AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 28, Number 4, 2019


Fitness for the Busy Neurosurgeon

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It can be difficult to balance the rigors of operating, clinic, family and hobbies with trying to squeeze in workouts or time at the gym. A lot of us also have travel commitments related to research, advocacy, leadership or educational training. Trying to remain mindful of health and wellness is a constant challenge. I do not claim expertise in this area, but offer the following advice on some simple steps I have taken to fit in exercise and good healthy habits in an already packed day.

  1. Take the Stairs

As we make rounds in the hospital or while we are traveling, the gym can seem like a far-away dream. After a long day, the last thing I want to do is go to the gym and have an enthusiastic workout. Instead, when possible (and safe!), I take the stairs. This includes during rounds or just trying to get to and from the office. Today, there are many ways to easily track this activitiy – from Fitbits to smartphones – to track my steps, so at the end of the day I have a sense of how active I was. The AHA recommends at least 10,000 steps per day. This helps reduce the guilt I feel for not making it to the gym.

  1. Calorie Counter Apps

There are many free apps available to download on your smartphone that help track meals and snacks, while integrating steps recorded from your phone. Some of this meal information is specific to restaurants and the granularity provided in terms of meals and portion sizes removes most of the guesswork from the process. I have been using one of these apps and what I like about it is that I do not feel like I have to deny myself. If there is a dessert or treat that I crave, I enjoy it and record the calories. I know I have to eat less and exercise more at some point to make up for it. I know some folks who will not eat dessert or will skip tasty additions to a meal to be mindful of calories. What is the point of being alive if we cannot enjoy a snack every now and again? Obviously, each individual’s metabolism differs. But, for the most part, it is a math equation: the calories you ingest and the calories you expend. So do less of the first and more of the second to make up for indulgence.


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  1. Keep Fruits and Nuts Handy

The worst time for “cheating” with unhealthy, fattening snacks is when you are hungry. This might be at the end of a long case or a long day. I find my own cravings for sweet things peak at that time. It can be helpful to keep some fresh or dried fruit and nuts handy; these healthier snacks give you a quick calorie boost and depending upon the type of fruit or nuts, may provide satiety. I find I make the worst food decisions when I am famished. The goal is to snack enough so I can make it home and, hopefully, prepare a healthier meal.

  1. Conference Food: Temptation that is Not Worth It!

Whether you are traveling to a meeting or attending a morning conference, you may see donuts (or bear claws … or muffins … or croissants … or orange juice) tempting you. Loading up on sugar, while tempting, is not good for your daily calorie count. I am not much of a breakfast person, so if I eat, I try to graze on fruits (or oatmeal with raisins/nuts/cinnamon, if I am hungry). Your palate will adjust. It will not be fun at first, but within a few days, your tastes adapt.

  1. Food while Traveling

The only way our collective dining out choices will change is if more of us voice desires for menus with healthy, balanced options. When picking a restaurant (or joining a group outing) voicing interest in a menu that provides fresh food and protein alternatives may be helpful to give healthier options..

  1. Downtime: Stay Active

We all have a million emails and voicemails to catch up on — especially when we travel. I try to do at least the phone calling when I am walking. For instance, as I wait for a flight on layover (or wait for an OR), I take a walk. This does not need to be somewhere in the wilderness; it can be up and down the hallway. Continuously moving while getting through a to-do list (at least part of a to-do list) can be helpful on many levels.

  1. Hobbies: Think about Activity

If you are like me, sleep and cleaning are at the top of the agenda when you have a free evening or weekend. In terms of hobbies, trying to be active by doing something you enjoy helps foster a lifelong commitment to physical fitness. A few years ago, I took ballroom dancing lessons — I had a blast! Learning different dance patterns engaged my brain, while the activity itself was a fun way to burn calories. Developing or nurturing hobbies that require physical activity make staying fit fun, instead of a chore. It may take trialing several hobbies before you find one of interest — keep at it! It is most important to find something you love. Then, working out will not seem like such a chore.

  1. Think about Healthful Eating

A few years ago, I cut out milk from my morning coffee. At first, I was sad and missed the taste. Quickly, I became used to black coffee. Cutting these calories from my diet has really made a difference. Similarly, when you are in between cases and trying to grab a bite in the cafeteria, try to think through the impact of a large caloric meal versus a smaller, more satiating meal, such as cup of soup or yogurt.

Overall, remaining fit and trying to be mindful of diet are persistent challenges for every neurosurgeon. While not a comprehensive list, I hope the above can offer at least some tips for how physical activity and attention to diet can be integrated into your daily routine. Share tricks you have learned in the comments and on Twitter with #SurgeonWellness and tag @AANSNeurosurg – we all do better by learning best practices from each other.

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