Developing healthy habits as a junior doctor

Eve Walker, an FY1 from Scotland, discusses how doctors can find a harmonious work-life balance as a junior doctor.

When I think of a "healthy lifestyle" a few things come to mind. The Eatwell Plate, grannies gliding through lengths at the local pool, multivitamin adverts – the ones where an optimal-bone-health adult is throwing a child into the air playfully or biting into a raw bell pepper with a grin. Strange.

When it comes to being healthy, there’s no "one size fits all" approach. Despite being one of the most prominent role models in the healthcare field, doctors and medical students aren’t always the best at practising what we preach.

Doctors can struggle to find a harmonious work/life balance just as much as anyone else, and I include myself in that statement. The tips below are in no way prescriptive, but I hope they offer ideas on how to prioritise your self-care and optimise wellbeing.

Tip 1: protect your time

Firstly, protect your time. In these formative first few months as a FY1, I’ve often felt overwhelmed, anxious or inadequate in the job. Not surprisingly, the first thing I sacrificed was my own self-care.

Be it a home-cooked meal, exercise or coffee with friends, it plummeted down my list of priorities, overtaken by "double check handover" and "prep tomorrow’s lists".

It may not seem significant, missing a workout here or staying an extra hour there, especially when the intention is to optimise patient care, but cumulatively the balance begins to shift.

I quickly realised that my habits weren’t sustainable. So, I adjusted my expectations and set professional boundaries. I stuck to my scheduled work hours rigorously and time-blocked my free time with the same dedicated structure I showed at work (Excel spreadsheets became my new best friend for this).

It is a challenge, and I’m in no way perfect at it, but I’ve realised that the life-long learning I signed up for in medical school not only refers to medical knowledge and scientific advancements, but to self-insight and personal growth as well.

Tip 2: Movement

As doctors, we know the benefits of exercise and daily physical movement. Despite this, our job can be incredibly sedentary, with hours spent sitting at desks. Incorporating physical activity into my day is one of my biggest challenges, but movement comes in all shapes and sizes, not just a classic gym session.

Personally, I love running. I’m not particularly fast, but it’s "me time" that’s purely my own. If I’m on a longer shift, I listen to my body and don’t put pressure on myself, often opting for a quick stretch or bodyweight circuit, rather than racking up the miles.

I’m more of an evening runner, to wash the day away, but many prefer morning sessions to boost energy levels for the shift ahead. No matter how you schedule it, make sure it works for you.

Why not run or cycle to or from work or get off the bus a stop early and walk the rest? You could try a small home circuit, dancing, water sports or yoga. Make the movement appealing, rather than a chore, and it’ll be much easier to stick to.

Tip 3: Preparation

When working long hours and unsociable shift patterns, positive habits can suffer. I didn’t always know how to schedule a workout around a 12-hour shift, nor prepare three meals (or more) for work.

The challenge for me was accessibility – it’s much harder to make healthy, sustainable choices during a stressful day if you haven’t laid the groundwork into making that choice a priority.

Now, I aim to prepare meals in advance, lay out my scrubs the night before and ensure my bag is packed. These habits help reserve my decision-making capacity for the job and reduce stress.

Tip 4: Support systems

Above all, utilise your support systems. Whether it’s journaling and reflection or talking through a problem with a colleague, both have an important role to play in mental housekeeping and developing your insight on how to approach challenges in your future professional practice.

It’s also vital to have support systems outside of medicine, as time spent surrounded by other interests and passions is so important. Remember, you’ll be able to provide optimal care to others only by taking care of yourself first.

This page was correct at publication on 12/11/2021. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

Eve Walker FY1 foundation one doctor

by Eve Walker

Eve Walker is a newly qualified FY1 in the west of Scotland. She is passionate about preventative medicine, holistic healthcare and building healthy habits into a hectic work schedule.

Graduating from the University of Glasgow in summer 2021, she comes from a widening participation background and is interested in pursuing a career in primary care in communities similar to the ones she grew up in.