As physicians, we’re all pressed for time, with patient demands, family conflicts, and personal moments of stress. Many of us were acculturated in medical school to ignore our own stress and burnout and instead to devote ourselves to our patients. That tactic may have worked in an earlier world, but with a more complicated and demanding practice environment, it’s no longer tenable today.
Two activities help me maintain my personal health and well-being: physical activity and music. I started jogging in 1975 during an era when there was a great attention paid to the health benefits of aerobic exercise. When I progressed to running six miles a day, I experienced the “runner’s high” and found that my general energy level had improved. I heard that one of my psychiatrist colleagues had completed a marathon, and I figured, “If he can do it, I can do it.”
Thirteen marathons later, I tried my first triathlon. I was intrigued by the idea of continuing the jogging and long-distance running that had become routine, while adding swimming, which I had always enjoyed, and bike-riding, which seemed like a great activity to do with my three sons. Also, around this time there was a great deal of discussion about the benefits of cross-training to improve performance.
Eventually I met a physician at a triathlon who told me about the Ironman Triathlon — an event that combines a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride, and a 26.2-mile run. The Ironman sounded really adventuresome to me, and 13 Ironman Triathlons later, I’m really glad I had those experiences. Although my motivation to compete in triathlons didn’t stem directly from a desire to relieve stress, I found that training for triathlons substantially improved my energy level, ability to stay focused at work, and general sense of well-being.
To fit training into my schedule, I run about six miles daily, do most of my biking with my wife on a tandem bicycle (combining biking with travel to many wonderful places in the world), and swim whenever I have a chance. I find that the daily physical activity helps me start my day right, stay mentally sharp, and maintain a good energy level. Of course, this level of activity also leads to the occasional blister and aches and pains, but I generally find that a couple of ibuprofen is all I need.
Besides physical activity, I find great pleasure in singing, both with a small folk music trio and in a choir. I worked my way through college and medical school as a professional musician and singer, so it’s been a natural for me to keep up these hobbies. I’ve always enjoyed being able to spread my time and energy between hard work, athletics, and musical activities. For me, it feels like a natural way to continue to function well as a physician and also enjoy my time away from work.
Perhaps what’s been the most gratifying to me as a physician, psychiatrist, medical leader, father, and grandfather is seeing the attention that our profession now pays to physician health and watching the involvement of my three sons and their children in both physical activities and music. These days I find that talking about taking care of one’s own physical and psychological health resonates with my physician colleagues in a way that wasn’t the case in the past. I also find that healthy activities are now incorporated into most of the medical meetings that I attend.
Not everyone wants to go the distances or to the extremes that I have, but I think that all physicians can benefit from participating in a type of exercise that gives them a sense of well-being and physical health. Physicians can also incorporate other hobbies and passions into their daily lives to give them a sense of well-being, as music has provided in my life.
By incorporating physical activity and other hobbies into our daily lives, we’ll be better physicians, our patients will do better, and we’ll be role models in our communities and families.
Jeremy Lazarus is a psychiatrist and immediate past president, American Medical Association. This article originally appeared in What Works For Me, a joint project by the Massachusetts Medical Society and the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine.