6 reasons how exercise makes you a better physician


Practicing medicine sometimes feels a bit like pulling teeth, and getting regular exercise often resembles flossing.

I have only recently started flossing on a regular basis. For most of my life, the bulk of my flossing activities would happen in the few days before my rapidly approaching dentist appointments. The “logic” I used to employ: I could make up for months of neglect by applying some short-term elbow grease to the mounds of plaque that had build up. Making up for lost time, so to speak. I decided to make a change after getting plum tired of hearing my dentist repeatedly gasp when I opened my mouth.

We all have our weaknesses, and this dental hygiene activity used to be one of mine. In an attempt at self-improvement, I began a flossing campaign. After two years of nightly flossing, I am pleased to report that I have gotten exactly zero cavities and exactly zero “boy, your gums look like you’ve been eating glass” comments.

I’ll be the first to admit that the in-the-moment benefit from flossing felt a bit wispy and hard to grab a hold of. It wasn’t until I looked back several months/years later that I could see the benefit. A pretty good metaphor for exercise: as clinicians, we know we’re supposed to exercise, but the immediate benefits are a bit intangible. And, like flossing, we often feel beat up and bloodied when finished.

Here are a few reasons why exercise will make you a better provider.

1. Your patients aren’t listening to you. Some of us find ourselves in the middle of an “elephant in the room” scenario: why would a patient follow the advice of his/her physician to eat better and exercise more when that physician is obviously not following his/her own advice?

Well, research supports that they won’t. A 2013 article from the International Journal of Obesity states that patients “reported more mistrust of physicians who are overweight or obese, were less inclined to follow their medical advice and were more likely to change providers if the physician was perceived to be overweight or obese, compared to normal-weight physicians.”

Most of the time patients hear our advice and are open to change, sure. But, with each encounter, they also see our appearance. We have a responsibility as medical providers to be healthy and to set an example.

2. Exercise improves your mood. There a many an anecdotal story out there regarding exercise and how it helps our mood. Just ask the enthusiastic marathon runner who lives next door to me. He’ll regale you about how he “taps into the runner’s high” and how “a good long run gives him energy for days.”

Turns out, there is data to support Mr. 26.2.

The psychiatry literature is loaded with studies that show the beneficial effects of exercise on our mood, on our ability to better handle stress and reducing anxiety and depression. Regular exercise can also improve self-esteem and cognitive function.

Given the skyrocketing rates of physician burnout, the psychological boost that exercise provides can be a godsend.

3. Exercise improves sleep. I have three growing kids at home, and I have found that my wife and I are guaranteed a trip to crazy-town if any of their four basic needs aren’t met: access to food, access to water, appropriate temperature and adequate sleep. I should admit that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as I undergo my own “Teen Wolf” transition when I am sleep deprived.

Exercise can play a role here too: from college students to the elderly, pregnant women to obese men, studies show the sleep quality of all is improved with regular exercise.

The American Heart Association sums it up best: a regular amount of moderate exercise helps you “fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly.”

4. Exercise and the prevention of chronic diseases. A quick search of “exercise and disease prevention” on Pubmed will yield literally thousands of articles that deal with exercise and the prevention of chronic diseases. I’ll list a few ailments here that can be thwarted by some good ol’ vitamin E — exercise that is, including, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, obesity, osteoporosis and premature death.

Personally, I am a big fan of living a life full of quality (and ideally quantity), and the knowledge that I have some control over whether these diseases are present or absent in my life spurs me toward activity.

5. Exercise and physical change. There is no denying that our physical appearance matters. And I can appreciate how the slow speed at which a physical change occurs can be somewhat demoralizing. I encourage you to keep a few things in mind:

You are still reaping the benefits of exercise even when your physical appearance seems slow to change.

  • Change takes time. While some of the benefits of exercise are seen almost immediately (improved mood, sleep health, and cognitive function), muscle hypertrophy and improved body composition take weeks to months.
  • You’re most likely to succeed if you combine exercise with eating healthy. The unofficial word on the street is that physical change is 80 percent related to diet and 20 percent exercise.
  • Showing up is half the battle. A sloppy workout is better than no workout.

6. It’s not about vanity; it’s about pride. Maybe a subtle distinction here, but I think understanding the difference between vanity and pride will help with success.

Don’t embark on your journey for improved health and physical improvement out of boastfulness or to achieve the admiration of others. That is what I mean by vanity.

Rather, start this journey knowing you can take pleasure in having done something good or having succeeded in a difficult enterprise. This is what I mean by pride. Proper pride, if you will. It is from this mindset that you can draw motivation, pat yourself on the back for successes, pick yourself up after setbacks and know that you are doing your part in being the best version of yourself.

The author is an anonymous physician who blogs at the Fit Physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com


Leave a Comment

Most Popular

✓ Join 150,000+ subscribers
✓ Get KevinMD's most popular stories