Advice Your Doctor Lives By

Doctors—they're just like us! That means even M.D.'s need a little help figuring out how to exercise enough, eat intelligently, and stay positive. We asked the white-coat crowd to share the best sanity-saving, fitness-boosting advice they've ever gotten. Relate and appreciate, everyone.

By Sharon R. Boone
Illustrations by Hector Sanchez

Use the 10% Rule

Jennifer Shu, M.D., a pediatrician in Atlanta

"A big part of my job is helping people change their behavior. I've heard obesity experts say the best way to do that is to encourage patients to take baby steps, so I started telling mine to set their goals in 10% increments. For instance, if they eat fast food 10 times a month, I tell them to try to decrease it to nine, instead of giving it up cold turkey, and then when that feels manageable, to drop down to eight, and so on. I've used the little-by-little approach myself—it really works. When I wanted to start exercising, I knew it would be unrealistic to think I'd get to the gym seven days a week since I hadn't been going at all, so I aimed for once a week until that became my norm and then gradually bumped it up to three times a week. Now I'm in a really good place with my fitness routine."

PICK UP The Phone

Christi Cavaliere, M.D., a plastic surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic

"My grandmother is 97 and fiercely independent. One thing she often says is that when her elderly friends fade, it's usually because they don't talk to anyone—they end up becoming more and more isolated as they get older. So she makes it a point to stay in touch with people and find ways to make herself useful every day. When I was in medical school, she used to give me a wake-up call before every major exam! She taught me how important social connections are to health. Enjoy the people around you, and make sure you maintain your relationships as you age."

Value THE Climb

Cedrek McFadden, M.D., a colorectal surgeon in Greenville, SC

"When I started my career, one of my attending physicians always took the stairs during rounds—there was no taking the elevator. And of course, we residents followed along. Everyone else would complain about it, but I thought it was a great way to fit in exercise, and now I do the same. Just today I was on rounds with a resident and we were going up three flights. He asked, 'Want to take the elevator?' I said, 'Are you kidding me? Keep climbing!'"

STAY CALM, Stop Googling

Jennifer Ashton, M.D., ABC News Chief Women's Health Medical Correspondent and an ob-gyn in New Jersey

"A physician once told me, 'When you hear hooves outside your door, think horses, not zebras.' It's an old med school saying, and it basically means that while rare diseases do occur, the vast majority of health problems you'll face will be garden-variety. I repeat this mantra to my patients—in an age where everyone can google their symptoms, it's easy to think that a cough is lung cancer, when it's more likely to be an upper respiratory infection. Doctors absorb so much medical information that even we dream up worst-case scenarios when we get sick. So I always try to remember: The truly exotic is rare, and common things happen commonly."

Think: Hands Off

Bardia Anvar, M.D., a surgeon and medical director of Skilled Wound Care and Valley Urgent Care in Los Angeles

"One of my instructors during my residency was such a stickler about using hand sanitizer that I thought he might have OCD, but I did learn another key germ-fighting rule from him: Don't touch your face. You can't always wash your hands on the spot—it would be rude if you ran to the sink right after shaking someone's hand. So the best thing is to avoid touching your face throughout the day, because that's how you get sick—your fingers come into contact with germs and then you transfer them to your eyes, mouth, or nose. Just try to remind yourself, 'hands off,' and soon you'll find it's become a habit."

PLAN TO Raise Hell at 90

Michael Kazim, M.D., an eye surgeon and clinical professor of ophthalmology and surgery at Columbia University Medical Center in New York

"I've been in practice for 26 years, and the single biggest change I've seen in that time is how much longer patients are living. When I started out, I rarely saw 90-year-olds, much less 90-year-olds who were full of life, but now I have several patients around that age. I'm not shy about asking them, 'So, what's your secret?' They've all given me the same advice: Always try new things; look for small ways to exercise every day (one patient who's 84 swims each morning!); and try to remain upbeat. It's a great reminder that you shouldn't just have short-term plans for health—you have to think about how healthy you want to be 50 years from now. Personally, I've stepped up my own efforts to stay active, swimming, running, and biking each week. It's kind of hard not to, when you look at an 84-year-old who does laps at the pool every day. If she can do it, I can too."

ON YOUR WORST DAY, Remember Your Best Day

Kelli Culpepper, M.D., an ob-gyn at Medical City Dallas Hospital

"When I got my acceptance letter to medical school, a friend of my father's said, 'Frame it and hang it on the wall wherever you're working. If you have a bad day, look at that letter and remember how happy you were when you got it.' It used to hang in my apartment. Now it hangs in my office, right next to the door I walk through every day to see patients. I'm blessed that my job is a joy 95% of the time. But those other days can be pretty bad. That's when I look at that letter and remember how thrilled I was to start this journey. It's nice to have a focal point—sometimes, when you're flailing, you need one."

Don't Play Martyr

Nada Elbuluk, M.D., an assistant professor of dermatology at New York University

"When I was a resident, I was reluctant to call in sick—I wanted to be there for my patients. But one of the doctors I work with told me, 'If you want to take care of others, you have to take care of yourself first.' He was right, and since then I've realized it's important to do this every day, by getting enough rest and drinking enough water. I say the same thing now to patients who are parents or caregivers and can forget to prioritize their own health."

THINK Big Picture

Mona Gohara, M.D., a Connecticut-based dermatologist

"A lot of times as a doctor you get into the habit of writing a prescription for everything, but that sort of thinking has its limits. Especially when it comes to skin, which is the largest organ in your body and is affected by so many different factors, like stress and diet. I didn't always understand that—they don't teach you about it in school. But a few of my patients pointed out that once they'd gotten to a good place emotionally or, say, found a job they loved, the inflammation in their skin would subside, even when we'd tried every possible medical treatment and nothing had worked before. Now I make mental, physical, and emotional health part of my treatment plans. I manage those areas in my own life, too, paying attention to how stressed I feel and trying to stay positive."


John P. Higgins, M.D., a sports cardiologist at McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston

"Early in my career, one of my mentors advised me to bring home-cooked meals to work. Although they're getting better, hospital cafeterias don't always have the best options. When I was a resident, you'd have better luck finding sodas and salty snacks than fruit. I still pack my lunch today—instead of hoping I'll come across something nutritious, I'm already prepared."

KNOW WHAT Ages You Most

Robert Anolik, M.D., a cosmetic dermatologist in New York

"Long before I considered a career in dermatology, I studied molecular biology in college. During a lecture about the structure of collagen, one of the teaching assistants, a guy with a really dry sense of humor, asked the class why it's so important to wear sunscreen every day. When we all chimed in, 'To prevent skin cancer,' he laughed and said for him it was because he wanted to stay beautiful—90% of skin aging is caused by the sun. That statistic stuck in my head; I had no idea that the sun was the biggest factor in how your skin ages, or that sunscreen had value beyond disease prevention. To be honest, it's the reason I started wearing sunscreen regularly! When my patients come in asking for high-tech anti-aging treatments, I always start out by telling them to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30."