Prioritizing Physician Health for Personal and Professional Success

By: Jason Horay
2 Minute Read

Part III of our series on holistic physician well-being.

While news stories about physician burnout are driving numerous mental and emotional wellness initiatives, doctors’ physical health has seemed to take a backseat in these discussions. However, this facet of well-being should not be overlooked.

Physical health is an essential component to combating physician burnout, and it can have a significant positive effect on mental and emotional wellness.

Healthy Body, Healthy Mind

Achieving and maintaining physical health doesn’t require structural or lifestyle changes. Physicians can introduce habits into their daily lives that can enhance physical health and promote mental and emotional well-being, boosting their success and satisfaction both in and out of the clinical setting.

Physicians must be able to sustain and withstand extreme mental and physical demands to care for patients and themselves. Our advice is to start simple. Physical wellness begins with three core components: diet, exercise, and sleep. Learning how to take control of these three elements can produce lasting results.

  1. DIET. As the saying goes, “We are what we eat.” Diet directly and significantly affects energy levels, weight, the effects of aging, and good health. There is much debate surrounding what type of diet is “healthiest,” but nearly all dieticians agree that unprocessed foods are superior to processed foods. Physicians should choose nutrient-dense, whole foods throughout the day. When possible, practice leaders should enable easier access to healthy snack and meal choices during shifts.
  2. EXERCISE. Many doctors feel they are too busy to go to the gym and work out every morning. But aerobic exercise doesn’t have to always have to be a drain on time and resources. Significant benefits have been seen with a minimum of 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week, or five 30-minute sessions. And for those who don’t have a spare 30-40 minutes each day? The answer is simple: break it down even further. The same benefits can be seen when exercising for shorter periods broken up into multiple sessions throughout day, and the activity does not need to be overly strenuous. Doctors looking for fast and easy ways to introduce aerobic exercise can start with walking, running, swimming, or biking—none of which require a significant time commitment or gym membership.
  3. SLEEP. Sleep is a core physiological function that directly correlates to mental and physical wellness. Most healthy adults require 7.5-8.5 hours of sleep each night and will experience cognitive deficits when sleep-deprived. Furthermore, ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney failure, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. Due to long hours and demanding work schedules, many physicians fail to allow for adequate sleep and leave themselves and their patients at risk.

It’s important for physicians to control what they can when it comes to particularly demanding schedules. Those who create their own schedules should be cognizant of their own needs and ensure that they retain adequate time for family activities and a full night’s sleep. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for everyone.

Doctors who work on hospital shifts are particularly sensitive to this challenge, as their schedules are often unpredictable and unstable. Management should be sensitive to this need and try to remain well-staffed so as to not overwork individual clinicians. Shift differentials, shortened night hours, and “random” shift change times are all effective ways to ease the burden of difficult shift work, providing physicians with the opportunity to restore their natural sleep cycles.

Click here to view a previous installment in this series on emotional well-being and be sure to check back in the coming weeks for future topics, including occupational, financial, and spiritual well-being.

Jason Horay

Jason Horay is Curi’s Health Promotion Program Manager, based in Raleigh, NC.

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