March 28, 2016

Health : Physicality

One way that I find making work feel continually refreshing is to make my time outside of it very different and separate, while at the same time investing in things that also contribute positively to my work.  One of my main personal methods is physical activity, which is something that is pretty much impossible to integrate into the daily work of being a medical provider. Not only that, but our profession often rests on a perception and expectation of our cerebral selves. We are called on to use our minds, and we form identities based on our thinking selves.

For that reason, I learned in medical school to develop my physical self. This can be hard for people like myself who have spent much of their lives in academic settings, rewarded for a specific type of mental work--work that is quite valuable but also narrow in its scope. I grew up with some natural inclinations towards physical activity; I loved running and enjoyed various sports as a kid. But as relative strengths in other areas became more reinforced, I spent less time on cultivating these interests.  When you're young, you don't want to do anything you're not really good at--you latch onto strengths as your identity, and the exploratory part of yourself is more timid (speaking from my own experience only). As you get older and you may want to explore things for fun or health, it gets harder to start things that you aren't good at or haven't spent time developing.

I used to run a lot when I was younger, and it fell by the wayside when I started college and became immersed in my studies.  It wasn't until years later in medical school, when I had a particularly hard time during my clinical rotations maintaining energy, that I thought to take it up again.  After school I would struggle to find the mental and physical oomph to even eat dinner before falling into bed. Running came to mind as a simple activity that wouldn't require much thought that could bring back some human feeling in me. Despite having enjoyed moderate distances when younger, it was initially embarrassingly difficult to stay running through a mile.

But because I wasn't doing this in any structured kind of way or for a grade, I felt little pressure. In some settings this could make it harder to be motivated. But when everything else in your life feels required, there is joy in doing certain things by choice and learning how to get better at it in your own way and pace. Running I find is particularly therapeutic in that way, because you can literally learn and improve your pace. Eventually I was running six miles every day, and that hour was my main method of getting through the grueling months of my surgery rotations.

It's also hard to get into certain activities.  I recently had the awesome opportunity to attend the first ever women's climbing festival in Bishop, California.  Most of the women I met there were in fields that lent themselves to physical activity: employees of REI, outdoor guides, physical therapists. This community, often grounded in a spirit of wandering and exploration that can be incompatible with the world of structured medicine and healthcare, is not one I get to experience often in my work life. It's easy to feel out of place, and in many ways I did. I wasn't as experienced as a lot of the climbers. I'd started climbing much later in life. I wasn't surrounded on a daily basis by people who defined themselves physically.

                                                                           Mount Saint Helena, California. February 2016.

In addition to being intimidated, I saw this as an opportunity to fully relish feeling out of place. Despite having much less skill and familiarity with bouldering, I decided to take a workshop on this type of climbing rather than another type that I was more comfortable with. And I left in awe of what the women could do with practice and determination, and I went home itching to develop skills in something I did pretty poorly. Because I felt out of place, and because of that it was a new world of opportunity to make a place for myself. Forming new parts of yourself is something I really think can prevent burnout.

So outside of the natural health benefits of being physical, I've found this unfamiliarity and lack of skill to be the best reason to pursue physical activity outside of work. It opens new worlds of discovery and learning with wide and unstructured possibility, sentiments that can be missing in work that you've been trained through formal schooling to do. I find that by pushing myself to learn skills in an entirely different way, and add parts to myself, I not only relish my time outside of work but also infuse that excitement into my work.

And for those inevitable times when my work identity is challenged and rendered frail at work--when a patient yells at me or I realize I've made a medical error or I'm hours behind paperwork--I can fall back on other parts of my identity to hold me strong. When work slaps me in the face and kicks my butt and I can say, I'm going to try to climb a wall or run a mile after this, things in me that might otherwise crumble instead stay in tact.


  1. really enjoyed this post. you articulate this common struggle to find balance very well.

  2. It helps to have been taught to bike and swim...which I plan on posting about in the future :)

  3. Man, I really admire your attitude about this and really wish I felt/was the same way!

    1. You do it in other ways! I think it's just about finding something that suits you. We can talk about it sometime over brunch & drinks :)

  4. I love this:"I saw this as an opportunity to fully relish feeling out of place." When you're trained to be over prepared and always in control, it's hard to put yourself in situations where you might feel out of place, much less relish it. Great challenge to do the same!


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