I’m sure there are folks here in town who wondered how I could keep up a professional pace that often included being on call 2 nights a week and working every third weekend. Even when I was in my early 50s, people asked me if I was getting ready to retire. I hope it wasn’t because I appeared unhappy or looked 15 years older than I was. I suspect that some parents who didn’t know me well predicted that my career would have ended far short of 40 years.
One of the secrets of what appeared to be my superhuman stamina was that almost every day at noon I was out to lunch. That doesn’t mean that I always took time to eat lunch. In fact, I must admit that more often than not my midday diet consisted of several handfuls of cashews or an energy bar eaten on the fly.
Lunchtime for me meant an hour of physical activity outside. In the early years, it was spent trying to keep up with my preschool children in the backyard. Most often my activity was a bicycle ride over the hilly terrain between Brunswick and Freeport. If it was raining, I would go for a run or a walk. In the winter you might find me skating on a flooded mall at the center of downtown or skiing some loops around the Bowdoin College athletic fields.
The feeling of invigoration and renewal that came in its wake fueled my commitment to my habit of lunchtime outdoor activity. Although to some people it may be counterintuitive, the physical activity energized me. The second half of my workday was no more fatiguing than the morning. However, if some thoughtless hospital or practice administrator scheduled a noon meeting, the rest of my day was a grump fest.
A recent study has demonstrated just how powerful lunchtime exercise can be in improving worker attitude and mood, even if the activity is just going for a walk. (“Changes in work affect in response to lunchtime walking in previously physically inactive employees: A randomized trial” ( Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2015 Dec;25:778-87 ). There have been other studies that have pointed to the value of an activity break, but these investigators collected real-time reports from subjects using their cell phones. “Lunchtime walks improved enthusiasm, relaxation, and nervousness at work,” the researchers noted.
The problem comes in getting employees to take that first step toward developing a lunchtime activity habit. A few, usually women, have discovered the value for themselves and enjoy the social interaction as much as they do the affect-improving aspects of the activity and change of scene. I have tried to encourage lunchtime walking in the workplace with several strategies, including small monetary rewards, prizes, and contests between groups of workers. One year we even bought umbrellas to encourage employees to walk even if it was raining. But without a vigorous and persistent support system, inertia wins, and only those who have discovered the benefits of lunchtime activity for themselves persist.
You may be asking yourself how I managed to find time in my schedule for that hour of lunchtime activity; actually it was usually an hour and half to include a shower. The answer is that I built my schedule around it, and that meant getting to the office earlier and working later. But in my mind that was a small price to pay for the benefits I received. The other secret to my apparent stamina was that I lived a 5-minute bike ride from both hospitals and my office. Don’t underestimate the toll your commute is taking on your life and happiness.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.”