How I Stayed Fit in Medical School: Finding Your Stride, and Maintaining/Gaining Fitness While Training to Be a Doctor

Liana Meffert


January 31, 2022

When I was still in college and juggling a heavy course load, collegiate athletics, and medical school applications, I remember wondering where I could find more hours in the day.

Staying active was vital to my sense of well-being, and yet I knew it would be the first thing to go when I was no longer part of a team that required I set aside that time. Who would hold me accountable to myself?

Now I'm nearing the end of my fourth year of medical school, and though I miss being on a team, creating my own fitness goals has been uniquely rewarding. I can also tell you that it's not only possible, but recommended.

By the age of 18, I had completed three half-Ironman triathlons. I ran cross-country and track in high school and college and continued to train for road and trail races throughout medical school. I tell you this only to demonstrate that sports, and specifically running, have played a central role in my life for well over a decade.

That said, I want to acknowledge that physical activity looks different for everyone, depending on fitness level, health (or injury), weather, what you enjoy, and your goals. I go to school in Iowa, and some of my classmates find snowshoeing or cross-country skiing among their favorite ways to decompress.

A good place to start is by making a clear argument for exercise. Time is an invaluable commodity in medical school and likely will be for the rest of your career. It's easy to adopt the fallible notion that taking time for fitness is losing time. This logic, while rampant, is misguided.

Studies have shown that exercise aids in cognitive function, decreases stress, improves mood, and reduces chronic disease burden. If exercise were a drug, it'd be more popular than statins. It's not lost time; it's time you get back with interest.

There will always be something that feels more pressing than putting down your phone and lacing up your running shoes. If you find yourself vowing to work out at the end of the day and yet find yourself coming home late, again, without the energy to make dinner, much less exercise, think about ways to make time for it in the morning.

It's also essential to find what motivates you. I have a friend who only lets herself watch reality TV shows when she's on the elliptical. If I'm working out indoors for the day, chances are good that I'm texting or watching Netflix. Physical activity isn't a punishment; it's your chance for a break. You can get more out of exercise when you reframe it as such.

If you're goal-oriented or motivated by challenges, consider signing up for local competitions or clearly outline your own fitness goals. Training for something can be motivating while also providing a structure and timeline for your workouts.

My boyfriend used to run with me intermittently. He ran to keep me company, especially on days when it was wet or cold, or early mornings, when my run couldn't wait for the sun to rise.

His relationship with running changed when we signed up for a 5k together and I zealously printed out training schedules for both of us. We hung his on his fridge. Several weeks later, I came over and saw that he had diligently been X-ing out each of his training runs. Supplied with a goal and a schedule, he thrived and ran his first 5k faster than he would have ever thought possible.

Some of my most challenging months of medical school took place during my surgical rotations. I needed running more than ever, which meant running before the sun was up so I could make it to the hospital for early-morning rounds. Even though I was running less, and working out less, my body felt tired and sluggish from stress and lack of sleep.

It was frustrating to see my running times slow, but I also intuitively realized that I needed to go easy on myself and my body. In doing so, I reframed my goals and intentions for my runs and workouts; they were no longer about gaining fitness. Running was for finding solace in the early hours, chasing my shadow through the orange street-lit glow before my day began.

One observational study highlights the multidimensional nature of running injuries. The 2021 study found that runners who sustained injuries not only made more self-reported changes to their training (running intensity and time spent running) but also reported more environmental changes, such as changes in running surfaces and routes. When considered together, injured runners made more changes to their schedules than uninjured runners.

As I had intuited during my surgical rotation, when other elements of your life are stressful or changing, the best thing to do may be keeping everything else in your life the same, particularly when it comes to injury. We are not athletes in isolation, even when participating in a solitary sport.

I'll finish with a few simple tips. Your body knows more about its needs than you do — even though you're studying it diligently — so listen to it. Choose to do activities you love with people you love. And, as my college coach said, as all good coaches do, run your own race. Only you know what it took to get to the starting line.

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About Liana Meffert
Liana Meffert is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Iowa's Carver College of Medicine. She has previously been awarded an Academy of American Poets Poetry Prize, Stanford's Irvin David Yalom Literary Award, University of Iowa's Carol A. Bowman Creative Writing Award, honorable mentions for the William Carlos Williams Poetry Award, and the F. Sean Hodge Prize for Poetry in Medicine. Her work has been featured in The Examined Life and The Healing Muse, among others.


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