Are New Faculty At-Risk of “Letting Themselves Go” due to the Demands of their Profession?

Benefits of Physical Activity

We have all heard it and seen it before – a physically active lifestyle leads to a vast array of health benefits including a reduced risk of more than  25 chronic diseases (e.g., Type II diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease, obesity), improved psychological health (e.g., self-esteem, confidence, reduced depression), and above all, a 20% lower risk in all-cause mortality. Physical activity helps enhance the quality and length of one’s life and, Canadian professionals believe, also contributes to improved work productivity, reductions in work-related burnout and stress, reduced absenteeism, and improved focus and concentration 

So, why then, are our national surveys still reminding us that our physical activity habits are sub-par given the widespread belief that physical activity can essentially change our lives for the better? 

Are Faculty Members at Risk?

For many, the allure of becoming a professor is the promise of a career that involves freedom of choice, national funding, opportunities for promotion, secured tenure-track advancement, and a flexible work schedule. It is no secret, however, that the path to becoming an established professor requires years of grueling, all-consuming service to prove oneself as worthy. 

Assistant professors,  those who have recently entered the  academic profession, aim to reach tenure by spending countless hours teaching, marking, grant writing, publishing, reading, analyzing, recruiting, and presenting. Most of these “rookies” are also juggling relationships, families, and other personal goals. The reward is that once tenure  status is granted, life as a professor can be absolutely wonderful. Or so we think.  What if the pressure, expectations, and stress endured while trying to obtain a tenure-track position had devastating consequences on your long-term physical and emotional health?

We have spent the last year investigating the impact of entering an academic profession on the physical-activity behaviour among newly appointed  Canadian faculty. This study was the first of its kind to be conducted in Canada.

The Shocking News for New Academics

What may come as shocking news is the fact that one of the steepest declines in physical activity compared to any other age demographic occurs among adults ages 25-45.  Earlier research indicated that life-transitions, especially parenthood and marriage, are reasons for this decline. One major life-transition that has received limited attention is the shift to professional employment following post-secondary education. 

Compelling evidence has shown that those employed in professional occupations are at risk of inactivity as a result of the grueling nature of their profession.  Being a professor is a profession that has been shown to have the longest work hours, heaviest work demands, highest psychological stress, and lowest occupational energy expenditure compared to other professional occupations  More specifically, Canadian assistant professors (that is, the  recently employed) aiming to be tenured 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 

Assistant professors make up more than half 52.4% of all Canadian faculty members, but little is known about  the health impact of this grueling  career stage. From a public health standpoint, research efforts aimed at identifying the reasons for the sharp decline in physical activity are urgently needed to prevent habitual inactivity from extending into middle- and older-adulthood. 

Thus, the purpose of this study was to examine the impact of the early years of an academic career  on  physical activity by investigating a representative sample of new assistant professors.   A total of 267 assistant professors who had been hired in the last five years completed the survey.

A Grave Outcome

The prevalence of physical activity participation among Canadian adults hovers in  the 50 percent range. Based on the findings from this study, only 30.7 percent of the sample was currently meeting the minimum activity recommendations of 20-30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA), which is far below the national Canadian average of 49-54 percent for young adults ages 25-44 . What’s more, the results showed that total physical activity frequency dropped to below national guidelines (e.g., 20-30 minutes of MVPA most days per week) by nearly two sessions per week from pre- to post-transition. That is, 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.

Who is Most At-Risk?

New faculty who are married, are new parents, or who work overtime – be aware!

The declining trend in physical activity was not independent of certain socio-demographic profiles. Those who indicated they were married, and worked 70-plus hours of work per week reported sharper decreases in physical activity across the transition compared to those who were single and working fewer than 70 hours. 

In addition, interaction effects suggested that having children between 0-5 years of age even further exacerbated declining activity levels. This finding supports prior reviews on parenthood and physical activity,  which also suggest that parenthood has a negative effect. Because the growth and development of children under  age  five requires more parental attention, combined with the challenge of finding affordable and available childcare, it seems logical that the presence of young children in the home, combined with the demands of entering a professional occupation, would limit the time available for physical activity participation. 

Explaining Physical Activity Behaviour across the Transition

An additional novelty of this study was that it aimed to identify the critical correlates  that distinguished between those who remained active across the transition from those who discontinued physical activity participation.

Attitudinal beliefs about physical activity taking time from other obligations and being a hassle or an inconvenience emerged as key discriminators, suggesting that new professionals who expected exercise  to complement and enhance their work-life balance were more likely to continue with exercise. Inconsistent work schedules, heavy work demands, and professional aims also explained decreased physical activity. This seems logical since the structure of academic professions require most faculty to change routines at least every four months on account of  fall and winter semesters, and expectations including attendance at  conferences  and providing service to the community may take precedence over fitting in physical activity in order to secure a tenured position. Overall, low intentions to engage in exrcise, the presence of an inconsistent work schedule, a lack of available leisure-time, and the belief that exercise  is a hassle are leading reasons for physicail activiity  disparity stemming from  early-career transitions.

The findings from this study are important for the development of targeted health promotion interventions during the transition to professional employment. To date, no known interventions for new professionals have been conducted, but this study indicates that control- and behavioural-based interventions would be potentially useful. 

Recommendations for New Professors

Because of the lack of health promotion strategies that target inactivity among newly hired Canadian faculty, it remains unclear  what intervention targets would be most useful. Still, the results from this study should be reason enough to encourage  these Canadian faculty members to  incorporate more physical activity into their daily lives.

Recent guidelines from the Public Health Agency of Canada  recommend that adults participate in a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity on most days of the week . Moderate-vigorous physical activity refers to participating in a minimum of 10-minute bouts of activities (e.g., jogging, cycling, rowing) that elevate the heart rate and cause perspiration.

We know that physical activity translates into positive physical and mental health outcomes. We know that physical activity improves work productivity and performance. We also know that physical activity can help build social support and increase levels of life satisfaction and enjoyment. Given the potential number of years new faculty may spend in their chosen profession before retirement then, it is critical that positive health habits be formed now to ensure our newest researchers are functioning at their optimal potential. Therefore, a number of physical activity recommendations are outlined below:

  • Try to accumulate 20-30 minutes of physical activity daily
  • Find an activity that you enjoy doing by yourself and with others
  • Take a 10-minute-walk break at lunch to clear your mind
  • Park your car far away to get a little exercise in on hectic days
  • Bike to work
  • Encourage your colleagues to enroll in a fitness class together
  • Suggest a fun physical activity competition with your colleagues
  • Enter into a charity run as an individual or a team
  • Incorporate physical activity in during time spent with your family
  • Establish a support system that holds you accountable for being active

Concluding Remarks

This study was the first of its kind to assess the physical activity patterns of new faculty members across the transition to their academic career. The results of this Canada-wide study provides preliminary support that new faculty are not meeting the minimum exercise  recommendations, and the early career transition to professional employment is a unique contributor to decreased physical activity . Furthermore, working overtime, being in a committed relationship, and raising  young children place additional burden on physical activity participation.  The presence of inconsistent work schedules, heavy work demands, limited time, and viewing physical activity as an inconvenience are the key reasons that differentiate those who remain active from those who do not across the transition to professional employment. Overall, this study highlights that new professionals struggle to find the time necessary to focus on their physical health during their early-career transition and this may translate into adverse health conditions. It is hoped that this study brings light to the need for continued support for our Canadian faculty to ensure they remain healthy, happy, and vibrant across their entire professional career.

Megan A. Kirk is supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Frederick Banting and Charles Best Canada Graduate Scholarship and a University of Victoria President’s Research Scholarship. Ryan E. Rhodes is supported by a scholar award from the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, a new investigator award from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and with funds from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Canadian Diabetes Association and the Canadian Cancer Society.

For more in-depth details regarding the study please contact Dr. Ryan Rhodes at rhodes@uvic.ca