non-academic activities as a coping strategy. For some it’s video games, for others it’s imbibing adult beverages. For me, it’s picking 1.5 times my bodyweight off the floor in a sport that’s known as powerlifting.
I started lifting weights about three years ago while I was working as an undergraduate at the university where I would later attend graduate school. I study the evolution of galaxy clusters, the largest scale structures in the universe.
Through the subreddit r/xxfitness, a world-wide community of fitness-minded women, I was introduced to the sport of powerlifting and instantly fell in love. I tried many other physical activities throughout grade school and college, but no other sport allowed me to measure my progress and feel genuinely strong like powerlifting does.
The benefits of powerlifting reach beyond strength. Weight-bearing exercise can increase bone density, decrease the reduction in muscle mass and resting metabolism associated with aging, increase metabolic rate to reduce fat weight, reduce resting blood pressure, and reduce aging processes in skeletal muscle. Additionally, weight training can decrease symptoms of depression, increase self-esteem, create a positive perception of one’s body, and improve cognitive ability. I am not only training to feel strong, I am training to take care of myself both now and later.
For the past two years, I have been balancing my love for powerlifting with the responsibilities of graduate school. Powerlifting involves three major movements, the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Each athlete gets three attempts on each movement, and the goal is to get the highest possible total between the three lifts. Competing in powerlifting requires meticulous planning, training, and body awareness. I have to balance training time with work time and take care of my body by getting proper nutrition and adequate sleep which are easy to forgo in grad school in favor of getting work done.
I find that the skills I use for powerlifting complement the skills needed for graduate school. Powerlifting provides me with a welcome escape from the mountains of homework assignments, research challenges, and countless emails from my students. Because I use a home gym, my workouts are quiet, uninterrupted time between me and the barbell. Even if I have a rough workout, the mental break from everything else is always welcome. I can return to work refreshed and ready to tackle problems again.
As a third year student, I have transitioned into doing research full time, so my powerlifting schedule helps me be disciplined with my work time. Because I have to make time for training, I make it a priority to get a solid work day in without needing to work long hours. I avoid social media and other distractions during the day to make sure my use of time is optimized. When deadlines approach, I do sometimes have to sacrifice training time for work time. To minimize the effect on my performance, I avoid signing up for competitions that coincide with deadlines. Because I keep a consistent schedule, I can afford to take short breaks from training as needed.
Like graduate school deadlines, powerlifting competitions require months of work before you get to see the final product. Months of hard work culminate with nine attempts on the platform, and my performance depends completely on how well I have prepared.
Each time I step on the platform, I am competing only against myself. However, the encouragement and camaraderie from other lifters helps me to perform my best. The community of powerlifting women is incredible and makes me feel like I am competing with 25 of my best friends rather than 25 strangers. I compete because I love the community and I delight in watching myself become stronger both inside and out.
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Rachel Frisbie is a third year PhD candidate at Michigan State University working with Megan Donahue. Her research is observational and focuses primarily on the evolution of galaxies and galaxy clusters due to their Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN). When she isn’t powerlifting or doing research, she spends her time playing oboe in a local community band and running Tough Mudders.