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What About Our Fitness and Nutrition in Medical School?

As medical students, we spend endless hours stuck in a library with tons of books and piles of notes that we try to get into our heads. It is only logical that it is challenging to maintain a healthy diet and exercise routine while aiming for academic excellence.

Few of us eat home-cooked meals on a regular basis and many of us can agree that the most visited area in the university is the canteen. As for water? It is generally replaced by caffeine, which comes in various forms, such as tea, coffee and energy drinks.

With regards to exercise, most of us can outline the guidelines for physical activity. Still, the thought of hitting the gym or getting involved in strenuous exercise or competitive sports is often out of the question. As we progress from our first to final year of medical school, stressors increase in number and magnitude. As a result, we often find ourselves neglecting our own health.

In a cross-sectional analysis study that followed 240 medical students, lack of time (60.5 percent) and exhaustion from academic activities (42 percent), as well as laziness (61.8 percent), were all identified as elements hindering their pursuit of physical activity. Even among those who do exercise, the number that fails to meet the nation’s weekly physical activity recommendations is rather high.

Having said that, there are several reasons why we should care to analyze this matter further. In fact, we ought to consider this not only for our own benefit as current medical students, but also for all our future patients.

First of all, lifestyle changes can be easily applied in our lives and make a radical change in both our current and future health. Secondly, as future doctors, it is hypocritical for us to give advice that we miserably fail to follow. We need to be healthy in order to be able to take care of our patients and perform to the best of our ability.

It is also important to bear in mind that physical inactivity is the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality. It is clear that we should give lifestyle advice to our patients in terms of dietary habits, exercise duration and frequency. In conjunction with our advice, we need to be personally aware of what constitutes a healthy lifestyle and follow it ourselves, particularly since medical students may be at increased risk for chronic diseases.

However, in order to give practical lifestyle advice to our patients as future doctors and lead our own healthy lives, we must be educated in detail on what exactly constitutes a healthy lifestyle. For instance, we need to be aware of how much of each nutrient is considered adequate intake for individuals of different age and gender, what foods can help manage cholesterol and how much exercise is needed to successfully lower the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

This is where the lack of adequate nutrition and lifestyle education in medical schools comes into play.

Seventy-five percent of American junior physicians have stated that they perceive themselves to be inadequately trained to offer diet and physical activity advice to their patients. Likewise, the figure is similar in the United Kingdom.

At this point, let us not forget that for many diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension, lifestyle changes are the first-line treatments offered. Thus, it is of paramount importance for a doctor to acquire sufficient knowledge in the topic of nutrition and lifestyle education.

What is more, doctors who adopt healthy lifestyles themselves constitute better role models for patients and increase a patient’s likelihood to comply with the treatment that they are being offered. To further highlight the importance of this, the Institute of Medicine has stated that preventive strategies, which consist largely of lifestyle choices, “improve health outcomes in the U.S. more efficiently than treatment alone.” These lifestyle changes include exercise, physical activity and quitting habits with a negative health impact, such as smoking and alcohol consumption. Once again, this proves how crucial it is to focus on these preventive strategies and demonstrates why doctors need to be competent in proposing effective lifestyle changes. Given these data, medical schools should increase the teaching hours dedicated to the topics of fitness and nutrition to improve patients’ health, as well as their own students’.

Finally, the application of realistic lifestyle changes by medical students, doctors and patients can greatly reduce health costs. A healthier routine acts as a preventive measure against disease. So, it follows that comprehensive education of medical students in the area of diet and exercise will help them apply these principles to their own personal lives. They will also then be better able to offer useful advice to their future patients.

A focus on fitness, physical activity and nutritional education would greatly benefit medical students by lowering their predisposition to risk factors of chronic illnesses and also help them with stress management. Prioritizing fitness and nutrition in medical education would also result in medical students being better equipped to assist their future patients.

Hence, we all need to appreciate the difference that a healthy lifestyle can make in one’s health. Medical schools should aim to reinforce this — not only for the sake of their own students, but also for the benefit of the greater community.

Elisavet Maria Arsenaki Elisavet Maria Arsenaki (1 Posts)

Contributing Writer

St. George's University of London

Second year medical student at St. George's University of London. Currently a member of the university's student union.