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Fitness Tips During Med School: Keeping Your Brain and Body Healthy

Managing stress throughout med school is already difficult enough, but maintaining a healthy lifestyle is a completely different beast. With so many responsibilities flying your way, it’s no surprise if you’ve fallen behind on keeping up with your physical fitness.

But staying fit during this time is far from impossible, and it might even make your med school experience a bit easier! Read on to learn about the advantages of exercise as a med student and strategies for practicing self-care in med school through physical fitness.

My experience staying fit in med school

Before medical school, I worked part-time as a personal trainer. Many people assume the most important part of being a personal trainer is in designing the exercise program, namely: which exercises, how many reps, how many sets, and what weights should I use? But what I found is that the most important part of being a personal trainer was getting people to prioritize exercise through the obstacles they face in life and maintain consistency when life gets hard. 

I was a busy undergraduate student, and I often struggled to find time to exercise. I thought this was unique to myself and my busy schedule. But what I found was that literally, everyone fights the battle of finding time to exercise…it’s not just engineering students with a pre-med focus.

I counseled many clients on how to adapt workouts to fit their lives. These discussions framed my perspective on finding time to exercise in medical school. As medical students, we are busy—maybe busier than the average person in their 20s, and we too can find time to exercise. 

Why is exercising important during medical school?

Exercise to improve your test scores.

Exercising is an investment with many returns. As a trainer who has worked with medical students, I can vouch for the fact that the most common barrier to exercising is finding time in our busy, busy schedules. What I think is sometimes underestimated is the power exercising has to affect our cognition and mental performance. 

Medical students like evidence, right? There is evidence to suggest that exercising in both the short term and long term improves function in areas such as retention, executive function, decision-making, sleep quality, and many others.  

So consider this investment: 15 minutes of exercise per day. The return: reducing your number of Anki cards per day, improving your identification of true content weaknesses, watching lectures with fewer breaks and stronger retention, and boosting your decision-making when choosing between two answers. And that’s not even mentioning the marked improvement in the quality of your sleep…leaving you more energized and better prepared to attack the day tomorrow! 

Nobody has done a beloved RCT on medical student cognition and exercise, but these facts on exercise and cognition are well-established in other populations. Consistent exercise may just be the secret ingredient to better grades. The higher the investment, the better the return. 

Exercise to improve your wellness. 

Over the past several years, burnout among medical students and physicians has been highlighted. I’m sure this isn’t the first time you’ve read about burnout and wellness in the context of medical school. As a mentor and wellness advocate at my school, I preach that the fight against burnout and the fight for wellness should be conscious, consistent, and active. 

Basically, ask yourself what are you doing for yourself—today, tomorrow, next week, and next month? One of the best tools in our toolbox to improve our wellness is exercising. Again medical students love literature, right? What if I told you that there were studies on Pubmed that suggest exercising improves our levels of anxiety, elevates our mood, and improves our response to stress…? Pretty cool, right?

Before a long car ride, you might rotate your tires, change your oil and have your brakes inspected. Why? Well, it would be pretty nice for us to avoid any major car troubles before a 2000-mile trek across the country. Apply the same mentality toward taking care of yourself through medical school. It’s a marathon, not a sprint…so be sure to consistently take time out of your day for yourself.

How do you make time for exercise?

Exercise makes time for itself. Exercising will make your study time, retention, and cognition better…meaning you have to spend less time studying. While I believe this is true, it definitely doesn’t feel like it. It’s hard to convince yourself to spend 30 minutes after class in the gym when you have 60 Uworld questions on your mind.  

Once it’s crunch time (pun intended) and an exam is coming up, all bets are off. My advice is to prioritize a small amount of time every day for exercise. Start with a 10-minute workout and plan ahead for when you’re going to do it. Do it before class starts, first thing after coming home from the hospital, or right before heading into the hospital. Make it part of your daily routine, and make it less of an option.  

Fitness options for busy med students

When you’re pressed for time or motivation, remember it doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t need a personal trainer, a fully stocked gym, or an hour every day to make fitness part of your journey in medical school. Start with a daily walk, a few planks, and some air squats. 

I was used to having 5-10 hours per week available to work out with access to a beautiful gym. During some weeks of medical school, I found 5 hours per week and a nice gym to exercise in. 

During many weeks though, I had to adapt. I shifted to doing push-ups and planks for 10 minutes before walking into the hospital during my surgery months. There were days that I just planned to arrive 10 minutes early so I could do some wall sits and take the hospital stairs. 

It wasn’t perfect, I wasn’t getting to run 3 miles on a treadmill with a few sets of bench presses afterward. But it was way better than doing nothing. Start small, plan ahead, and be consistent. The benefits are worth it, I promise. 

Additional Resources

Looking for even more resources to improve your physical, emotional, or mental health? We’ve got you covered. Show yourself some love with these posts on mastering the art of self-care during medical school:

About the Author

I attended Purdue University for undergrad and completed a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering with a Pre-medical focus and then continued my journey to Indiana University for Medical School. I am currently in my fourth and final year of medical school with the intention of pursuing a career in academic general surgery. Over this time, I have worked as a tutor for over 10 years, including several years working as a tutor in the department of engineering and now tutoring medical school exams exclusively with Blueprint. I am currently interested in either vascular or trauma surgery but as I prepare for general surgery residency, I have an open mind. As a fun fact, I have worked as a personal trainer for 5+ years and currently own and operate a personal training business.