Every time I hike with a medical student we inevitably have the same conversation; the importance of balancing the unavoidable stresses of life with regular exercise. An exercise routine requires your time, energy, and attention; all things in short supply during periods of intense psychological distress like medical school. So what makes it all worth it? Why should we make fitness a priority when there’s so much competition for our time and attention?
While there are plenty of physical health benefits to regular exercise, it’s the mental health benefit of stress reduction that offers inner balance. And a little inner balance goes a long way.-Janelle Sheppard, Certified Personal Trainer
Last week I hiked with a medical student from New York. Standing in the trailhead parking lot I could tell he was in terrific physical condition and he’d likely have no problem completing our hike. As we climbed higher to reach the perfect spot for sunrise I heard his footsteps falling right behind mine; a good sign I should go faster. When we reached the top and waited for the big show I noticed the slight rise and fall of his chest. After the hill we just climbed that’s a sign of a finely tuned cardiovascular system.
It was obvious he made regular physical activity a priority, but what did he do, I wondered. The personal trainer in me came through and I curiously asked “So, what do you do to stay fit?” As he listed his routine aloud I tried to imagine how he fits it all in. Then it clicked. With a health issue that causes chronic pain I’ve become well versed in the lesson that life is better when I perform my physical therapy exercises daily. Taking just 30 minutes every day is a commitment but my days are so much better.
My guest agreed and we started the conversation about balance. He admitted “If I don’t make time for some type of physical activity in my day, I’m not performing at the top of my game. That’s not an option for a surgeon.” It’s true. We’re better when we’re active. Once you’ve experience the array of benefits that come with regular exercise, you may get distracted, but you will get back on track. Don’t just take our word for it. Check out this study on the effects of group fitness on stress and quality of life in medical students. Spoiler Alert: The group who exercised experienced decreased stress and improved mental and emotional quality of life.
While out running errands yesterday, I bumped into a really wonderful human who I haven’t seen in years. When I learned she was now in medical school, I was proud but not at all shocked. She’s one of those people you know will not only be an amazing doctor, but also a healer. Before I knew it we were having the same conversation. My usually health-focused friend explained how difficult maintaining healthy habits had become during medical school.
In the next breath she came to the same conclusion we always come to in this conversation. She said “I know I can only do everything I want to do if I take care of myself first.” I have no doubt she will get back on track, she always has. Like the other medical students I’ve chatted with and like myself, she has experienced the benefits and they keep her motivated to get back to those healthy habits.
So here’s my best advice for getting started on a regular fitness routine. Choose an activity you love; no extra points for making the process torturous. However, there are extra points for getting outside. Try this 30 minute outdoor routine; it’s one of my favorties. Once you found an activity you enjoy, commit to doing it on a regular basis, no matter what. Make your commitment reasonable and recognize that life will get in the way (that is part of it and so is starting over). Keep going and when you’re feeling good take a moment to notice and give thanks.