Are you planning on retiring? I’m not so sure I will. I’ve seen too many colleagues, family members, and friends decline swiftly after exercising their hard-won right to step off the human hamster wheel. Given I’m officially in mid-career and constitutionally ill-disposed toward complete retirement, it follows that I’ve started thinking about what it’s going to take to keep myself running smoothly so I can keep pace (albeit less frantically) until my very last breath.
We all intuitively know maintaining the discipline required to get up in the morning and keep to a schedule gives us plenty of opportunities to stay physically active, mentally sharp, and socially engaged. Working lets us flex our critical thinking muscles—an exercise study after study tells us staves off dementia. It also allows us to interact with the community, nurture relationships, and retain a sense of purpose, which is how experts say we’re most likely to live longer, healthier, more satisfying lives.
Trouble is, being a veterinary professional in a clinical setting is more physically demanding than we tend to think, regardless of our species of choice (though some species are undeniably more trying than others, of course). In many cases, we’ve been doing it for so long we’re no longer aware of how physical our jobs are. It’s only when we’re getting down on our knees or hunching over a table for any length of time that we start to wonder how long this will last. The rest of the time, most of us remain blissfully ignorant of our corporeal limitations, and that’s exactly how we get ourselves into trouble.
Veterinary professionals, techs especially, spend most of our days on our feet. We stand for surgery, corral patients, help with the lifting, get down on our knees, stretch ourselves into unreasonable pretzel positions, lug unwieldy carriers, and generally abuse our bodies for the sake of our jobs. It’s true that some of us have no choice in the matter; physicality is baked into the job. Nevertheless, we’re all in a position to seek remedies that can help hedge against physical breakdown. Here are my top four:
No. 1: Improve your everyday work habits
Where does it hurt? Think about it: Is it your neck? Lower back? Elbows? Wrists? Knees? Feet? Now think about what you’re doing to these anatomical parts. Do you spend hours of your day looking down at your smartphone or with your neck cricked into the landline’s receiver? Standing up while looking down at a surgical field? Staring into a microscope? Lifting patients? Typing on the keyboard? Try to make connections between your maladies and activities.
Now think carefully about what you can do to improve or vary your posture or your form. Can you make your activities less repetitive by varying how or where you sit or stand? Can you adjust to a seated position for some surgeries? Maybe try a headset for your landline calls?
Earbuds? Will a tablet ease some strain? Is a change in footwear or eyewear in order? A wrist wrap for carpal tunnel? Toe spacers for bunions?
Consider getting professional help. Tell your doctor about your pain. Solicit their ideas. Consider a massage therapist or acupuncturist. Employers: Consider hiring an occupational therapist to consult with your staff. One day alone can yield benefits that will last for years. It’s not just humane; it’s immensely cost-saving, too.
No. 2: Get flexible
Flexibility makes you less likely to hurt yourself. This we know. When ligaments learn to stretch and muscles are trained to tolerate formerly impossible positions, the chances you’ll hurt yourself catastrophically (in falls or while playing weekend warrior) drop precipitously. Like it or not, flexibility is the answer to every one of our prayers.
Thankfully, it doesn’t take much to get there. I know this from experience. I used to think I was the least flexible human being alive. Today, after almost six years of near-daily practice, I’m surprisingly flexible, matching or besting the 20-somethings stretch for stretch. How? The secret is moving: Once you start, just be sure you never stop.
But it doesn’t have to be yoga, of course. Almost any dance or martial art discipline will do. Barre classes, evoking your childhood ballet classes, may surprise you with their nostalgic charm. Karate or judo lends you the confidence of your latent Bruce Lee. And lest you think yourself too old, stop right there: Millions of truly old people regularly practice Tai Chi. (Even my Cuban mother. Go figure.)
The best part of most disciplines that promise physical flexibility is the mental flexibility that comes with it. If you can get through 90 minutes of hot yoga, you can get through any bad day in veterinary practice. Learning to calm your mind is an unexpected benefit of these meditative disciplines.
Don’t have the time? Some yoga routines are five minutes long. Look up the Five Tibetan Rites. Do these every morning and your spine will thank you all day long. Zoom classes abound for any kind of exercise you can think of. What’s more, plenty of free classes are available all over the internet.
No. 3: Take fewer risks
Not naming names here, but one of my recently retired colleagues suffered work-related injuries more often in his last five years of practice than in all the preceding years of his career. The first couple of events should have been a wake-up call but, as far as I know, he never made the connection.
Sure, it’s hard to be insightful about things we’d rather not contemplate (like our mortality and the physical decline of our bodies), but it’s also kind of obvious: When you’re 80 years old you should not be taking the same risks you took in your 20s and 30s. After all, just one bite can land an octogenarian in the ICU.
The moral of the story: As you get older you should let others do the heavy lifting, muzzling, and other risky or physically demanding tasks. At this point, you’ve earned your right to stand back and let others do the physical stuff, right?
No. 4: The role of burnout
The hard part of practice shouldn’t be the physical stuff. Burnout and mental breakdown are by far the biggest challenge. Still, it’s clear the physical and psychological are interwoven so that those who remain physically fit and pain-free are at far less of a disadvantage than those who suffer from chronic physical ailments.
So, if you don’t think you have time for shenanigans like yoga or martial arts, or exercise in general, consider physical activity can be crucial to psychological stability. Moreover, it’s impossible to practice veterinary medicine if your body gives out before your brain does. In the long run, staying physically active is minute-for-minute, every bit as important (if not more so) than time spent at work.
Sure, dying with your boots on isn’t for everyone, but if you think you’re headed in that direction (either for love or money), it behooves you to embrace the physical aspects of your work and off-work lives. Because, as we like to tell our clients, it’s all about quality of life.
Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, owns a small animal practice in Miami and is a passionate blogger at drpattykhuly.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.