5 Ways Fitness Has Improved My Fieldwork Experience

Having been in the field for almost 8 months now, I’m realizing that my preparation really lacked information about self-care while living and researching abroad.  How to do this?  Do you just struggle through a year?  Is there something I should pack?  Most of the advice I received was about how to be a good researcher but not to be well while I research. Surely, everyone needs different things to feel and be well, but from experience, however, here are five ways that prioritizing fitness during fieldwork has improved my overall research experience.

1. Creating Structure

My project is designed in such a way that I don’t have a fixed field site to visit on a regular basis (I would HIGHLY recommend against this), which means that my weekly schedule can be really varied depending on who is available for an interview on a given day, what time the library is open, etc.  Having a set place to go and exercise helped me to create some blocks in my schedule that I then had to build around.  Surely, if there was something really important for my research, I would re-schedule or cancel, but for the most part, I’ve been able to keep my workout schedule as planned.

2. Making Friends and Building Community

At this point in the fieldwork experience, I’ve gone to one gym and have danced at three different studios.  Some of the people I originally met aren’t people I still hang out with, but it was a great way to have a regular community for the time that we were in contact.  With the people I met at my dance studio, we started a WhatsApp group and went out dancing to places I’d never even heard of before.  I’m also friends with my instructors too. Relatedly, I think that being able to tell people that I’m learning to dance Cuban salsa and Rumba is a great way to breed familiarity and closeness between people I’m just getting to know.  I showed my Spanish teacher a video of me dancing salsa and now she tells everybody I dance like a Cuban. Sidenote: The follow up question about how much each class costs is a bit uncomfortable, but I don’t always get asked and sometimes I just decline to answer.  I’ve been at studios where I’ve paid Cuban rates and taken classes with Cuban citizens. I’ve also paid tourist rates for private classes, so it’s been interesting to see what each of these provides.

3. Managing Stress

This stands true not only for fieldwork but really any aspect of the grad school experience.  This is all really stressful, and it’s certainly in our best interest to find ways to decompress.  How are you going to deal when your bank card gets blocked and you have to go downtown to use a phone because 1-800 numbers don’t work in the country you are in?  What will you do when you realize the grant you are applying to is blocked and you have to figure out how to download a VPN to access your application? (just a few of my wtf moments)  Talk a walk. Go to a class. Ride a bike.  Find your thing, but it’d behove you to do something with all of that pent up stress. 

4. Maintaining a Sense of Self

I know that the point of fieldwork is to totally immerse yourself in the field, but that obviously has it’s limitations.  My identity does not stop and start at ‘doctoral student’ ‘anthropologist’ or ‘researcher’. I am also someone who has a love for fitness (in all of it’s forms) and writing, hence, why I started this blog.  Maintaining this blog about my fitness pursuits and finding fitness outlets in Cuba has been a great exercise (pun intended) in maintaining the parts of me that don’t necessarily fit into the ‘researcher’ category.

5. Maintaining a Sense of Progress

Prior to fieldwork, I struggled with thinking that I was in some way being forced to put my normal life on hold to live and conduct research in a foreign country.  I was just starting to find my groove with my new friends, and I’d just moved up to the advanced (the highest) group in my salsa studio.  I was legitimately afraid that I would have to put all of that on hold; however, my salsa game is soooooooo much better.  Although they dance a different style of salsahere in Cuba, the exposure that I now have is unmatched. Had I been in New York, I wouldn’t have as much time to dance.  I wouldn’t be able to take private lessons, and I surely don’t think I would have improved at the rate that I’m improving.  Not only have I learned a new style of salsa, but I’ve also tried new types of dance, kizomba, rumba and casino, which probably wouldn’t have happened if I stayed in the city.   My dance life is surely not the only way, I’ve grown during the fieldwork process, but it is a very visible representation of how you can still progress in a new context.

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So, there you have it. If there are any future anthropology students or anyone really who will be conducting research away from home for an extended period of time, I would highly suggest fitness as a way to take care of yourself and to experience your field site in a more intimate way.

What are your thoughts? Have you found fitness to be a good way to meet people whether studying abroad or even in your hometown?

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