Taking care of yourself

An essential skill for all medical students

Isn’t it ironic that we forget to take care of the one person that matters most, while pursuing the noble responsibility of improving others’ lives?


With steam still erupting from my mug and an enticing amount of foam pillowed over my coffee, I sat down at my fingerprinted glass top desk for another day of learning. To ease myself into study mode, I opened my email, refreshed the inbox and was hit by a seemingly endless list of emails. I felt I’d never make it through them, but in reality, most were from random companies I’d never heard of, telling me how they were handling some worldly event.

Nevertheless, one email caught my eye. It detailed an essay competition for medical students and the prompt to be answered was, “What is the single most important skill all medical students could benefit from having?” The individual selected would receive a scholarship and their work would be published for all to see. Now, if you want to make any medical student’s heart skip a beat, or “throw an arrhythmia,” as I’ve been taught to say, just say the word “published.” Yet, the idea of sharing my thoughts on this intriguing question was more exciting than the prospect of reward.

Unfortunately, the due date came and went as coursework, finals and the first round of board exams approached. Now that I finally have some time, I’d like to respond to the prompt.

A cycle of ignoring our own wellbeing

The majority of medical students, and medical professionals for that matter, are inherently goal-driven and masters at dealing with delayed gratification. Years of sacrifice during early adulthood are spent on undergraduate coursework, volunteering, research and extracurricular activities in order to gain acceptance to medical school. Then, the process repeats itself, ultimately leading to a spot in a residency program and, for some, it begins again with the pursuit of fellowship training. The pressure never ceases and all destinations along the journey require vast time commitments.

Sadly, these professional responsibilities cause many students to neglect their physical and mental wellbeing. This negligence comes in many forms, but it seems most common that adequate sleep, consistent exercise and consumption of a healthy and balanced diet are eliminated first. Therefore, a critical skill all medical students can benefit from having is the ability to take care of oneself. 

The benefits of prioritizing personal wellness are multi-pronged. As medical students and professionals, we all understand the countless advantages of sleep, exercise, organization and a healthy diet. I won’t belabor these points. But if medical students don’t prioritize healthy lifestyles and habits, the coming decades of training and entry into practice will become even more taxing. Further, schedules will only become busier and the number of responsibilities greater, both career-wise and personally. Consistently placing personal wellness on the back burner will only exacerbate the situation, leading to a downward spiral of behaviors.

Discipline in all areas of life, outside of medicine, can be beneficial

To be clear, I’m not advocating for medical students to neglect coursework or not study hard for exams. Quite the contrary. These are the years when we all need to start mastering skills that will take a lifetime to refine. I’d be lying if I said I’ve never sacrificed hours of sleep in order to perform well on a test or skipped a workout due to professional responsibilities. I’m instead referring to the constant mistreatment of one’s body by making less than ideal lifestyle choices, like caffeine induced all-nighters spent studying, daily consumption of fast food because there’s no time to cook, or skipping exercise because it takes too much time away from the books. Anecdotally, I’ve found that showing discipline in areas outside of medicine, like prepping healthy meals for the week on a Sunday or going for a run when I get home from the hospital instead of watching television, can be very beneficial.

There are multiple avenues medical students can take to prioritize wellness. Ultimately, it depends on the facet of life one would like to improve. For example, if a student would like to improve their diet and prepare their own meals, I would recommend setting aside 2-3 hours on a day off to go grocery shopping and meal prep for the upcoming week. With access to an oven, all portions of a meal can be made simultaneously with less than 30 minutes of prep work.

If 2-3 hours away from the books is too big of a commitment, students can listen to a medical-related podcast or lecture to simulate ‘studying’ while cooking. Alternatively, if a student would like to exercise more, it can be beneficial to sign-up for an athletic event, like running a 10K. A running club at your university may even organize such events for little to no cost.

Finding a peer to exercise with can be a great way to connect with others and make you more accountable as well. It’s always beneficial to talk to someone with a handle on an aspect of life you’re trying to improve. They’ll likely offer guidance for your journey and help you reach your goals.

I recognize these ideas are difficult because less time is spent studying. This idea, in and of itself, can add more stress or worry to the mountain we all experience from time to time. Yet, I’ve made it a habit in my own life, and found that it has resulted in improvements. Preparing meals for the week ahead, getting a good night’s rest and exercising 5-7 days per week have all made me a better student. In certain ways, these habits have actually saved me time. I’m more focused and productive throughout each day and less stressed overall.

So, I challenge all medical students and medical professionals to accept this additional “stress” because the payout is worth it. All we have is our health and we won’t get these years back. Isn’t it ironic we forget to take care of the one person that matters most, while pursuing the noble responsibility of improving others’ lives?

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

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Op-ed: Residency during COVID

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