Adulting as a Professor: Health and Wellness
My graduate students recently asked me: “how are you so productive?” My response was:
“meditation and sleep,” which might seem counter-intuitive because you expect that to be productive, you need to be working all the time endlessly. On the contrary, I have learned that I am the most efficient when I get plenty of rest. So, this month’s topic is health and wellness: the importance of looking after yourself.
Plenty of research has shown the importance of sleep in both short-term and long-term well-being. The general recommendation is that adults should get 7-9 hours of sleep every day and for me personally, it's somewhere around eight hours. In addition to the duration of sleep, the quality of sleep is extremely important. Spending 12 hours lying down with multiple disturbances would not be as restful as 7 hours of proper sleep. Bedtime routines are quite helpful in improving the quality of sleep. One of the most effective routines is to put down our smartphones at least one hour before heading to bed. Also, keep your phone out of reach when in bed (if you use it as an alarm, get an alarm clock instead: it can be as cheap as $13 but it can make a huge difference in sleeping and waking up). I also find that my days are most effective when I'm able to wake up naturally—to the daylight outside—without the need for an alarm. This effect is usually only possible if I go to bed on time (for me, certainly before midnight). The second part of my routine is nightly meditation (explained further in the next section), especially a technique of soaking feet in a bucket of salt and water. I have noticed a considerable difference when I follow my routine versus when I do not. I've also found that going to bed at fixed (or close-to-fixed) times is helpful because the body can maintain its sleep cycle. This property is more useful as I've gotten older. When I was in college, I could adjust my sleep cycle rapidly (within one or two days) but now it takes longer (almost a week), which is noticeable when traveling across time zones. It is also noticeable if I binge-watch a Netflix show late into the night on weekends. Sometimes, due to deadlines or other external pressures (e.g., teaching classes), I might not get sufficient sleep on weekdays: in these situations, I try to catch up on the weekends. For me, sleep is an important factor to avoid burnout.
I am fortunate that I started meditating when I was a teenager. I follow a practice called Sahaja Yoga and the essence of this practice is to achieve a state of thoughtless awareness. At any given moment, we are typically either thinking about the past or worrying about the future. All our thoughts come from these two tenses: the past and the future. If we start being in the present moment, we no longer have any thoughts but we are still aware of our surroundings: that is the state of meditation, the state of thoughtless awareness. If you would like to try meditation for yourself, you can follow the instructions at sahajaonline.com or in a course format at onlinemeditation.org for free. I have found that meditating twice a day (morning and evening) for about 10-20 minutes changes how my day proceeds and thus, I meditate every day. Throughout college, meditation helped me stay focused and balanced and it is really the foundation of my professional and personal life. On a physical level, meditation helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system and thus, relaxes our body. Regular practice also brings about mental and emotional benefits spontaneously. On-campus, I meditate in a group as a part of the meditation club and I also have friends that meet up on weekends to meditate together. A group session further helps deepen the meditation because we are sharing our experiences together.
I only learned how to cook once I was in grad school. Before that, I depended on my mom and on eating out. Cooking is certainly an essential life skill. In addition to being better for your finances, it is also better for your health. My initial resistance to cooking was due to my lack of time. Indian cooking requires at least a couple hours (at my pace) for a meal and when I was in school, I didn’t have that kind of time. Slowly, I started cooking on weekends; usually, two to three servings per meal so that I could mix it up and eat throughout the week. A couple of years ago, I learned about Home Chef. It is a meal-planning service, which lets you pick a variety of recipes every week and then delivers the appropriate amount of groceries (packaged according to the recipe) at your door weekly. It is expensive—$10 per serving—but convenient. The recipes, quality of ingredients, and customer service are all excellent. I have managed to collect two or three binders full of recipes. Home Chef helped me broaden my cooking from focusing on Indian meals to trying out Mexican, Italian, and American dishes. The photos included in this article are from Home Chef recipes.
Recently, I also discovered Mealime, which is also a meal-planning app. Instead of delivering the ingredients directly at your door, Mealime lets you automatically add the appropriate quantities of the ingredients to an online shopping cart for a grocery store such as Kroger (Pay Less). You then have the option of next-day pick-up or delivery through the grocery store. I usually do pick-up and it is still convenient because instead of spending an hour in the grocery store, I spend five minutes in the parking lot while an associate loads up the trunk of the car. Using Mealime ends up being 40 to 50% cheaper compared to Home Chef but it does require the effort of driving to the store. So, it's a balance between price and convenience/time. Currently, I try a mix of both services depending on which recipes are available on any particular week.
Diet has an important effect on our health. Through multiple episodes of Mark Hyman's The Doctor's Pharmacy podcast, I learned the importance of eating fresh, minimally-processed foods. My annual physical tests help me keep track of how my health is doing, for example, by measuring my vitamin and micronutrient levels. I have noticed that sometimes I feel tired even if I have been getting sufficient sleep. I learned that this was likely due to low iron. It makes sense because iron is part of hemoglobin and helps carry oxygen, which is essential for mitochondria to produce energy for our cells (and thus our body). Iron supplements, when taken every other day or so, help me overcome this issue. Also, I try to maintain my Body Mass Index (BMI) in the normal range by controlling my calories and keeping them proportional to the amount of physical activity in a day. The easiest way for me to do so is to only eat two meals a day (lunch and dinner) instead of three. As I have grown older and my metabolism has slowed down, I have found that eating two meals a day has helped me maintain my BMI.
Staying hydrated is critical as well since water is the best way to help remove toxins from our body. The recommendation is to drink around 2-4 L every day. I manage to achieve this goal by keeping a 1-L bottle of water next to my bed and finishing it when I wake up. I also keep a similar bottle next to my desktop while working so that it is easily accessible. I usually drink two cups of water with my meals as well. I have found hydration to be an effective technique to avoid headaches and to avoid getting sick (it helps when I start to notice an onset of sickness).
Everyone tells us that exercise is good for us. Yet for me, it is a similar issue as cooking, i.e. where do I find the time to exercise, and how much exercise do we really need? While listening to an episode of Doctor's Pharmacy, I learned that really, we only need about 20 minutes of normal physical activity (e.g., walking) every day and about 30 minutes of vigorous physical activity every week (e.g., sprinting or doing laps in a swimming pool). These levels help maintain healthy mitochondria. The old/ill-performing mitochondria are replaced by fresh new ones. I try to achieve these goals by walking across campus for meetings/meals and at least during summer, swimming once a week. I would like to be better at the weekly aggressive exercise, maybe by playing a sport (e.g., squash) but I have not gotten there yet. When I do manage to get exercise, I do feel my mood improve and also my sleep improves.
To conclude, look after your health and wellness so that you can perform better and also take care of others better. The key is to sleep, meditate, eat, and exercise.