How exercise can make you a better doctor

By Melissa Sammy, MDLinx
Published September 27, 2019

Key Takeaways

Patients are more likely to listen to physicians who are healthy, researchers have shown. A physician who is mentally alert, energetic, and maintains a healthy weight inspires a certain degree of confidence.

By the same token, a physician’s fitness (or lack thereof) may affect his or her patient care. In a survey of 500 primary care physicians, researchers found that a doctor’s own size affected how he or she managed a patient with weight issues. Ultimately, overweight physicians were less likely to broach the topic of weight loss with heavy patients—with a staggering 93% of doctors diagnosing obesity in their patients only if they believed that their own weight was equal to or less than that of their patients.

With over 20% of American adults currently affected by obesity—a chronic disease that costs the US healthcare system nearly $150 billion annually, and increases the risks of many other dangerous health conditions like heart disease and stroke—leading by example is more important than ever. After all, you can’t ask your patients to take care of themselves if you aren’t doing the same.

Doctors are in a unique position to not only mitigate the severity of obesity epidemic, but indirectly influence the overall health of their patients on several levels. Practicing self-care, which is often overlooked by physicians themselves, is the first step. With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at different types of physical activity that can improve your health and fitness, as well as boost your productivity in clinical practice.


We all know that physical activity is imperative for maintaining a healthy lifestyle over the long term, but did you know that exercise can also boost your productivity? In one study involving approximately 200 employees from 3 different organizations, researchers found that exercise increased employees’ mood and, in turn, their productivity—by an overall 21%. Specifically, concentration on work increased by 21%, work completion on time increased by 22%, working without unscheduled breaks increased by 25%, and motivation to work increased by 41%. Furthermore, 80% of participants reported better interpersonal skills on workout days.

In a US study conducted by Minnesota researchers, higher levels of physical activity were associated with “reduced decrements in quality of work performed and overall job performance”—an important consideration for doctors, given that more than one-third of US physicians have been sued for medical malpractice due to harmful medical errors.

In addition, some researchers have shown that regular exercise may offer neurocognitive benefits for prolonged mental acuity. According to early research involving mice, weight training may improve cognition and memory performance, reversing impairment caused by inflammation, and jumpstarting neurogenesis.

And here’s the best part: To obtain these benefits, you don’t necessarily have to sweat up a storm. For a boost in productivity, researchers have shown that low-intensity workouts—including cycling, yoga, golf, dancing, and walking—may offer the greatest effects.

Health and fitness

In addition to boosting productivity, regular physical activity has a host of other health benefits, including improved sleep quality, stress management, cardioprotection, and immunoprotection.

Improved sleep. Moderate aerobic exercise can help you fall asleep quicker and increase the amount of deep sleep you get, during which time the brain and body go into recovery mode. But, experts caution that timing plays a key role in how well you’ll rest at night following this type of physical activity. Exercise too late in the day can interfere with your bedrest. Individuals engaging in aerobic exercise—such as running—should do so at least 1-2 hours before going to bed to allow the “brain time to wind down,” notes Charlene Gamaldo, MD, medical director, Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep, Howard County General Hospital.

Reduced stress. Exercise reduces stress by stimulating the production of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators that are responsible for the “runner’s high” and feelings of relaxation. Virtually any type of exercise can induce stress relief, though physical activity involving muscular meditation—using large muscle groups in rhythmic, repetitive actions—may work best.

For individuals with arthritis, swimming may be the best workout because it’s less weight-bearing. For those looking for the added benefit of improving their balance—an important component of fitness—Tai chi may be a beneficial option.

Sex can also be a great stress reliever due to the flood of endorphins and other hormones that elevate mood during the act. In one study, researchers found that “sexual activity may potentially be considered, at times, as a significant exercise,” with an energy expenditure of about 3.6 calories per minute.

Heart health. Physical activity is one of the most effective tools of cardioprotection—it can strengthen your heart muscle, regulate your weight, and circumvent artery damage from high cholesterol, high blood sugar, and high blood pressure levels that can lead to a fatal heart attack or stroke.

The two best types of physical activity for heart health include aerobic exercise and resistance training. Aerobic exercise promotes greater blood circulation throughout the body, which can lower your blood pressure levels and heart rate. For the greatest heart health benefits, experts recommend 30 minutes of aerobic exercise daily for at least 5 days per week. In addition to running and jogging, dancing, playing tennis or basketball, and vigorous cycling are other great forms of aerobic exercise.

For those with a high body fat percentage looking to improve their cardiovascular health, then resistance or strength training may be the best bet. This type of exercise can reduce fat while building leaner muscle mass, and also improve your cholesterol levels. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, at least 2 nonconsecutive days of resistance training per week is ideal. Resistance training can include the use of free weights, such as dumbbells, or other types of activities such as push-ups, squats, and chin-ups.

Immune system support. Regular exercise can improve your overall fitness, which helps your immune system perform at its optimal level. Some researchers have even shown that moderate-intensity exercise and meditation may help reduce the number of colds and respiratory infections you get. Furthermore, in one systematic review of randomized, controlled trials, researchers found that yoga may support the immune system by reducing the effects of chronic inflammation.

When it comes to physical activity, the most important thing is commitment. For the busy physician, however, this can be somewhat of a challenge, with your time often being sucked up by maintaining EMRs and seemingly never-ending clinical consultations. But, as a medical expert, you know just how important exercise is, and should strive to practice what you preach.

Even devoting just 5 minutes a day to exercise can make a difference. Your mental faculties will become sharper, you’ll feel less stressed and more energetic, and your heart and joints will thank you for any weight loss you undergo. And if that’s not reason enough to get moving, consider the positive example you’ll be setting for your patients. They’ll be more apt to listen to a walking, talking example of good physical health, which may cut down on the number of office visits and, ultimately, free up more time in your schedule.

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