Harvard doctors set good health example

More than half of those surveyed exercise at least three times a week.

By — Posted Nov. 7, 2005

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Physicians know well the caricatures of a hefty doctor telling his or her patient to lose weight or a cigarette-sneaking practitioner urging someone to kick the habit. What patient would take advice from someone who doesn't practice what he or she preaches?

At least one group of physicians, though, is painting a portrait of good health for patients. A new survey of 2,115 Harvard Medical School faculty physicians found that they exercise regularly, eat healthily and don't smoke.

All in all, they heed their own advice to patients.

"I was a little bit surprised that it was so good. It's probably part of an overall trend [of good health] of which doctors are a part," said Peter Wehrwein, editor of the Harvard Health Letter, which published the findings in its October issue.

The publication asked medical school physicians, including practicing doctors and researchers, to fill in an anonymous e-mail questionnaire about their health habits.

The results showed that about half of the doctors eat three to four servings of fruits or vegetables daily, drink in moderation (one to five drinks a week) and use olive oil instead of less-healthy fats. Only 12% regularly eat fast food.

"The members of the faculty that answered our survey seem to eat a little less, and to weigh a little less, than most people their age in the U.S.," Harvard Health Letter Editor-in-Chief Anthony Komaroff, MD, said in a statement. He was out of the country and unavailable for comment.

More than half of the respondents exercise at least three times a week, and a similar amount work out 30 minutes to an hour. About eight in 10 take a multivitamin. And 2% smoke.

The doctors are conscientious about screening tests: about three-fourths of those over age 50 had a colonoscopy, and two-thirds of women over age 40 got a mammogram every year.

But it wasn't a perfect picture of health. The survey found 119 couch potatoes who exercise less than once a week for less than 30 minutes. And 42 physicians admitted eating fast food several times a week.

Other physicians strive for health

The findings come at a time when obesity is at a crisis level and physicians are being told to place more emphasis on obesity health problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 65% of U.S. adults are overweight or obese.

Some groups have nudged physicians to lose their pudginess. At the American Academy of Family Physicians' annual conference two years ago, leaders urged family physicians to lead healthier lives and to become fit role models for patients. American Medical Association policy says physicians have a responsibility to maintain their health to preserve the quality of their performance.

Reginald L. Robinson, MD, said Harvard's doctors aren't the only physicians keeping fit. Doctors at his cardiology group practice in Washington, D.C., exercise regularly, and none of them is obese. He stays svelte by walking each morning, jogging with his dog and doing ab crunches.

"When patients come in, it's hard for me to get them to change their diet if I'm obese," he said.

Boulder, Colo., psychiatrist Doreen Orion, MD, said doctors also need to keep healthy to help cope with the profession's stress. "What I see is physicians are so stressed these days, particularly with managed care," Dr. Orion said.

Grand Rapids, Mich., pain management specialist Mark Gostine, MD, gives patients a four-page document on healthy lifestyle tips, including the right foods to eat. He is a marathon runner who in April finished the Boston Marathon. He said keeping in shape sends out a positive message.

"There's the issue of leading by example," he said. "If a doctor doesn't, some patients feel less inspired or less inclined to take his or her advice."

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Taking their advice

A new survey shows that Harvard Medical School faculty physicians exercise regularly and maintain a healthy diet. It also showed that among the 2,115 physician faculty members surveyed:

  • 35% walk for exercise
  • 55% use portion control to diet
  • 67% take steps such as exercise to relieve stress
  • 68% get six to seven hours of sleep most nights
  • 55% get a flu shot annually

Source: Harvard Health Letter, October

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External links

Results of survey of 2,115 Harvard Medical School faculty physicians, Harvard Health Letter, October (link)

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