There is a misconception about what it means to live healthier. Trendy diets and workout routines dominate much of the fitness culture they tend to focus physical appearance and fast results rather than habit modification and maintenance. While yes physical appearance is one result that many of us strive for, it can often be disheartening to hear this from model-esque individuals who do this for a living and are able to dedicate so hours of their day to fitness and nutrition.
Living healthier is about developing good habits and incorporating them into your daily schedule; just like studying for exams or making time for friends and family during medical school. Simply put, it’s a lifestyle modification. That is one reason why Emile and I started Gain’s Anatomy, to help show those in the field of medicine that it is possible to balance fitness/nutrition habits with demanding schedules. While medical school may seem like a poor time to start these habits, there is actually no better time! You will not magically find more time during residency or once you are a practicing physician. Below are 10 examples of habits you can start that require very little effort and can have benefits in the long run!
- Meal prep. There are multiple benefits to preparing your meals for the week before hand. While saving time and money are huge reasons to start this habit, to me the real value lies in the the fact that you are able to shape your nutrition for that week based on what you make. It’s amazing how deciding your weekly meals before hand can take temptation while making the daily choice of “what should I eat.”
- Buddy up! The initial motivation to start a new health habit can wear off quickly. Having someone to hold you accountable to your goals is essential until you are able to make that new routine a habit. Find a buddy, have a conversation about your goals, and ask them to hold you accountable to them.
- Plan health into your schedule. Part of the reason why many medical students have gotten to where they are is because they are able to plan out their schedules effectively. Why not do the same for fitness and nutrition? Take 5 minutes to look at your weekly schedule and block off times dedicated to specific workouts you want to complete that week. Take it a step further and try to plan out each meal over the course of the day! We know it can be challenging (especially during the M3 and M4 year) to have a steady schedule, so remember to be flexible and make adjustments as you go.
- Write down your goals. Back in college, our football coaches brought in a group of sports psychologists to teach us about the mental side of sports. Putting your goals onto paper was one activity we were taught and if you want to try it for yourself grab a piece of paper and ask yourself: where are you now? where do you want to be? and three specific ways that you are going to get there. Here’s an example. Right now I’m working on my flexibility. Currently, I am improving but still have a long way to go (where am I now?) and I want to someday be able to do the splits (where do I want to be?). To get there, I am going to: (1) stretch for 30 minutes 4 nights per week before bed, (2) try a yoga class after our next exam, and (3) YouTube different stretches I can do to make sure I’m changing up my stretch routine. While it may be tempting to “go big or go home,” make sure these three things are achievable. Start small and build from there.
- Fitness and/or nutrition journal.This is one of the most effective habits that I’ve tried! Writing down your daily intake makes you think about what you are about to consume, currently consuming, or have consumed throughout the day. Forcing yourself to write down each meal functions to hold you the contract between you and your diet and can deter you from certain meals that work against your dietary goals. Alternatively, cataloguing your workouts can be rewarding in the sense that you are able to track your progress (amount of weight lifted, distance ran per week, etc.) and seeing this progress on paper can keep that motivational snowball in motion.
- Eat smaller meals more frequently. Sorry guys but I can’t provide the literature on this one, only my 2 cents on the subject. The reason why I think smaller, more frequent meals is beneficial is because it habituates you to eating smaller meals. Portion size is a contributing factor to the obesity epidemic in the United States so getting in the habit of eating for energy rather than eating until you’re full can make a difference later in life. Making the number of meals the subject of change means that I also don’t have to alter my recipes for my meal preps. *Note: I use the term meal to encompass all typical meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner) and snacks throughout the day.
- Meditate.Since starting medical school, I’ve learned that meditation a term that is much more encompassing than sitting quietly for long periods of time. It can be as little as taking 5-10 minutes a couple times a week to focus on your breathing to 15-30 minute yoga or stretching routines done at home. Which ever way you choose to meditate, the literature has shown that there are innumerable benefits to partaking in this hobby. In fact, studies have shown that mindfulness exercises can maintain telomere length in breast-cancer patients (see the article here). Check out the many different meditation apps available and find one that works for you!
- Pick up a new hobby.Working out isn’t limited to the confines of the gym. Starting a new hobby can double as a way to become more active. Yoga, boxing, or dancing are just a couple of countless ways to ramp up your activity level. If this is appealing to you I suggest Googling an activity you’ve always wanted to pick up and making it part of your weekly routine. Workout classes are another example and with the current health craze, instructor-led classes of all sorts are popping up everywhere!
- Try new recipes. Meal prepping can be monotonous. Eating the same meals each week can definitely test your ability to maintain your ideal diet. Adding new meals to your cookbook can not only help you maintain your meal prep life, but also can be a fun new hobby. Both Emile and I are Trader Joe’s regulars, so if you have one close to you we can attest to the variety of easy to prepare meals that are found there.
- Drink water. Replace all other drinks with water. Period. The average American (both youths and adults) consume roughly 150 calories per day from sugar-sweetened beverages (numbers from the CDC). Add to that calories from drinks that aren’t sugar-sweetened (milk, beer, wine, etc), and you have a substantial number of calories being consumed that can impact your health goals, especially if weight loss is one of them. If you’re a coffee drinker like me, make the switch from whatever sugary-goodness Starbucks has to offer to straight black coffee. Caffeine pills might be an alternative if you can’t do straight black. To give you and idea, a tall Starbucks Pike Place Roast contains 185mg of caffeine, so start with 100mg and see how your body feels before moving to 200mg. They are also much cheaper than and can help you shave down your coffee shop expenditures. As always, check with your physician about starting caffeine pills.