Why academics need to get moving

  • 2016-02-16
  • The Guardian

We don't need a survey to prove that stress levels for academics are higher than those in the general population, but we have one anyway.

Long hours, heavy teaching and admin loads, along with expectations of research activity all have telling effects. While much could be done in the university workplace to foster better working environments, we're also doing ourselves and our career an unintended disservice when we prioritise work ahead of wellbeing.

This dedication to the task is often a false economy. If we just did the counterintuitive – took a break, talked to colleagues, walked up and down some stairs, went to bed sooner, took the time to make a decent lunch and ate that lunch with other people rather than at our desks – our performance would go up, our time on task would go down and our quality of life would improve.

Through ongoing research at Southampton's human performance design lab in electronics and computer science, we have defined a model to understand wellbeing in the body. We call this map the inbodied5, or five core processes that interact with each other: movement, eating, social engagement, cognitive engagement, and sleep.

Eating and sleeping: While it may seem obvious that eating is a requirement for life (don't eat – we die), we are less willing to acknowledge the importance of sleep. While science is getting a better sense of what happens when we sleep, from tissue repair in deep sleep to memory processing in light sleep, it's still unclear why we need to sleep for a third of our lives. But we do.

Movement: Our bodies are "use it or lose it" systems. Nutrients like calcium are largely only taken up by our bones by stretching that tissue,with stop-start activities like squash, football or lifting heavy weights (or textbooks?). Likewise, stress is a hormonal cue to move. Hence going out for a run or to the gym being a quick way to reduce stress levels. Respond to the cue, and the alarm shuts off.

Social engagement: Surveys of work over the past decade clearly show that people who have relationships live longer lives with better reported experiences of quality than those who do not. These are relationships in the physical sense, by the way – dealing with an actual other. It's not yet clear if digital relations have a similar life-sustaining effect.