Welcome to our “Moments of Will” series, where we’ll feature community members who have faced adversity on their health and fitness journeys, only to come back stronger and better than ever. While they could have let their challenges keep them from their goals, each of them found the will to fight for their physical, emotional and mental health.
Grad school is notorious for the toll it takes on your health and life outside of your studies but Bill Cotter, a PhD student at the University of Arizona, came prepared for that reality.
In undergrad, he was an avid cyclist, commuting 40–50 miles a week on his bike. Once he started grad school, however, he realized he was going to need to start paying more attention to his health goals if he was going to make it through his PhD program in good health — physically and mentally. “During my first semester, a former PhD student happened to be visiting the department and he mentioned to us over lunch that taking care of your body is only going to get harder the deeper into grad school you get and the older you get,” he says. “I wanted to try to develop some good habits.”
To combat his sedentary hours of study in grad school, Cotter started building healthy habits by hiking, lifting weights and training for a major challenge: a 100-mile bike ride called El Tour de Tucson. “That was a major goal and I convinced my friends to train for it with me,” he says. “There’s a lot to dislike about being a grad student — we make virtually no money, we live very precariously, we work way too much, etc. — but I figured if I could develop some good habits, it would help me enjoy what I did every day and avoid burnout.”
WHERE THERE’S A WILL
In the spring of 2016, Cotter’s priorities shifted when his mother was diagnosed with late-stage cancer. “Her illness hit me hard and over the course of the year, I paid little attention to my own health because I was so concerned about what was happening to her,” he says. To deal with the emotional fallout, he started eating, blanketing the stress under massive portions of food.
Later that year, Cotter’s mom passed away, taking a hammer to what was left of his health — both mentally and physically. “I started gaining weight pretty rapidly,” he says. “I just felt absolutely miserable. Many, many grad students struggle with mental health issues. My mom’s illness and subsequent passing exacerbated mine.”
In that moment, a gear shifted in his brain. “I realized that I could either let it consume me — do things like drinking (which I had never done but sounded great in the moment), and ultimately destroy my body, my work, my mind — or I could try something else.”
He started by paying attention to his eating habits, using MyFitnessPal to track how many calories he had been eating on a daily basis. “I was probably consuming 3,600 or 3,750 calories in a day,” he says — about 1,000 calories more than he ideally should have been eating.
To reverse the trend, he started small, beginning every morning with a vegan protein smoothie and rolling back his portion sizes bit by bit — not an easy task. “Breaking out of nine months of bad eating habits was unbelievably frustrating,” he says. “Now, in retrospect, I don’t understand how I could physically eat that much food at the time.”
“The most consistently hard thing for me is that my schedule is already so full. If I don’t force myself to go do something like hike or go for a bike rides, I’m going to talk myself out of doing it and end up sitting at my desk working.”
He also turned to the cycling community that had always been a key part of his motivation to be healthy. “I’ve been lucky to have a core group of friends in Arizona who love cycling as much as I do. Once the summer heat started to wear off, we made a commitment to sign up for a number of long-distance rides over the course of the fall,” he says. “We climbed our way through the Mule Mountains in Bisbee, rode through seemingly never-ending retirement communities south of Tucson, started trying to climb Mount Lemmon by bike, and I ended up completing my third 100-mile bike ride.” By the end of 2017, he had logged 2,500 miles on his bike.
WILL FINDS A WAY
As anyone who’s ever tried to break bad health habits knows, it’s one hell of a challenge, even after you have some momentum going. “The most consistently hard thing for me is that my schedule is already so full. If I don’t force myself to go do something like hike or go for a bike rides, I’m going to talk myself out of doing it and end up sitting at my desk working,” says Cotter. To find a way to make sure he stays on the path to healthier habits, he’s made staying active a nonnegotiable part of his schedule, planning ahead what activity he’ll do each day.
As he started to get physically healthier, Cotter noticed improvements in his mental clarity and focus that took his graduate work up a notch. “Once I started realizing that things were going in a positive direction, it made it much easier for me to see the connections between my mental health and my physical health,” he says. “I was going through a lot of personal stuff in 2016, but part of the reason I felt the way I did, I know was because I had let my health just completely slide.”
He reminds himself of that when he’s tempted to fall into old habits. “I’m now consciously aware of the fact that part of the reason why I felt so terrible before was because of what I was doing to my body,” he says. “It’s been quite a year. I feel way better, mentally and physically, and I’m optimistic about where things are headed.”