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.


*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.