Wellness Wednesdays II: Reflections on the OMSA Wellness Retreat

  • Posted on: 20 May 2015
  • By: OMSA Admin

This is the second post of a special three-part OMSA wellness series, featuring guest writer Dr. Sarah Luckett Gatopoulos, a PGY1 in Emergency Medicine at McMaster University.  At the third annual OMSA Wellness Retreat this past March, she facilitated a fantastic workshop entitled ‘The Portable Workout’.

Several months ago, I was contacted by the organizers of the OMSA Wellness Retreat to attend the retreat as a speaker. The OMSA Wellness Committee had an idea that I should speak to medical student delegates from across Ontario about physical activity, and how fitness fits into a life in medicine. Frankly, that was far too daunting a task, so I was relieved when my role was narrowed down to providing a short, no-equipment, portable workout.

My goal in preparing my "talk" was to devise a quick and ready workout that could be done without equipment, with little time, and in a confined space like a bedroom or hotel room. I wanted to create something that was easily adaptable to a range of abilities, had enough variety to be interesting, and was not too overwhelming for those not quite into the workout groove. Ideally, the workout could easily be done on elective, after a late night at the hospital, or on the CaRMS tour. What I ended up doing was writing a HIIT-style workout (high intensity interval training, or Tabata, for those wondering) that consisted of a variety of widely adaptable exercises repeated for maximum burn. Apparently, I whooped a few butts during my session!

In the weeks leading up to the retreat, I became increasingly nervous. I was worried that the workout I provided wouldn't be hard enough for the participants, but - more importantly - I worried that I didn't have the credibility to talk about physical fitness in a meaningful way. The nice thing about these sorts of anxieties (is there a nice thing about worrying?) is that they provide an opportunity to think about what we've achieved and what those achievements mean. In thinking about what I would say to the medical students attending my session, I had the chance to reflect on what physical fitness has meant to me during my journey through medical training.

I avoided physical activity as a kid, mostly out of fear of pain and embarrassment about my body. I remember watching a kid's variety show on TV when I mustn't have been older than 5 or 6, and trying to figure out which kids looked like (read: looked as big as) me. In retrospect, I was a cute kid of appropriate weight, but that fact was lost on me. I worried constantly about my weight, and was ashamed of how I looked. What a surprise, then, that after two or three years of playing on a traveling girls' hockey team, I made a full-throttle transition to the nearly-naked sport of synchronized swimming around age 12, which had already been my secondary sport for a few years. A life-long love affair was born.

I was fortunate to train under some very inspiring women, and when I was 14 or 15, I made a big leap to a higher level of competition that required me to change clubs. Unfortunately, after a couple of years I had to leave that club due to financial concerns, but I returned to synchro in university, and continued to compete through graduate school. In my final year before starting medical school, I trained with my university's varsity team for nationals, and simultaneously trained for FINA Masters Worlds with SyncTO (I competed in solo technical and free events as well). During that year, I was also the coordinator of novice and recreational programs at Toronto Synchro, so my life essentially happened at the pool (well, except for the part where I worked, researched, went to classes, wrote my thesis, and started a new relationship). It was not unusual for me to practise more than once a day. I remember many weekend days when I would get up early, walk or take the bus to the pool, practise for three or four hours with one team, break for an hour, and then come back to the pool to practise with the other team. On top of these practices, I spent extra time practising my solos and dry land training at the gym (let's not kid ourselves, though - this was not a strong year for me, as I developed some major mental blocks and performed poorly at practise and at competitions). I was strong and toned.

When I started medical school, a lot changed. I swam with the team at my new university, but the time commitment was significantly less than I was used to, and the training far less intense. By the end of the previous year, I had developed shoulder problems, and I had capsular plication surgery on one of my shoulders that required three subsequent months in an immobilizer and a prolonged hiatus from swimming during my second year of medical school. The social and academic demands of medical school meant I was no longer free to spend long hours at the gym. I tried to balance my academic and athletic needs with maintaining a long distance relationship. Ultimately, all three suffered. I gained 45 pounds.

I was unhappy. I felt unwell. I was failing to perform academically, and I was full of unfocussed energy that erupted in nagging anxiety and poor emotional control. By the early spring of my second year of medical school, I had reached a crisis point. My relationship had ended, and I knew I needed to refocus and get healthy. I began to run, slowly and painfully. Initially, I could not run for more than 30 seconds. I would run in intervals, and I was winded and red-faced after each 30 second jog. Eventually, I worked my way up to nearly 5k, and just before I ran my first 5k race, I agreed to train for my first half-marathon with one of my favourite people. In the coming year, I would run not just my first 5k, but also my first 10k, 15k, half-marathon, and 30k. One month after the anniversary of my introduction to running, I would run my first marathon. I also began practicing yoga, joining other students for Sunday night meds yoga at Studio 330 in Kingston.

On December 2nd of my third year of medical school, I began a crazy journey. I set a goal of being physically active every day for 365 days (you can find my documentation of that journey here). Incredibly, I managed it, and was back on the road to being fit and happy. These days, I continue to set aside time 4-6 days each week for physical activity. In fact, the day after the OMSA Wellness Retreat, I ran the Around the Bay 30k Road Race (though 'ran' is a bit of an exaggeration...I mostly hobbled around with a massive bum cheek cramp after kilometre 15). I feel better than I ever have, though I am still working to lose the last 10 or so pounds that I gained during my first year.

his is the story I told to the students who attended my session. At the risk of overestimating my own impact, I think it's an important story. The particulars aren't important - it could have been needlework, or writing, or meditation that I needed to reach my happy, healthy tipping point - but the message is essential. In my mind, that message is that we need to find the thing that makes us happy, that helps us focus, that keeps us well, if we are to be successful practitioners of medicine.

Only when we are content within our own lives, only when we have found a place to be calm in the midst of the storm that is medical learning, will we be able to provide the best care under the most difficult circumstances.

I think that is the very powerful message the OMSA crew set forth at this retreat, and that others speak to when discussing mindfulness, community-building, and health during medical training. I am both grateful to have been involved and hopeful for our future as physicians when I see so many medical students gathered in one place around this common goal.

Thank you to Sarah Luckett-Gatopoulos (PGY1 Emergency Medicine, McMaster University) for facilitating this workshop at the OMSA Wellness Retreat and her contribution to this blog!  This blog post was peer reviewed by Marie Leung.