Take the time to build your physical strength and stamina. That’s what a recent study of medical students by Dyrbye et al. advocates. The researchers looked at how much medical students employ aerobic exercise and strength training, as well as their ratings of quality of life and burnout. The study found that burnout and such activities are inversely correlated. On the other hand, quality of life and such activities are correlated.
Dyrbye Liselotte N, Satele Daniel, Shanafelt Tait D. Healthy Exercise Habits Are Associated With Lower Risk of Burnout and Higher Quality of Life Among U.S. Medical Students. Acad Med. 2017;92(7):1006-1011. doi:10.1097/ACM.0000000000001540.
In this specific instance, many folks interpret exercise as aerobic exercise, which is a shame, because other activity is also beneficial. Although the article uses the term “exercise,” the term “activity” better highlights the need to get off the couch and stop sitting. Limited activity better contrasts with the unknown value of aerobic exercise, anaerobic exercise [e.g., high-intensity interval training], flexibility, balance, and strength training.
The study was cross-sectional, so all we know is that more activity correlates with a higher quality of life and lower burnout rates. Does that mean that folks who are burned out are less active? Or did the activity “protect” them from burnout and instill a higher quality of life. Unfortunately, either explanation passes the “common sense” methodological approach.
Although not discussed in the article, my bias is that burned out people tend to be less active and engaged in strenuous activity. To me, the data does not mean that increased activity will protect you from becoming burned out. Yet, perhaps more importantly, I believe that activity does lead to a higher quality of life. There are many known benefits of increased activity beyond the obvious (strength, endurance, flexibility, lower heart rate, stamina, etc.), including decreased depression. So, go for it. Get out there and be active, although it may not impact the risk of burnout.
So, what does being active mean? Running miles on end every day? Remember, you need to work on your whole body, not just the hamstrings and heart/lungs. We remain a “running” culture, yet the data on the value of strength training is also quite strong; potentially stronger. The above study showed that about a third of students followed CDC guidelines for aerobic exercise, but only about 10% followed guidelines for strength training. Although not discussed, there is the option for more time-efficient, high-intensity interval training and activities like yoga that address the whole range of the value of activity.
To get started, take advantage of the resources at your institution. Skilled folks in exercise science can guide you in terms of strength training and alternative forms of activity beyond the, for some, mind-numbing treadmill. Chat with them and ask what you can do besides running, especially if you feel you are in a treadmill/elliptical continuous training rut.
Integrating activity is no different than any other life change and is guided by habit formation. Create a solution that can be repeated without thought or planning so that it becomes a part of what you do. The best analogy is brushing your teeth. The benefits of brushing your teeth are long-term. We all learn to integrate this habit into our daily routine despite the fact that the short-term joy of brushing one’s teeth is fleeting.
So, get out there and exercise. It may or may not have a causal impact on burnout, but you can count on numerous other benefits.