Fitness requirements

Geoscience is a field that has implied fitness expectations. This is easy to handle if you are able-bodied and already love exercising. But it at times feels really pressuring if, like me, you like the outdoors and like moving your body but are not terribly fond of fitness routines and regimens. I don’t get much of a rush from exercising, though I gather for a lot of people that is a significant motivator. My motivations are basically to reduce my aches and pains, and to have an easy time doing things I like or need to do (like occasionally going into the field and carrying a backpack full of rocks and water, or spontaneous camping trips, or very difficult hikes on trips that I am leading). And I do usually feel good after working out, but not that good, and I don’t usually enjoy the exercise that much while it’s happening.*

The pressure to be able to jump out of your chair and go run up a mountain is pretty widespread in this field. Some of it is simple peer pressure – people who go into geoscience tend to love running up mountains, and they chose this field because it gives them lots of opportunities to do so. But if all your friends are filling their time with team mountain-running, and you would prefer to walk around the block for an hour on a sunny afternoon, pretty soon you don’t have many friends.

The required geology field trips for most geology classes are generally not accessible to students (or faculty) with physical limitations or disabilities. Usually some stops are accessible so they are still encouraged to attend, accomodations are made wherever possible, and in the case of a student and a trip where it isn’t possible, the faculty I know would waive a requirement like that for a disabled student. To some extent this is probably not a very fixable situation — scaling a hill and hunting for outcrops when there are no trails is sometimes a necessary part of field work. You have to get to areas that are difficult to access to study those difficult-to-find rocks. When a geoscientist becomes unable to do such field work later in their careers, as occasionally happens, they tend to turn their attentions to lab work from then on. It’s limiting for some people, though, and I wonder sometimes about how else we might be able to deal with that.

I also wonder about the self-selective bias. While subdisciplines with a significant lab component can be open to people with a range of physical abilities from the get-go, there are those geology fields that do not have much of a lab component. Mapping an outcrop in the field is something that can only be done in the field. So how much are those subfields self-selecting only able-bodied people? How much are those fields being necessarily limited by that bias, by missing out on input from brilliant minds that just can’t get their bodies to the sites in question?

Volcanology, IME, is a discipline that is particularly prone to macho displays of prowess. Field work is conducted in very high risk areas, which leads to, well, risk-taking behavior, and there is sometimes a great deal of physical competitiveness between scientists. (I’ve observed this to be slightly less true among female volcanologists, but until relatively recently there weren’t many of those — and I suspect this gender disparity was even more stark than that of many other science disciplines because of the particularly physically demanding field work and the especially macho culture. Women scientists just don’t tend to score as highly in pissing contests, after all.) I’ll be frank: between being very petite (meaning even a strong, fit me still can’t carry as much or move as fast as most), and not particularly loving exercise or buying too strongly into the competitive geology fitness culture, I don’t even attempt the pissing contests. And between not really finding that appealing or interesting AND not being able to carry as much as most people or hike as quickly, I don’t tend to be asked along in the field very much — even when I’m relatively fit.

And I hate that.

/whining.

*I DO exercise. I’m relatively fit. But not as much as so many people I know, and it clearly feels like I am Not Fitting In by only exercising a few times a week. And by including things like long walks and dance classes as exercise, instead of limiting myself to running, competitive sports, and ass-kickingly-tough yoga.

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9 Responses

  1. I know exactly what you mean. When I go to GSA or AGU and I look at the top women in my field, I also feel like I have to be super thin on top of being super-fit. I am neither and most of the time that’s OK and I still get my field work done, if less easily and less gracefully than those super-fit scientists. But I feel like in order to be a “true” geoscientist, you have to like beer and running up mountains. And if you are woman, not much of a beer drinker, and not super-fit, you already have three strikes against you in terms of fitting into the culture of the discipline.

  2. Yeah, that’s a good point. I do pass as fit visually because I’m thin, to some extent, though being short and all-around small does not help me fit into a manly culture all that well. But the drinking thing – god, yes. I’m not in college anymore, people. I don’t really want to get wasted all the goddamn time. I’ll have a drink or two here and there, but I’m really not interested in more most of the time, and because of it people actually ask me to my face if I’m sure I’m a geologist!

  3. When I was in undergrad there was a significant faction of “outdoorsy” types (rock climbers, backpackers, mountaineers, etc.) in geology because of the opportunity to combine research with those activities.

    But, through grad school those that were in it just for the outdoors mostly got weeded out (for lack of a better term) … you need to be into the science even more than the outdoors. Climbing a mountain to see the view or for the challenge is not enough, one needs to be interested in what they will find when they get there.

    If I think of the mentors I’ve had (male and female) over the years, the ones who are still doing field geology well into their 40s or older are not type examples of fitness by any means.

    I think passion for the work combined with average or slightly above-average fitness results in better quality science than a triathlete who doesn’t give a hoot.

    As for the drinking … I definitely enjoy celebrating near the end or immediately after a successful field excursion (especially when all goes smoothly, no accidents, etc.), but every night is overkill. Besides, if people have enough energy to stay up late and get loaded, maybe they need to work harder :)

  4. That’s interesting, BrianR. I don’t think that’s a universal experience, though. Most of the experiences that I have along these lines have been with faculty, not students.

  5. Is there really a “universal” experience though?

  6. No, there’s not. But the post is about a trend that has made me feel inadequate and sometimes even singled out. It sounds like Sciencewoman has experienced some of the same things. Maybe you have worked in places where this wasn’t so much the case, but it doesn’t mean it’s not a problem that exists elsewhere.

  7. “…it doesn’t mean it’s not a problem that exists elsewhere.”

    I’m not challenging your conclusion of it being a problem … I’m not sure how me sharing my own experience / perspective is interpreted as such.

  8. Ah I see. Okay, I thought you were disagreeing that this situation happens, because you said that you saw grad students in it for the physical activity progressively “weeded out,” and successful career geologists were not paragons of fitness. I certainly agree wholeheartedly that a not-so-fit but devoted geologist is a better scientist than someone just in it for the physicality of field work.

  9. Meh. I feel for you. It’s odd when I think about it, just in the last 40 years how intense, gutbusting exercise has become something a lot of people do so routinely, because they feel it’s the ‘right’ thing to do to fit into a lot of different groups (those that value physical strength and skills, but so many do it to look a certain way) and also for fun.

    In my circle people think I am some kind of freak, or obsessed with my weight, because I LURVE working out, beating my personal bests, and building muscles. Lady-muscles aren’t sexy for the mens to gaze upon, see, so what reason could I have to want them?

    Don’t undersell yourself regarding the whole petite thing, though! I am pretty heavy into exercise myself.. but I can carry the same size loads and outrun people who are much taller and 30, 60, or 80 lbs heavier than me.. size=strength when it comes down to brass tacks but small women can do a lot of heavy shit with proper conditioning. However, just because you, personally, can’t.. it blows that you have to be marginalized for it. I don’t know what to suggest.

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