DISCLAIMER: I am not a doctor (yet!) or physical trainer. Please always consult your doctor before trying anything you may read on my blog.
The other day, I did a quick workout to try and rid myself of the post-conference and end of Daylight Savings funk that I’ve been in all week. It worked well enough — I got some good studying in before bed and woke up feeling rested for the first time in over a week. It actually made me start reminiscing about my own journey from not caring for daily physical exercise to using exercise to alter my mood and make me more productive. I tried out plenty of sports as a kid, but spent most of the time picking weeds during rec soccer games or hating that I had to be outside. I just wanted to sit inside and read. Yeah, I’ve been interested in learning forever. I’m still bitter over a summer reading contest I lost…the winner was the librarian’s daughter, which I thought should be disqualifying…
During my senior year of college, I took a class called Man’s Food, which was a basic nutrition course and it made me question everything I knew about healthy eating. I became a bit too regimented in what I ate for a few months — oatmeal or eggs for breakfast; a sandwich, carrots, and an apple for lunch; and then it was up in the air for dinner– but I lost a good, and needed, 10 pounds. Then I started walking on the treadmill every other day and eventually, ran my first half marathon. It was an incredible accomplishment and also some of the worst physical pain and exhaustion I have ever felt.
Running 13.1 miles in Orlando in October can be brutal — it was still so hot and humid and my longest training runs had been during D.C.’s lovely crisp fall. But I did it, recovered, and then wanted more. I even convinced a group of colleagues to run a half marathon with me! [Yes, we’re still friends!] I eventually reached a point where I started running less and joined a the gym so I could try out Bodypump class, which I learned about years ago from Julie of Peanut Butter Fingers. I went to that class twice a week until I moved to Philadelphia — the first time I took it, I was so sore I couldn’t walk without pain for nearly a week!
My other form of exercise was my walking commute to work. And it was during those walks that I became distraught by the number of kids I saw each morning heading to school eating Doritos and hot dogs from 7-11 for breakfast and frustrated that I didn’t know what policies and interventions could put them on a healthier track. I was working in D.C. at the time and the Affordable Care Act had passed a few years earlier. It was a source of constant conversation. I wanted to know more about how the healthcare system influenced individual health and how to design policies that would encourage healthier habits. So, I decided to get a Master of Public Health degree to find the answers. And four years later, with a graduate degree and nearly a year of medical school under my belt, I still don’t totally have them.
While I loved learning about health policy in graduate school, I was also aggravated by the political machinations that could keep a well-intended policy from ever being enacted, or never knowing if your policy reached it’s intended target. [This is seriously starting to sound like my medical school personal statement…] I knew that a career as a policy wonk or public health researcher was not going to be fulfilling enough for me, so I set about figuring out the best place to fit in the healthcare world. Enter Clare and Anna’s blogs, where I learned, for the first time, that I could actually go to medical school later in life.
During my time in Philadelphia for my post bacc, I hardly exercised. I was in an intensive 11-month program to complete over 30 basic science credits and by the last few months, I was also studying for the MCAT (the entrance test for medical school). I didn’t see exercise as a useful way to spend my limited time and I barely had the mental or physical energy to sustain any sort of exercise routine on top of my regimented study schedule.
But I’ve tried to change my tune in medical school. Granted, it’s taken me almost an entire semester to get to the place where I realize that more regular exercise is good for my mental health, mental clarity, and sleep needs and I’ve also been fascinated by the impact of exercise as we’ve progressed in our cardiology module. I was stunned to learn that we start forming fatty streaks (the precursor of atherosclerosis) in our arteries as early as our teens and that exercise can reduce the progress of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease! Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women, so reducing our risk factors for developing it can be instrumental in living a longer and healthier life. I’ve also been learning about prevention and cardiovascular disease reversal from TheVeggieMD and Dr. Renne Paro through lifestyle modification.
I’m not planning to become 100% plant-based in my eating habits or even exercise everyday, but I’m taking good sized steps to be in control of my future health. I have some genetic risk as well for hypertension and high cholesterol, which are also predictors of future cardiovascular disease risk. I’m trying to take what I learn in school and devise a plan for myself to maintain my health, as if I were my own patient.
My personal pet peeve is health professionals who do not take their own advice, especially given the current obesity epidemic. Of course, there are many factors that have driven the rise of obesity rates in the last few decades — genetic, environmental, cultural, socioeconomic — but some of the factors are modifiable and we must tackle them in the clinic as well as at home.
As I mentioned above, I still have no single solution to getting people on a healthier track through public policy, although taxing sugar-sweetened beverages is one I’m willing to hang my hat on — drink water water water! But I’m starting by taking the advice I will give to patients — eat more vegetables and less sugar, move your body, stay hydrated. This module is a serious reminder to care for my own body and has reignited my passion for researching and developing public health and health policy interventions that target nutrition, exercise, and wellness.
I’m not going to reverse the rising obesity and cardiovascular disease trends on my own, but each day I learn a little bit more to help my future patients and get a clearer picture the type of medicine I want to practice, beyond simply choosing a specialty. And with that, it’s time to get in a quick workout before class!