I’m trying desperately to hold on to the incredible feelings, thoughts and emotions of my most recent trip to Costa Rica. Never in my life have I felt more satisfaction and accomplishment in being able to see what my body was capable of doing. In fact, just a few short years ago, neither my mind nor my body could have even conceived the idea that it was capable of such acts of determination and athleticism.
Four years ago I weighed over 250 pounds. I had just finished medical school and started my residency at a hospital in North Carolina. Most days it seems to me such a travesty that those of us in the medical field cannot follow our own advice and often don’t have or make time for self-care. How is it possible that while filling my brain with science and medicine and the knowledge of how to heal people I failed to look in the mirror and take care of myself? I’m not alone in making those mistakes, and the medical community is finally acknowledging our shortcomings in this arena as it pertains to both ourselves and our patients.1
And yet, we still have a long way to go with burnout/fatigue rates of over 50% in most sub-specialties and one of the highest suicide and drug/alcohol abuse rates of any profession. Those kinds of statistics argue even more so for self-care and proper stewardship of our bodies and minds. I am often asked what stimulated or motivated my change and how I did it. Well, there aren’t any easy answers, as is often the case. For me, it started while on a cruise vacation with my sister. We went on the trip, and I was frustrated every single day with my own fatigue and tiredness, my lack of motivation to do anything, and overwhelming feelings of unhappiness. I had personally struggled with my weight previously, but had lost about 50 pounds at the end of middle school/beginning of high school. Things went well during high school and into the beginning of my undergraduate education because I was involved in marching band and played softball religiously. However, by the time I finished my bachelor’s degree and then started medical school, the stress of both my own and my parent’s expectations crippled my time management skills, not to mention the hours of sitting on my butt studying. But as I went on the cruise trip, my mind cried out desperately to do the adventurous things that I love while at the same time my body balked and refused to cooperate.
When I looked at the pictures from the trip, I was devastated by feelings of failure, dissatisfaction, anger, and unhappiness. I hated the way I looked and felt. I was lonely and at the time I had a great number of negative thoughts that in summary told myself: “Well, no one is going to love you looking like this.” Now, I know many of those feelings and thoughts are very negative and unhealthy, and don’t necessarily reflect how I feel now, but I’m being honest here. So at that point, March of 2012, I made some big decisions. I decided that I didn’t want to feel like that anymore and that I had much larger plans for my life. I wanted to experience the world, I wanted to hike, swim, bike, and run. I wanted to wear a bikini and feel comfortable. I wanted to find my husband and be comfortable in my own skin with him. I wanted to be as confident with my body as I was in my mind. Not to mention the fact that diabetes and heart disease runs in my family. I didn’t want to take 10 pills a day, or lose my eyesight, or even worse, a limb.
Once I had set my goals and established my motivations, I had to figure out to attain the end results. Well, I’ll put on my doctor hat for a moment and tell you that there are no easy answers, no quick-fix pill, no work-arounds, and no shortcuts. Simply put, I had to eat less than I put out in calories burned. Now yes, there is ongoing research that demonstrates that certain types of food react in different ways for different people. That is all true, and our gut microbiome does play a role. Perhaps in the future, we will be able to perform simple genetic tests and design specific “diets” to help us all maintain, gain or lose weight to be at our healthiest. But at the end of the day right now as we understand it, calories in must be less than calories out.
And that is exactly what I did. In the beginning, I focused mainly on the food that I was eating, but I slowly added in exercise. I stuck to lean meats, vegetables and fruits for the most part and used an app called MyFitnessPal to keep track of everything. Eventually, I had lost about 40 pounds and decided to start running. The first app I downloaded was couch to 5k. It… was… so…hard in the beginning! But the more weight I lost, the more I enjoyed it. As time went on, I continued to lengthen my distance, eventually getting up to around 8 miles, with a few short walks breaks interspersed. Around that time, a coworker of mine invited me to check out a local running group called Galloway. If you aren’t familiar, Galloway is a national running group with local groups set up in scattered cities across the country. They utilize walk-run intervals to first of all, minimize injury, secondly increase Endurance, and thirdly increased speed with the goal of run/walking half and full marathons. That first fall season, under some friendly competitive pressure from my buddy, we signed up to run the Triple Crown. The Triple Crown was basically three separate half marathons in the Raleigh, NC area which are run within a span of about 5 weeks. And lo and behold, we did it!
From that point on, running has been my go-to therapy session. I’ve run a total of three marathons, including my favorite, the Chicago Marathon, which I ran in 2014.
There is no better medicine for the stress of the day than pounding it out on the pavement or trail. Except maybe using a sledgehammer to hit a tractor tire; that’s pretty good therapy as well. Not only have I run marathons, but I’ve been able to realize some of my dreams of travel and adventure. I’ve been to New Zealand to hike the Milford Track and most recently to the Chakra Eco-Lodge in Costa Rica with Run Like a Girl to hike Cerro Ena.
Now, to be fair, there have been bumps along the road. But at my lowest, I managedto lose 100 pounds. Which is unbelievable to me still and absolutely incredible. More recently, I spent last spring studying for my medical board exams, which resulted in some weight gain. However, I have been able to maintain my weight loss at 85 pounds and plan to continue gaining lean muscle and losing the excess fat tissue. I now also cross train with CrossFit boot camps about three times a week and occasionally fit in a ride on my bike on Sunday afternoons.
Some of the more important lessons that I learned on this journey have included realizing what my triggers were and still are and having a plan in place to deal with them. Stress and the “busy-ness” of my job are probably the most common that I encounter. Being a doctor is hard work, but at the end of the day I now realize that if I don’t take care of myself, I won’t be able to take care of my patients to the best of my ability. And sometimes, you have to decide what your priorities in life are. Sadly, watching all 15-million seasons of fill-in-the-blank TV show just doesn’t measure up to a life full of quality and adventure. Control is also a big issue for me, and sometimes I’d like to just lose control of at least ONE THING in my life. Or not have to worry about what I’m eating for lunch or dinner. But I’ve learned that losing control of what I eat just isn’t an option for my goals. That doesn’t mean that I deprive myself; I’ve learned that doesn’t work either. But it does mean seeing food as fuel for my daily activities. Maybe that means I let go of something else that isn’t as much of a priority, like maybe the dishes don’t get done right away or I let the laundry pile up a little bit. At least my body is healthy and what I put in it fuels adventures!
What is my next adventure? Well, I’ve got a half marathon planned in May. Perhaps next year I’ll be ready for a half ironman? I’m not sure, but at least now I have options. At least now I’ve seen what my body is capable of. At least I’m confident that I can put my body to doing whatever my mind can possibly imagine. I run this body and not the other way around.
1Leventer-Roberts M, Zonfrillo MR, Yu S, Dziura JD, Spiro DM. Overweight Physicians During Residency: A Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Study.Journal of Graduate Medical Education. 2013;5(3):405-411. doi:10.4300/JGME-D-12-00289.1.