If you are currently enrolled in physical therapy (PT) school, or attended in your past, you can probably identify with the struggle of eating healthy, stress eating, and forgetting exercise. With one exam after another, I’ve found myself eating one snack after another. And by snack, I mean chocolate-covered espresso beans, chocolate-covered almonds, and chocolate-covered pretzels. Anytime anyone mentions “free food,” my ears perk up, eyes widen, and I suddenly feel as if I’ve been starving for centuries, instantly questioning “Where?! When?!” And, when I do finally find the time and energy to go grocery shopping, I think to myself, “I’m going to get a ton of vegetables, fruits, and healthy foods only.” Yet, I end up walking out with a handful of unhealthy items, which I justify by all the vegetables and fruits I just filled my cart with (it’s all about balance, right?!). Days later, I find myself eating all those unhealthy items first though, while the vegetables and fruits start going bad. And with more stress, I seek out the fatty, carbohydrate-heavy, sugar-loaded foods for comfort and relief. When I talk to classmates, I find many are in the same boat. It’s almost as if we could use a class about how to consistently eat healthy while in PT school…or maybe just a blog post!
We already learned that nutritious foods are better fuel sources for our brains and bodies, leading to improved energy, clearer minds, and overall better productivity. Ensuring proper nutrition takes self-discipline and motivation. Once you make it part of your everyday though, you won’t even have to think twice about it. Just like driving a car or riding a bike or remembering the direction of roll and glide for the convex-on-concave rule of arthrokinematics. It’s simply a matter of training the brain, or neuroplasticity, if you will.
Take the time to really listen to your body and thoughts in the present moment. When you find yourself reaching for a snack, ask yourself if you’re truly hungry. Is your stomach really rumbling? When was the last time you ate? If the answer is “no” and “just a half hour ago,” then try opting for a drink of water or a piece of gum to chew instead. If you start deeply craving food, ask yourself where that craving is stemming from. What’s really causing it? Hunger? Or, stress and anxiety? If it’s stress or anxiety, then first acknowledge that the true cause of your feeling is stress or anxiety. But, don’t let that acknowledgement stress you out more. Take a minute to close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, rather than running to the cafeteria or kitchen. Try to then relieve the craving by simply changing your position (sitting up straighter, getting up and taking a quick walk, or stretching) or environment. I find that every time I study on the dining room table, I end up grabbing a snack shortly after I start, or I sit with one to begin with so I don’t have to get up later. With the kitchen so close by, there’s little time between my thought and action. Choose a study spot away from food sources so that you’re given more time to think twice about any craving that occurs and prevent yourself from fulfilling it.
Find more activities to relieve cravings in the moment as well, whether it’s having quick play time with your pet, reading a short article (PT in Motion has great ones!), or talking to a family member or friend for a few minutes. Essentially, we want to train the brain to think “this is my cue to grab water, take a walk, or talk to someone” instead of “this is my cue to eat” whenever it receives the signal of a craving or desire to eat that really stems from stress or anxiety rather than hunger.
2. Commit to a List
This is one of my biggest challenges. I always have a few items in mind that I need to get from the grocery store, but the rest of the items in my cart end up being in-the-moment purchases. Make a solid grocery list beforehand and commit to sticking with it by grabbing only the items you need. One way to do this is to first find healthy recipes and then creating a grocery list from the ingredients. For example, I’m subscribed to New York Times Cooking, which sends me daily emails of recipes. I choose and bookmark a few healthy ones every day so that by the end of the week, I have a list of ingredients for my weekend grocery shopping trip (as well as recipes to cook for next week then!). You can go paper-and-pen style or use an app on your phone to keep track of your list.
Another way is to commit to a 5-5-5 rule. Include 5 vegetables, 5 fruits, and 5 protein items on your list every time you make a trip to the grocery store (or any other area, such as fiber or a specific vitamin, that you may not get enough of). Depending on when your next trip will be though, you may have to increase these numbers. Think of your grocery list as being a grading rubric for a class assignment or a list of topics on an exam. Just as you would ensure to cover all required items for your clinical skills check or anatomy exam, and not a single more item than you have to, commit to ensuring you cover all the items on your list, and not more, for groceries as well.
3. Avoid Justifying Unhealthy Items for Costing Less
I know we’re all “balling on a budget,” but try to not let that be a reason you start compromising healthy foods for less nutritious ones. Order that avocado for the extra 50 cents. Don’t order that whipped cream on the frappachino simply because it comes at the same price without it. If you’re like me and are easily lured by sale items at the grocery store (who doesn’t like buy one, get one free items?!), try to take more time to practice the previous points of being mindful and committing to a list. It’s easy to fall into marketing schemes since sales make “sense” that we would be saving money. However, it does not make “sense” to feed our brains and bodies with foods that have little to no nutritious value.
This goes for restaurants as well, especially if you don’t cook at home or buy groceries often. Think back to the 5-5-5 rule when ordering still: did you have vegetables, fruits, or protein today? Create and commit to a list and find items on the menu that incorporate this “grocery list.” We’re actually lucky that our bodies already give us a grocery list of items they need for optimal functioning: proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, water, etc. Seek the specifics your body truly needs on the menu, just as you would seek keywords in multiple choice options on an exam question to know it’s the correct answer.
4. And Of Course, Don’t Forget to Exercise!
This last point is more of a reminder to exercise regularly. The benefits of exercise are endless. Schedule it into your calendar as if it were a mandatory class. Additionally, any time you start to feel your energy levels plunge, try exercising rather than reaching for energy bars or sugary foods for a boost, even if it’s simply 10 minutes. If you’re in class and a craving or energy lull hits, try seated calf raises under your desk, flexing and extending your toes in your shoes, or flexing and extending your fingers and hands (set a frequency too!). Again, it’s about creating a healthy response when your brain gets these signals.
We know exercise can cause physiological changes in more than just our muscles, specifically in our metabolic pathways. Keep moving regularly and solidifying healthy eating habits and it’ll soon feel like you never had a struggle with healthy eating, stress eating, or forgetting exercise. You won’t even have to think twice about it. Just like driving a car or riding a bike or remembering the direction of roll and glide for the convex-on-concave rule of arthrokinematics. It’s simply a matter of training the brain, or neuroplasticity, if you will…these are my foods for thought. Happy nutritious eating!