Inside Higher Ed: Exercising only their minds

By Dan Berrett, for Inside Higher Ed

May 9, 2011

In the quest for tenure, physical activity is the first casualty, according to a recent study of Canadian assistant professors that its authors believe applies to junior faculty at institutions in the United States as well.

The analysis, “Are new faculty at risk of ‘letting themselves go’ due to the demands of their profession?”, which was published online in Academic Matters, the magazine of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, traced the exercise habits of 267 assistant professors in Canadian universities. The paper, which has in recent weeks attracted attention from some American bloggers, found that professors starting out in their careers engaged in physical activity far less than others in their age group.

The study’s authors, Ryan E. Rhodes, the director of the behavioural medicine laboratory at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia, and Megan A. Kirk, his graduate student, discovered that 30.7 per cent of their sample – assistant professors who had been hired within the past five years – met minimum levels of recommended physical activity. In contrast, approximately half adults in Canada ages 25 to 44 met those targets.

In Canada at the time, the recommended level of physical activity was described as 20 to 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise “on most days of the week” (in the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sets out a more explicit goal of 30 minutes of such exercise five days per week; Canada’s guidelines have since been revised and mirror those of the US, said Rhodes). Brisk walking, bicycling, vacuuming and gardening have been described as moderate exercise, while vigorous activity typically implies breaking a sweat. The authors also noted that a physically active lifestyle is associated with better psychological health and a reduced risk of chronic diseases and “all-cause mortality”.

The research on assistant professors reinforces similar findings about other professional occupations that tend to involve long hours sitting at a desk, wrote Rhodes and Kirk. Professors in general have long work hours, psychological stress and low “occupational energy expenditure”, they noted. For assistant professors, the problems are more acute because they are “aiming to be tenured [and] have reported higher levels of stress, negative physical health symptoms, and work-life imbalance compared to other professional workers as a result of their early career expectations”.

Rhodes and Kirk also suggest that it is not the case that people with poor exercise habits pre-select themselves for the professoriate. In fact, landing the job seemed to coincide with a drop-off, on average, of nearly two workout sessions per week, they found. “Participants’ total physical activity frequency fell below national guidelines during the transition to academic employment, compared to when they were in undergraduate and doctorate education,” they wrote.

While some have speculated that academic culture – with its emphasis on the life of the mind over the virtues of physical vigour – might make a certain pallor inevitable, Rhodes said that the professors they sampled actually prized exercise. “Our survey suggested that exercise was highly valued,” Rhodes wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed. “They just reported limited activity due to their high workload.”

The race for tenure was just one factor among many, they observed. Marriage and child-rearing, which tend to occur at roughly the same time as landing an assistant professorship, also correspond with low levels of exercise, said Rhodes and Kirk. Sharper decreases in physical activity were noted among those who were married and worked more than 70 hours per week; having children between 0 and 5 exacerbated the decline in physical activity. “New faculty who are married, are new parents, or who work overtime – be aware!” they wrote.

Rhodes added that the findings likely would be similar, if not even worse, for assistant professors in the US. The workload and the pressure of tenure are very similar between the two countries, as is the prevalence of exercise among the general population at that age. “The US has even more burden placed on its workers with the reduced maternity/paternity leave system compared with Canada,” Rhodes wrote in an email. “The results may be even more robust in the US (in terms of physical inactivity).”

Although he was not aware of similar research ever being done on American professors, the findings were not at all surprising to Dale R. Wagner, associate professor of exercise physiology at Utah State University and president of the American Society of Exercise Physiologists. “Anecdotally and just from conversations with peers, I have observed the same pattern in university professors in the US, including myself,” he wrote in an email. “Even though, as an exercise physiologist, I am more aware of the importance of regular physical activity than most people, I still find myself falling into periods of inactivity during especially busy times during the academic year.”

The findings also resonated with Cathy A. Trower, research director of the Collaborative On Academic Careers in Higher Education at Harvard University, who has surveyed assistant professors.

“Many talk about stress, strained marital relations, weight gain and lack of sleep,” Trower wrote in an email. “Those we’ve interviewed also talk about not having time for much of anything that would bring piece of mind (mental health) such as church, meditation, yoga. The problem is that it’s difficult to shut off academic work, especially research; there’s just no such thing as a 9 to 5 (or even 8 to 6) academic post. It’s unrelenting.”

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