Some would think that dancing professionally in a ballet company is an odd way to prepare for medical school, but that's exactly what I did. I started dancing when I was nine, eventually moving to Seattle at 15 to train in the professional division of Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, Washington.
Before moving to the big city, I'd grown up in a small Canadian logging town. Life was simple. My father was a stone mason, my mother took care of our home and the town physician did house calls and treated the entire family from birth. But in Seattle, I was on my own at a young age. Dancing every day did things to my body I'd never experience before, and I no longer had access to the wholesome, made-from-scratch meals from my mother's kitchen. A new relationship to food and my body began and changed and evolved to what it is today, ultimately leading me to the path of medicine.
Here are the five most important lessons I've learned about my body over the years:
1. Pain and fatigue are messages.
Dancing on pointe and contorting my body day in, day out led to pain. I often didn't know if what I was experiencing was an injury or just part of the process of pushing myself. So I pushed on, pushed through, kept going ... and always ended up injured.
The body is an amazing machine designed to do wonderful things, but it also sends messages when things aren't right. I now know that pain or fatigue are my body's way of telling me to rest so it can repair and recuperate. We all push ourselves in various ways, but it's crucial that you listen to your body when it's telling you its tired, hungry or hurt. Our body is designed to be in balance if we give it what it needs and get out of the way.
2. What you choose to focus on will grow.
In ballet, it's common to focus on what's wrong and how we can work to correct or make it better. The trouble with this is that our brain is trained by repetition. If you focus on what's wrong all day at work, you'll find things that are "wrong" in your relationships, yourself and your life.
Positive psychology has shown that you can train your brain to see positive or negative by what you focus on. I've learned that nothing is ever all bad (or all good), but I choose to change the channel of my brain to the positive station whenever I can. Writing down specific things you're grateful for has been shown to make people more happy. Maybe start a gratitude group and email each other for accountability, or take up journaling. Whatever you do makes a difference.
3. Habits are more important than talent.
There are many dancers with innate talent, but unless they work hard and develop it, they won't flourish. Ballet is a series of repetitions performed to create improvement, and over time, those repetitions become habits.
This repetition was fantastic training for medical school. I often say the reason I did so well in my medical training wasn't because I was the smartest, but simply because if I didn't understand something after reading it ten times, I'd read it again ... and again ... and again, until I got it. Success is simply a series of repetitions done until you've formed a habit. The same is true for nutrition, exercise, work, etc. Given enough consistency, you can do more than you think
4. Setting priorities leads to success.
In ballet, dancing, rehearsing, training and performing take priority over everything because dancing is in our hearts and at our cores. If leaves us feeling inspired, close to our love of music and art, and creating something beautiful. I've taken this ability to prioritize into my health and medical practice.
I so often see women put their own self-care at the bottom of their priority list. Even if they decide to make themselves a priority, it's common that they'll give up that time for someone or something else. But that shouldn't be the case. Self-care is crucial to your overall health, so make sure it's a priority in your life that's connected to something you love and care for.
My priority is to spend time meditating, so I put a reminder in my calendar. But when things came up, I'd see "meditate" and often ignored it. But then I linked it to my core values. Now I have it in my calendar as, " meditate so I can be healthy and vibrant to see my children graduate and meet my grandchildren." Try saying no to that!
5. Food is information, not just fuel.
The focus of being thin when dancing in a ballet company is real. The foods I chose were based on what had the least, with no thought to how the food would feed my cells and give me the strength to be my best. A diet soda and apple were a common lunch for me. But nutrition is so much more than calories in versus calories out.
The nutrients in food create the cells, organs, chemical and hormones that affect how you look, feel and function. I now focus on eating good fats, proteins, vegetables and fruits as 80-90% of what goes into my body. This will feed my cells and it leaves me 10-20% left over to feed my satisfaction.
Today, I'm almost 50 and my body is strong and healthy, and has forgiven me for all the abuse I put it through. I spent so much of my life “getting by” on bad nutrition, too little sleep and too much stress. But remember: it’s your life, your health, your turn. You are the CEO of your own health.