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Balancing hobbies and medical school

By Malak Metwally

No one wants to be that person. The one who, when asked ‘what do you do outside of medicine?’, panics. Their mind goes blank and they realise that they have nothing to say. This is because, consciously or not, they’ve sold their soul to the course and now ‘medicine’ has become their one and only personality trait.

To find out if you are, in-fact, that person, you need to ask yourself the following question.

What do you do outside of medicine?

Possible answers might include:

“I play the piano”

- Be honest, when was the last time you sat down and played?

“I draw”

- When was the last time you actually picked up a pencil and drew something?

“I’m learning Spanish”

- Are you learning Spanish, or did you make a Duolingo account a year ago, do a lesson and forget about it?

One day, the fear of becoming that person led me to write down a list of all my interests and see how I was going to incorporate them into my day-to-day life. The aim was that these interests would no longer be sporadic things I did every now and again, but rather regular hobbies. Here’s how I did it.

1. What do I actually want to do?

Contrary to popular believe, you do actually have free time in medical school. However, it’s not a lot and it’s significantly less than other courses. For that reason, the hobbies you pick must be something you desperately want to do. It has to make you happy.

Don’t be afraid to start something new. University is a great time to explore the things that you’ve been interested in for a while but haven’t quite gotten around to beginning.

2. Where does it fit in?

The first thing I did was take my weekly timetable and block out all of my contact hours. These were the actual teaching sessions where I had to be on campus. I blocked out PBL, anatomy, communication skills and labs. Those were the times when I was absolutely not going to be free.

3. When can I fit my hobbies in?

Now, if you plan on attending classes with set times such as a language or fitness class, then you need to pencil this in. For example, on a Tuesday after PBL, my friend and I meet for a ‘language swap’. She teaches me French and I teach her Arabic. It’s the perfect break from a busy day on campus. Afterwards, I can head over to my next teaching session with a fresh mind (and some new French.)

4. Exercise and sports- what do you want to do? Find your workout niche.

At the start of First Year, my friend and I decided to attend a ballet class. I’d always wanted to try it out but had never quite had the chance. And so, I made the decision to give it a go, not sure exactly what to expect. I ended up loving it. Don’t get me wrong, it was an intense workout, but I enjoyed every single moment. I was so focused on the barre warmup and floor routines that I wasn’t thinking about anything else. Ballet had my full, undivided attention for an hour and forty-five minutes every week and I looked forward to it each time.

Still, there are many, many days when I don’t want to go, and don’t. That’s normal. But with habit, with disciple, and with routine, those days become less and less frequent.

5. What’s your creative outlet?

Creativity is a vital trait to any ‘well-rounded’ person.

Creative hobbies have been shown to relieve stress and anxiety. Indeed, a study published in 2016 provided thirty-nine people with various art supplies. They were told to create anything they wanted to over a forty-five-minute period*. By the end of that time, researchers found that around seventy percent of the participants experienced a decrease in cortisol- the hormone that is secreted by the body in response to stress. This result was seen in participants regardless of their artistic experience. So, whether you’re a budding Picasso or not quite so, you can benefit from the stress relieving properties of creativity.

Writing is my creative outlet but drawing, painting or playing a musical instrument are excellent alternatives. It’s all down to what works for you.

6. Where are you going to volunteer?

Often, as medical students hovering awkwardly about the wards, we feel entirely useless. We’re not at the stage in our career where we can help in the way a doctor would. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t help in various other ways. Volunteering can be a brilliant opportunity to help your local community and give back where possible.

I began volunteering with the Children’s Hospital University of Manchester Society (CHUMS) at the start of my second year at university. CHUMS is an initiative run by volunteer medical students of all year groups. It involves going on paediatric wards to entertain and lift the spirits of the patients and their families. Depending on the ward, this could vary from babies to teenagers.

As volunteers, we play games, build Lego houses and take part in arts and crafts with the children on the wards. Hopefully, it’s a fun and joyful distraction for the kids and allows the parents to have a break and grab a coffee.

Every experience that I’ve had with CHUMS has been entirely rewarding and heart-warming. I cannot recommend volunteering enough- not for your CV or portfolio, but for yourself and the opportunity to give back.

N.B: I’ve created this timetable as a rough example of my typical week at university. However, things come up and situations change. Sometimes you’re just not feeling that workout or study session in the library. That’s okay. Sticking strictly to a timetable like this all the time is near impossible. Be flexible, if you can’t do something right now, be prepared to move things around and do it at another time.

Summary of tips:

1. Organisation- create a timetable.

2. Only pick hobbies that you enjoy and look forward to.

3. Routine is key.

4. Prioritise. They’ll be times when some hobbies have to be sacrificed, for example, the night before an exam.

5. Take a friend- this is a great way to keep each other accountable.

6. Find the workout that is right for you- it doesn’t always have to be the gym.

7. Pick your creative outlet.

8. Discipline over motivation.

9. Volunteer with an organisation that you are passionate about.

10. Flexibility- be prepared to move things around if you need to.

* Kaimal, G., Ray, K., & Muniz, J. (2016). Reduction of cortisol levels and participants' responses following art making. Art therapy, 33(2), 74-80.

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