Many people report having gone to their personal physicians to seek treatment for pain that occurs while doing some sort of exercise and receiving the answer, "Well, stop doing it." Misdiagnoses of exercise-related conditions are also common and can have serious consequences. In addition, you need to be able to rely upon your primary-care physician for guidance in assessing your personal risk factors in relation to your activity level, treating overuse injuries, choosing among surgical or therapeutic options should you become injured, and more. For these reasons, it's important to recruit the right personal physician, someone who will partner with you in your quest for fitness. Here are some qualities to keep in mind.
- You need a doctor who has the time. The Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the Harvard Medical School and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston did a study to discover what primary-care physicians found to be the biggest obstacles to counseling their patients regarding exercise. Sixty-one percent said they lacked the time. Most physicians in the U.S. are under tremendous pressure to see many patients a day, so they want to get you out the door as quickly as possible. But rest assured that there are health-care providers out there who do make enough time for their patients to address their exercise concerns.
- A doctor who exercises herself is more likely to be helpful. The Harvard study also found that 16 percent of doctors said their own inadequate fitness knowledge and/or experience proved to be a major barrier in counseling patients on exercise. Look for a doctor who's willing to work with your specific concerns and who will respect your desire to pursue your chosen activity. A doctor who's more active will give you advice to stay healthy, but in a way that doesn't preempt your desire to also stay active.
- A doctor's nonverbal communication can negatively impact your ability to follow his instructions. A shoulder shrug. Lack of eye contact. A glance at the clock. What physicians don't say can impact your outcome as much as what they do say, according to a study of nonverbal behavior. Published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, this study found that the nonverbal behavior of physicians negatively influenced patients' compliance with the doctors' instructions.
- Getting a doctor who will listen is half the challenge. Research out of the United Kingdom showed that the average consultation for a doctor treating a sports injury lasted nine minutes, and that the doctor interrupted the patient within the first 18 seconds of asking the patient to describe his symptoms. If you want to find a good doctor, be a good patient, one who is informed about how his body works, and asks questions. Once you reach out to a medical professional, make sure you are able to articulate your problem succinctly. Pinpoint the date and the activity you were doing when the problem started, and be able to rate its severity.
( Eric Heiden, M.D., a five-time Olympic gold medalist speed skater, is now an orthopedic surgeon in Utah. He co-authored "Faster, Better, Stronger: Your Fitness Bible" (HarperCollins) with exercise performance physician Max Testa, M.D., and DeAnne Musolf. Visit www.fasterbetterstronger.com.)