How can I be a healthy physician in 2018?

January 5, 2018

With the new year come New Year’s Resolutions. Often, they revolve around taking better care of ourselves by eating healthy and exercising. Here’s one of my personal favorites: “This is the year I’m going to take a real holiday, away from work, to rest and re-energize.” Sound familiar? As physicians, we work hard for our patients, and making time for ourselves is the first thing to drop off the list. Taking holidays – real breaks from the pressures we face every day – often eludes us. 
I have trouble organizing holidays. The logistical challenge of booking time off, choosing a destination and designing a holiday that works for all members of the family is challenging. That’s why in November I wound up going to Club Med in Guadalupe with my husband. He wants to play tennis on holidays, I don’t play – so the solution is a place that does not require you to bring your own partner. Plus it met my requirements of somewhere warm where I don’t have to cook. 

On arrival, I decided to attend the fitness club. I was inspired by taking part in Doctors of BC’s school challenge Be Active Every Day. I felt like a fraud encouraging school children to be active every day when I don’t do that myself. I hoped to find an exercise I could incorporate regularly into my real life. I did – one where the instructor was a young French woman who could easily twist her legs up behind her ears, and despite her petite build could bench press enormous weights with apparent ease. She smiled a lot but had a teaching style I imagine might suit the US Marine Corps. “Encore une fois!” Encore cinq minutes!” Did I mention the classes were in French? I attended a mere two hours of classes daily and by day three, it hurt to laugh. I struggled. I did not develop an abiding love for Pilates, but I felt virtuous at the end of the week, and was pleasantly surprised at home to find out the exercises are much easier to do when there is less than 90% humidity.

I, like many physicians, tend to put my own health on the backburner when it comes to my day-by-day priorities. It is easy to get caught in the cycle of endless work. In medicine there is always more to do, and as physicians we take it all on – often at the cost of our own self-care and health. 

The reality is physician health is a big issue. We juggle work along with professional and family obligations, which can  lead to exhaustion and burnout. We’re the first to advise our patients to take better care for themselves, yet we know we need to do a better job of looking after ourselves if we have any hope of effectively caring for our patients and our communities. 

Much work has been done on resilience, in a variety of contexts. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) data suggests certain key factors prevent potential bad health outcomes. We are more likely to be healthy if we are loved by someone, have a trusted confidante, feel appreciated in the work we do, and feel we can make a positive difference through our work

A colleague once told me to book your next holiday the day you return from time off. More importantly, figure out what small changes can be made now. What one thing can you add to your weekly routine to better look after yourself, and what one thing can you eliminate that you hate? This is a great first step to adjusting your priorities in a healthy way.

So what am I doing? My goal is to add regular exercise back into my routine. I am also committed to drinking more water and less Diet Pepsi, and to finishing my charting before leaving the clinic. I need to pay someone else to clean my bathrooms! I hate cleaning bathrooms.  It’s all about the priorities we set, and ensuring we stick to them.

For me, that’s enough to start. It’s more important to identify a few small changes we can achieve, then to make big resolutions that we will abandon by mid-January (or earlier!). So I challenge you – take some time as we enter the new year to reflect on your professional and personal goals and make some small changes that ensure your mental and physical health are priorities. I think we if all do that, we can make a world of difference – for ourselves, our families and our patients.

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