Okay let’s be honest, medical school doesn’t provide one with the most stress-free environment. The constant pressure is bound to take its toll, and it can end up giving students some really nasty habits and coping mechanisms. I remember the grind in med school all too well and what it ended up doing to me. Prior to joining medical school, I used to be involved with athletics; playing football and working out at the gym were two of my favorite pastimes. Two that I didn’t think that I could live without, or so I thought. Until med school happened.
By the end of first year, the pressure had gotten to me so much that not only had I completely forgotten about sports, but I also ended up gaining a whopping 15kg (33 lbs) of fat, owing to very unhealthy eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle which revolved around exams and assignments. After getting done with my first year annual exams, I looked myself in the mirror and barely recognized the person I had become. That was the moment when I decided that I could not let this carry on. I had to take control of my life, because an unhealthy ‘health worker’ is just an oxymoron.
I know med school is suffocating and the insane amount of stress makes it almost impossible to cultivate healthy habits that help out with physical fitness, but there is a way out. That’s why I will be sharing with you four of the tips and tricks which not only helped me to shred the 15kg of added fat, but also helped me gain some lean muscle, whilst keeping up with my academic duties.
- Have a proper workout schedule.
A man without a plan is as good as a primate on the loose. Unfortunately, I learnt this the hard way. Fix a time for your physical exertion, be it weight training or cardio, and stick to it. Planning your workouts ahead of time is crucial, because if you think you will ‘go with the flow’ you will most probably end up missing your training altogether. The workout time that suited me the most was 6-7 am. Starting the day off with an endorphin rush always set the tone for the rest of my day, leaving me feeling refreshed and energized. Some of my peers also like to leave the exercise bit for the last hours of their day, but that only works for the most motivated of them. Life as a medical student is exhausting and more often than not, if you relegate your workouts to the night hours, you will find yourself skipping them and preferring the warmth of your bed. However, if you work out regularly and have no problem dragging yourself to the gym, the late hours can work for you as well. Remember, consistency is key!
- Track your calories!
If you are actually serious about getting fit, stop what you are doing and install a reliable calorie counter in your phone right away. I would recommend Yazio or MyFitnessPal for this job. By keeping a check of your calories, you’d be surprised to see how many calories you consume owing to mindless munching and unnecessary snacking. If, like me, your goal is to lose fat, you’ll need a healthy caloric deficit to get the job done. Monitoring a caloric deficit is impossible without tracking your calories. These apps are fairly easy to use and immensely beneficial for your health. Just keep on adding your consumed items to your food log in the app and try to stay well within your set goal. They will help you with the nutritional status of every food item and notify you if the items are exceedingly high in fats or sugars. These will assist you in adopting healthy eating habits and contribute to a better, more balanced diet.
- Try intermittent fasting to lose fat.
This tip can be incredibly useful if you are trying to lose fat. There is substantial clinical evidence which suggests that intermittent fasting is significantly effective in burning fat when executed perfectly. All you have to do is divide your day into a 16:8 or 14:10 fasting/eating split and then count your calories (i.e. fast for 16 hours-including sleeping-and only eat for an 8 hour block. Or 14 hours fasting, 10 hours eating). Your diet is the single most important factor when it comes to maintaining physical fitness and you will be surprised to see how much of an effect a simple dietary change can have without even going to the gym. During the fasting window, you can have water and other sugar-free fluids like black coffee but you have to avoid anything laden with calories. Intermittent fasting uses a foolproof scientific backing: Our insulin levels will drop during meals if we don’t eat, and our fat cells will be able to release the accumulated sugar to be used as energy. If we allow our insulin levels to drop, we lose weight. The whole point is to cause insulin levels to drop low enough and for long enough so that fat can be burned off.
- Convince a friend to tag along.
The more, the merrier! Trust me, you will find this piece of advice indispensable. When a single person embarks upon a fitness journey, he is more likely to fail than he is when paired up with more people with the same goal. On your own, you can easily run out of motivation fuel and convince yourself to skip a day or eat junk, but with a partner or more linked up, you will have twice the motivation. You will pick each other up when the other isn’t feeling it. In case you are wondering, this isn’t conjecture but is rather backed by scientific evidence. A study from Michigan State University, for one, found that exercising whilst paired with a partner motivated subjects to work harder and longer, compared with those working out alone, thus improving overall fitness results. Working on your fitness isn’t a sprint, rather, it’s a marathon. The famous African proverb complements it perfectly: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’
As future healthcare professionals, med students should practice what we preach and let our health do the talking. More importantly, good physical health greatly supplements your mental health and makes you more productive and energetic. Undoubtedly, books make up the biggest chunk of a med student’s life, but balancing it with barbells is equally important. One might end up becoming an incredibly knowledgeable doctor by losing himself to the world of books, but what good is that knowledge if your body fails to keep up with the insane physical demands of the profession? So, here’s to hoping for a generation of fit doctors, both mentally and physically.