When I was a medical student our favourite lecturer was Dr Andy Sparrow. Not because of his subject (which was anatomy) but because at random points throughout his slides he would show us pictures of his holidays – a bit of light relief in the midst of gruesome detail.
I am currently at around 30,000 feet as I write this blog post , returning from a weekend in Valencia with my friends. We are all part of a GP learning set and this was the group’s 19th annual trip. It’s been a great weekend in a fantastic city that I will definitely return to.
During our time away we each prepare a topic to discuss. We do these throughout the weekend, combining continuing professional development with eating, moving, (some) sleeping and plenty of relaxing. My topic this year was Lifestyle Medicine and Wellbeing. I shared my journey thus far and how learning about the importance of this has transformed how I feel about my job and purpose. We discussed models of wellbeing including the four pillars that I have already mentioned. I had recommended to the group that we try to all read Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s Four Pillar Plan before the trip. We also added another pillar: connection. So for this week’s blog I hope you will indulge me as I share some of our experience how it relates to wellbeing for real life. With a few holiday snaps thrown in.
One of the pleasures of the trip is finding nice places to eat good food. We like to go on local recommendation, backed up by Trip Advisor. The highlight for me this year was a day spent on a farm learning how to make proper valencian paella and sangria. It was of course terribly gruelling but we did end up with a certificate which I will show to my appraiser next year. Learning about the origin of the dish and what the correct ingredients are (apparently if there’s sea food or chorizo in it then it’s not paella, just rice with things in it) was interesting but the best part was how paella is served up and eaten. First of all everyone makes a point of thanking the cook (whether it tastes good or not!) and then everyone sits round the table with a spoon (not a fork) and eats from their segment of the paella dish. If you want a bit in someone else’s segment you negotiate for it. You can put bits you don’t want in the centre for anyone to take. And you never, ever turn the dish round to take something you want, not unless you enjoy getting stabbed in the hand with a fork by one of your neighbours.
What struck me is how important this is for a key pillar of wellbeing: connection. The food is cooked from local, seasonal ingredients. The meal is communal. Everyone shows their gratitude. Food is shared together over what will doubtless be good conversation, helped perhaps by a little sangria. It was a wonderful experience that our hosts were very happy to share with us, and send us away as paella ambassadors! Interestingly, the valencians consider paella to be a dish that you only eat at lunch, and as it can be quite heavy then they enjoy their siesta afterwards and tend to have a light evening meal around 10pm, often with tapas dishes. In Valencia, anyone eating paella for dinner is definitely a tourist.
In the interests of full disclosure, sleep was a bit of a mixed bag. There is time-stamped photographic evidence on our WhatsApp group of some deep and meaningful discussions taking place in a bar in the early hours of friday morning. However, we were quite sensible for the other nights. What is always striking when going to Spain is the siesta. In his book Why We Sleep, Matt Walker explains how we naturally have a biphasic sleep pattern as humans (i.e. we do best if we sleep twice a day) and so to have a siesta is consistent with this. In the UK we have forced a monophasic sleep pattern on ourselves with a masochistic long working day…which results in less productivity, not more. When Greeks stopped their siesta at the height of the financial crisis, cardiovascular deaths increased significantly as a result. We also get a surge in these events when the clocks go forward and we lose an hour’s sleep every year. The EU will stop the twice yearly changing of the clocks in 2019. It will be interesting to see if population health benefits can be demonstrated. After Brexit (the only topic we banned for the whole weekend) the UK could be the control arm of this large-scale population experiment!
Walking from cafe to bar to restaurant was, as you can imagine, absolutely exhausting. Somehow we managed. We did take in the sights as well, hitting 10,000 steps most days. There are beautiful museums, markets and churches in Valencia
Having to walk up and down four flights of stairs due to a broken lift was very helpful in this respect. We must write a note of thanks to the hotel. On our last morning I went for a run with my friend through the park that runs along a dry river bed in Valencia. It’s a lovely setting and despite being early it was practically rush hour with the locals in running clubs, walking dogs and riding their bikes…Valencia’s equivalent of Park Run. Running with someone who is a better runner than me really helped me go further and faster than I would normally. I made a point of thanking them for this through only slightly gritted teeth. Incidentally, did you know that Park Run is a global thing? Apparently some people do the Park Run Alphabet challenge finding cities all round the world where it takes place. It takes place in both Mile End and Milan. I suspect the starting letter and hosting Park Run are the only thing they have in common. There’s also a UK version.
We are not usually short on relaxation during one of our trips. The key idea that underpins very trip is the idea of “me time”…that as human beings we all need and deserve some me time. Our group is very fortunate in being able to do this for a whole weekend once a year. What was interesting is that sitting round the dinner table and talking about which pillars we find easier and which we need to work on, the commonest area for improvement was in relaxing. One of our group described their child had complaining to them that they couldn’t sit in their lap if there was a lap top already there.
It’s great to have an opportunity like this once a year, but probably more important, if you had to choose, to have five minutes every day. We talked about what we found relaxing: reading, listening to music, walking the dog, eating a meal as a family or watching our favourite TV show with them. We discussed practising mindfulness, being present and limiting screen time and I showed some of our group how to use Do Not Disturb and night-shift functions on their phones, before we finally turned in for the night.
By the time this post is published I will be at my desk in the surgery on a cold, busy monday morning. I will feel a bit sad that our trip is over for another year. However, I have got more CPD points for my appraisal, a new background photo on my desktop, more fond memories to add to the nineteen year collection, and a date already in the diary for next year.
Thank you for allowing me to share this with you. I hope that making it personal has been useful. Like James Bond, the weekly Wellbeing round-up will return. Until next week, take care of yourselves!
Dr Richard Pile