Medical image of a human's muscular system.Laura B. McGrath is a PhD student in English at Michigan State University. She tweets at @lbmcgrath and blogs at Emerging Modernisms.

When people ask me what I actually do all day, I tell them: I sit and read. I also sit and write, and I also sit-while-driving. The demands of my scholarship require me to be stationary while I expend immense amounts of energy and attention on other stationary things. And as Katie outlined last week, all this sitting can have disastrous effects on your body.

I’m sure you’ve seen research on the benefits of staying active, even in the smallest ways.  Studies have suggested a positive correlation between exercise and brain power.  Exercising can improve your mood, and promote better sleep. It can also improve your mental health. Bottom line: there seems to be no shortage of benefits of physical activity, and no shortage of risks associated with physical inactivity.

But it’s hard to fight the mindset that staying active takes time. And money. And let’s face it: graduate students are short on both.

I’m a runner—though I use the term loosely. Running helps me to keep my cool, burn off stress (and calories), and helps counteract the toll those hours of sitting take on my body and my emotions. But multiple runs per week, cross-training, and intense stretching all require a significant time commitment, time that I have to fight for as the semester progresses. I’ll be honest: when the semester gets tough, running is the first thing to go.

I recently suffered a minor knee injury that kept me from running for about two months. During that time, I looked high and low to find some way to stay active. I started attending classes at my local yoga studio, and loved it. But if you’ve attended fitness classes regularly, at a studio or at a gym, you know that they can be cost prohibitive. While many universities offer gym privileges, classes, and a host of other wellness-related resources to graduate students at a discounted rate, there a number of factors that might keep you from taking advantage of these services.

While injured, I investigated the best ways that I could stay active with little to no cost, in the shortest amount of time, in the comfort of my home, and with the maximum possible benefit. Here’s what I found:

Circuit Training: Circuit training is designed to target the maximum amount of muscle groups, in the minimum amount of time, and is recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine. It makes the most of your time by targeting as many muscle groups as possible. High Intensity Circuit Training uses your own body weight to build up strength, requiring no gym, and relatively little time. I like this Circuit Workout, via the New York Times Well blog, a mere seven-minutes long. Circuits like this one can be completed in your home, with equipment that is no doubt readily available, like a chair and a wall. You can also do longer Circuit Workouts, like this 20-minute circuit. Or try one that incorporates machines, if you are fortunate enough to have access to a gym.

Apps: Sometimes, you need a little push to get up and get moving; committing to a weekly program can be one way of motivating yourself. These iPhone and Android apps are designed to do just that—they each cost less than $3.99 and require no more than 30 minutes of your time.

  • Hundred Pushups: This iPhone, iPad, and Android app gradually increases the number of pushups per set, taking users from 0 to 100 consecutive pushups (or chinups, or situps). Share your progress via social media—and spark a little friendly competition.
  • 8-Minute Workout: This iPhone and iPad app takes you through a 12-exerise circuit workout, lasting no longer than a mere (you guessed it!) 8 minutes a day.
  • Couch-to-5K: Available for iPhone and Android, this training schedule will help you train for a 5K for no more than 30 minutes a day.
  • You Are Your Own Gym: This app is designed for strength training, using the weight of your own body and common household items. You can set a timed program based on how much time you have to spare and according to your strength level. This app also has the benefit of lots of video instructional guides, to be sure you’re in good form. For iPhone and iPad (sorry, Android users).

Desk Workouts: You might want to counteract the negative impacts of sitting all day, but high-intensity activities might not be for you. Never fear! There are lots of quick-and-easy stretches and activities to maximize your health while sitting at your desk. If you haven’t read Katie’s awesome post on Workspace Ergonomics, you should. Like, right now.

Regardless of your choice of activity—from high intensity circuit training to well-timed stretches at your desk—I encourage you to find some way to stay active while slogging through graduate school. This isn’t about losing weight; it’s about caring for your body and mind. And you don’t need to fall behind on your work or break the bank to do it.

How do you stay active while in graduate school? Do you have any office fitness hacks, or preferred apps? How do you make the time for activity in your life? Share your thoughts in the comments, or tweet using the hashtag #ActiveGrad.

[Image titled “Muscular System,”  public domain, obtained from  Wikimedia Commons.]

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