The Student Guide to Lifestyle Medicine

Varun Gopinath
Published on Jul 13, 2020. Updated on Sep 15, 2020.

In today's blog, Osmosis Education Fellowship program graduate Varun Gopinath explores the research behind "Lifestyle Medicine," a healthcare practice that shows how prioritizing self-care translates into better care for others. 

As defined by the American College of Lifestyle Medicine (ACLM), “Lifestyle Medicine is the therapeutic use of evidence-based lifestyle interventions to treat and prevent lifestyle-related diseases in a clinical setting. It empowers individuals with the knowledge and life skills to make effective behavior changes that address the underlying causes of disease.” 

I discovered Lifestyle Medicine through my running partner who is a current Med-Peds resident. Lifestyle Medicine involves the key components of: 

  1. Healthy eating

  2. Increased physical activity

  3. Stress management

  4. Forming and maintaining healthy relationships

  5. Improving sleep hygiene

  6. Tobacco cessation 

Soon after discovering the approach, I co-founded a Lifestyle Medicine interest group (LMIG) at my own institution. I believe Lifestyle Medicine can have a transformative effect on healthcare. 

Here, I would like to outline how professional healthcare students can incorporate Lifestyle Medicine into their packed schedules. 

Osmosis illustration of a schedule incorporating Lifestyle Medicine.

Promoting healthy eating as part of a healthy lifestyle

View what you eat as an investment in yourself. Overall research has pointed to a plant-based whole foods diet as the best way to optimize your health. This is not about going vegan overnight, but rather cutting down on meats, oils, and dairy products while increasing your intake of nutrient-dense vegetables, legumes, beans, and fruits. 

Healthy eating not only makes you feel better on a day-to-day basis, but it also allows you to perform optimally as a student. One study found that implementing a Health Enhancement Program that included healthy nutrition resulted in improved medical student well-being during the pre-exam period. 

Focusing on your daily diet could have an effect on exam performance by boosting your pre-exam confidence. It’s well worth it to take time out of your week to meal prep healthy meals, especially when you can use better scores as a justification! Personally, I use Sundays as my meal-prep day, and I’ve had fun trying out new recipes from cookbooks like Good and Cheap and The Oh She Glows Cookbook

Osmosis illustration of a medical student about to meal prep.

Encouraging physical activity

Exercising releases feel-good endocannabinoids like anandamide, and it’s also associated with the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which is involved in cognitive retention and memory. 

Exercise allows you to burn off some of that medical school stress while helping your brain forge connections between neurons and synthesize complex ideas. One study specifically found a positive correlation between fitness scores of medical students and their GPAs and scores on the USMLE® Step 1.

Getting yourself moving can have a dramatic effect on your overall well-being and on your academic performance. I’m a runner and member of a running group in Cleveland, OH, where I live. Occasionally I bike, hike, and climb as well. 

Not only is the research out there on academic performance but it also gives me a chance to hang out with others outside of the classroom allowing myself to be my extroverted self while also maintaining my study schedule

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Developing stress management strategies

Stress is inevitable in medical school. Medical student stress levels have been correlated to academic performance, mental health outcomes, and rates of future burnout. It’s how you cope with and manage stress that’s most important when dealing with the realities of depression and burnout in medicine. 

Active coping strategies for stress management are among the best predictors of good academic performance. Strategies I use include exercise, meditation through an app called Headspace (free for all AMA members), and making time for my social support network. Which brings me to my next topic!

Osmosis illustration of a student meditating.

Forming and maintaining healthy relationships 

It can be easy to get sucked into your schoolwork and forget about friends and family while in school. But research continues to show that maintaining these relationships can have lasting effects on overall quality of life. 

One study showed that medical schools may be able to interrupt the vicious cycle of psychological distress and poor academic performance by promoting peer and social relationships. Another found that exam results are not only influenced by characteristics of individual medical students, but also by the network of social relationships between medical students. 

I value my friends and family and always make time to chat and hang out. Not only does valuing relationships make the world less lonely, but it can also make you a better student

Improving sleep quality

Whether it’s using a blue filter/night mode on your screened devices or sticking to a regular daily bedtime, sleep can have a dramatic effect on mood and functioning

Constant sleep deprivation is linked to decreased academic performance and increased chances of developing clinical depression or clinical anxiety. 

As a professional student you can’t afford not to sleep, especially when preparing for high stakes exams. Sleep promotes the formation of neural connections, so it’s invaluable for long-term memory formation. 

Osmosis illustration of a medical student with a healthy sleep schedule.

Quit smoking!

Cessation of tobacco, though not specifically applicable to most medical students, opens the conversation to other substances that struggling medical students might turn to in an unhealthy way. Alcohol can turn into a negative coping mechanism for many young adults in professional school and during residency. 

Tobacco, alcohol, and many other recreational substances can turn into a lifelong crutch that may impair your ability to perform to the best of your abilities as a healthcare professional. 

Why we need to prioritize Lifestyle Medicine as a practice

By focusing on changing our own behaviors in small ways, we as future clinicians are better able to empathize and guide our future patients in their own healthy journeys. Though many of the tenets of lifestyle medicine sound simple, they’re often difficult to implement, even when you’re objectively aware of the benefits. 

Even the smallest step towards improving your lifestyle can have a dramatic effect, and many of these tenets are interrelated. For example, by exercising with a classmate, you can improve your social connectedness, your memory, your sleep quality, and even your desire to eat a healthier diet. 

Making small but strategic lifestyle changes has allowed me to become a better student, and it’s also given me a greater understanding of the impact these practices could have for my future patients. I hope that Lifestyle Medicine can do the same for you!

About Varun 

Varun Gopinath is a second year medical student at the Northeast Ohio Medical University in Rootstown, Ohio, and a graduate of the Osmosis Medical Education Fellowship program. Originally from Marietta, Georgia, he bounced around the USA after high school, pursuing higher education and AmeriCorps before committing to a career in medicine.  Currently, Varun is interested in specializing in family medicine, and sees himself developing long-term relationships with future patients while promoting the tenets of Lifestyle Medicine. 

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