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5 healthy habits our doctors practice for self-care

Doctors are passionate about helping their patients stay healthy. But how do they stay healthy themselves? We asked some Kaiser Permanente doctors what they do every day to stay mentally and emotionally strong, keep stress in check, and be at their best.

As it turns out, their tips are surprisingly simple.

Cultivating healthy habits takes time, but pays off

Start by giving yourself permission to take time for self-care. “Sometimes we forget that we need to nurture ourselves,” says Dr. Brian Linh Nguyen, a family physician. “So I try to take a few minutes to nourish my mind, body, and spirit in some way every day.” Here are some ideas about how to do that:

Meditate and reflect

Dr. Columbus Batiste, a cardiologist, sets aside time each morning for prayer and meditation: “It’s easy to get caught up in the pressures and demands of life. My morning routine helps me feel centered throughout the day. It allows me to slow down and take a step back when things get challenging or chaotic, and stay calm in stressful situations.”

In fact, research suggests that meditation can help relieve stress and improve overall well-being.1 “Patients who make this part of their routine have told me it helps with not only clarity of thought, but clarity of purpose,” notes Dr. Batiste. “That’s what it does for me, too.”

Be physically active

Exercise helps reduce stress both in the moment and over time.2 “I do some kind of exercise almost every morning,” says Dr. Alex McDonald, a family and sports medicine physician. “It helps me handle stress and roll with the punches throughout the day.”

Moving your body helps ease your mind. In one study, people who exercised had 43% fewer poor mental health days than people who didn’t — and any type of physical activity can improve your mental health.3 “I always tell patients that starting an exercise routine can be tough at first, but you see the benefits pretty quickly,” explains Dr. McDonald.

Practice gratitude

It’s easy to take the good things in life for granted and get caught up in negative thoughts, which can lead to feelings of stress and anxiety. Intentionally focusing on positive things can help counteract those effects.

“Every night, my family and I discuss what went well that day, and why,” says Dr. Nguyen. “Sharing what went well — and what we’re grateful for — helps us stay grounded in the positive instead of dwelling on the negative. And exploring how our actions helped those things go well helps us invite more positivity into our lives. So the more we practice gratitude, the more we have to be grateful for.”

Put pen to paper

Physically writing things down is a go-to habit for multiple doctors, and studies show that journaling can help reduce stress, relieve symptoms of depression, and increase resilience.4

“When I write my thoughts down, it helps me connect my head to my heart,” says Dr. Nguyen. “Writing by hand helps quiet the judgmental side of my brain, so I can process things in a meaningful way.”

Dr. Batiste recommends planning and list-making: “I write out what I’m seeking to accomplish that day. When and how will I exercise? What will I eat? What needs to get done at work? Physically creating this list and crossing things off helps me stay positive and productive.”

Eat a healthy, balanced diet

Eating a mostly plant-based diet high in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and olive oil is associated with overall well-being and a decreased risk for depression.5 Dr. McDonald suggests planning your meals ahead of time to help you stick to a healthy eating routine: “I do meal prep on the weekends, so I don’t have to make decisions about food when I’m too hungry or busy to worry about whether they’re healthy choices or not.”

Dr. McDonald also stresses the importance of balance: “If your health is generally good, there’s no reason for any foods to be strictly off-limits. My personal goal is to eat healthy 90% of the time.”

Remember that flexibility is key

All the doctors we spoke to say it’s important to focus on progress, not perfection. Practicing the healthy habits that work for you most days is what really matters. Over time, you’ll start to notice how you feel when you do — or don’t — do them.

“Personally, when I don’t do these things, that’s when I feel the most inclined toward stress. And that becomes a motivator to keep prioritizing those activities.” shares Dr. Batiste. So if you miss a few days, don’t worry. Just pick up where you left off and move on.

 

1Madhav Goyal et al., “Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-Being: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” JAMA Internal Medicine, March 2014.

2Kathrin Wunsch et al., “Habitual and Acute Exercise Effects on Salivary Biomarkers in Response to Psychosocial Stress,” Psychoneuroendocrinology, August 2019.

3Sammi Chekroud et al., “Association Between Physical Exercise and Mental Health in 1-2 Million Individuals in the USA Between 2011 and 2015: A Cross-Sectional Study,” Lancet Psychiatry, August 8, 2018.

4Joshua M. Smit, et al., “Online Positive Affect Journaling in the Improvement of Mental Distress and Well-Being in General Medical Patients with Elevated Anxiety Symptoms: A Preliminary Randomized Controlled Trial,” Journal of Medical Internet Research Mental Health, June 13, 2018.

5Ye Li et al., “Dietary Patterns and Depression Risk: A Meta-analysis,” Psychiatry Research, July 2017.

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