Exercise, Nutrition, Mental Health for Medical Students

In mid-November of 2020, students at TUSPM participated in an informal survey on, “Health & Wellness in Med School.” The goal was to identify the specific topics that students were interested in and then seek specific guidance and advice from a health guru to share with Hallux Magazine readers. The three topics that were of greatest interest to TUSPM students included: exercise, mental health, and nutrition.  

With our respective coffees in hand, I connected over FaceTime with Christine Sturgis, the founder and owner of MovementRx Studio in Wynnewood, PA. I specifically invited Ms. Sturgis for this interview as I have been taking her studio’s virtual class offerings and admire how she integrates her physical therapy background and science-based evidence within her classes. Her classes focus on overall wellbeing including: movement, nutrition, meditation practices, and more. Accessing online classes has been instrumental in maintaining my personal mental health through 2020. 

Q & A

Hallux Magazine: First, thank you for taking the time to speak with me! Our readers are interested in learning how to incorporate exercise, mental health, and nutrition within our already limited time while balancing medical school. Exercise, specifically, has been made even more complicated with people being isolated in their homes as a result of the pandemic. What would you recommend for medical students who don’t have a ton of time or resources?

Christine Sturgis: Thanks for having me! It can really hard to get motivated to exercise if you live alone – you can always find reasons not to. Things like, “I have to empty the dishwasher,” or “I have to shower because I haven’t in a few days” – there’s always something we feel like we should be doing.

With the limited time you have, it might be hard to set aside 30 or 45 minutes to exercise. My advice is to do smaller increments of exercise throughout the day- I call them, “Movement Snacks.” After these smaller “digestible” breaks to get movement and air in your body, you are able to go back to your desk and studies, and your mind has had time to relax and calm your nervous system.

If you benefit from more instruction, there are many online classes that guide students on specific exercises. Our studio offers a wide selection of online classes, and there are many free resources online as well.

Recommended Exercises

  • Start your day with a few stretches, loosen up your joints with movements like leg circles
  • Do some planks or push ups on the counter while making your morning coffee
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator in your apartment or class buildings
  • Go for a 15-minute walk around the block, or choose a route with more hills to get your heart rate up (Leave the phone at home if you feel safe – this is important to help reset your mind!)

HM: What equipment do you recommend for people participating in online exercise programs?

CS: Definitely a resistance band – it is probably the most functional and practical exercise item. You can use this for strengthening, stability, and stretching. If you’re working on strengthening, you want to add load. It’s also important to focus on deep diaphragmatic breathing to strengthen and stabilize your core. Body weight exercises can also be modified to reduce the force. For example, if you’re getting started, you might do push ups against the counter or stairs and build your way to full push ups.

Christine’s recommended weights and at-home objects:

  • Toning exercises for upper body: 1-3 pounds
    • Water bottle, canned goods
  • Strength and conditioning for upper body: 5-10 pounds
    • Laundry detergent bottle
  • Strength and conditioning for lower body:  10-20 pounds
    • Heavy flower pot or similar heavy item

HM: Mental health is another huge focus. What advice or guidance would you offer for students?

CS: Try to find moments of quiet time for yourself. And use that time to reflect. This may be a mantra, a walking meditation, prayer, or other mindfulness exercise. If you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, close your eyes and take 20 deep diaphragmatic breaths to help calm your nervous system.

Sleep is also a huge component of mental health. Turn off electronics before bed! I’m guilty of not following my own rule on this, but I sleep so much better when I do turn them off early. It’s helpful to have an evening routine, do it in the same order every night. That may include a relaxing activity like reading or listening to calm music, lighting a scented candle, or a mindfulness exercise. Develop a routine, slow down, and this will all help to downregulate the brain in preparation to sleep. Another tip! Cover the clock, TV, or any device in your room that has digital lights. It’s best to sleep in a completely dark room.

HM: Nutrition is something that I personally struggled with my first year of medical school, feeling like I didn’t have a ton of time. What do you recommend for students when there’s limited time and money?

CS: The biggest thing I suggest is sticking to a whole food diet. Dedicate a day or half-day to prepare for the week: shop for food, wash and prep produce, and put them in bags to cook quick, easy, and nutritious meals. Simply sauté some veggies and add your protein! You can stock up on individually packaged frozen salmon or cod filets—it makes it easy to cook smaller portions. Or, make some soup or stew in advance and you can eat it throughout the week. The easiest meal I swear by is fresh greens, a little bit of lemon juice, a little bit of oil, a little bit of salt, and an egg on top. Maybe add tomatoes, avocado, or nuts. It is simple, fast, and nutritious. Another quick meal is yogurt with fruit, nuts, and some plant-based protein, like chia or hemp seeds.

HM: Any closing thoughts for our readers?

CS: Find little moments throughout your day to give your body and your mind attention. You won’t be able to retain the information as easily or be as productive if you’re working on an empty tank. I also suggest cat naps! Sleep is critical. If you aren’t sleeping well at night or staying up ‘til 3 am studying, you may start hitting a wall between 2 and 4 pm. Set your alarm for 20 minutes and just close your eyes and rest. This is another mental health tip that is really helpful – I do it a few times a week. A quick 20-minute nap allows to your reset and re-center, providing both mental rest and physical rest.

About Christine Sturgis

Christine Sturgis, mother of five, outdoor enthusiast and yoga practitioner of 20+ years, has spent the last 11 years developing a career applying two of her greatest passions: helping others and movement. She is a licensed PTA, having treated patients in an outpatient orthopedic setting for 4+ years and home health care physical therapy at Mainline Health Systems for 3+ years. During that time, she completed her FMS certification (Functional Movement Screen), SFMA training (Selective Functional Movement Screen), 250+ hours certified yoga teacher training program and Level 1 Myofascial Release certification under John Barnes, giving her a wide range of knowledge and experience in movement synergies, biomechanics and manual therapy.  She used this knowledge and experience to found PhyToga, which combines the best of all these movement principles in one exercise program. She brings her wide range of experience to her students and private clients, creating a safe environment to grow stable and balanced bodies with increased vitality.

  • Licensed PTA (Physical Therapist Assistant – 7+ years in outpatient orthopedic and home health care physical therapy), 2010
  • PhyToga, Founder and Creator, 2010
  • SFMA trained, Selective Functional Movement Assessment, 2011
  • FMS certified, Functional Movement Systems, 2011
  • RYT-250+ hours through Yoga Life Institute, 2012
  • MovementRx Studio, Founder and Owner, 2018
  • Barre Intensity Certification, 2019

Interview by Alexandra Brown

Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine, Class of 2022.

Interviewee: Christine Sturgis