Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Avoiding an Ulcer and Other Health Problems

As some of you reach your second or third week of school, and many others get ready for the first day of school after Labor Day, there's an issues we need to talk about before it's too late, and that is your mental and physical health.

This issue often gets ignored in the rush to worry about lesson plans, classroom management and actually teaching your students, and understandably so: many of us are hard-wired to be dedicated far beyond what we're asked to do. That is, of course, a good thing, but if you neglect your mental and physical health too much, it's going to have a negative effect on your classroom.

I speak from experience: in the spring of my first year, I developed a stomach ulcer. I missed several days of school and had to deal with the side effects of the medication I was taking even after I got back to the classroom. The day that my vision went blurry and I didn't have enough energy to stand up was a nightmare. Even after the ulcer was gone, I had a related battle with severe acid reflux for several years after that.

These were caused by the same things that many new (and yes, even veteran) teachers do when they're throwing themselves into their work: poor diet, lack of exercise, lack of sleep, and not taking steps to reduce stress.

Preventing your health from taking a downward turn is not that difficult, however. Just a few simple rules can keep you on top of your game:
  1. Don't skip breakfast. Research has proven time and time again that breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. It gives you energy, and prevents stomach acid from building up (which had lead to some of my problems). You'll also eat less and healthier the rest of the day. It's difficult to find the time, but even an on-the-go food like a low-fat, high-fiber breakfast bar is better than nothing.
  2. Stop to eat lunch. I've known many great teachers who saw lunch time as free work time. It's okay to get work done, or meet with students, but you have to eat! You also can take at least a few minutes to take a deep breath--you do need some kind of break to keep your stress level down. If you eat a good breakfast and light lunch, you won't go home and gorge yourself on an unhealthy dinner either.
  3. Don't take too much work home. Stop hauling that box of papers to grade, curriculum guides to read, and lesson plan paperwork back and forth from your house sooner rather than later. We both know that most (or all) of the time, that stuff is just getting a ride with you, remaining untouched except for transport. There's more effective ways to get your work done.
  4. Exercise. You don't have to join a gym, unless you can afford it and that is what it will take to keep you motivated. 30-60 minutes a day of any activity that works up a sweat (walking, running, swimming, gardening, serious house cleaning) will reduce your stress in the short turn and have innumerable effects in the long term. Don't make it complicated, just do something!
  5. Avoid fast food and too much eating out in general. Here in Texas, there's nothing better than a delicious Whataburger. Yet a diet primarily of fast food because I was unwilling to cook even microwave foods at home after a long day contributed to the medical problem I wrote about above. It's also cheaper to eat at home, which should lead to a little less stress over money.
  6. Take a day off when you need it. If you're sick, especially in these days of swine flu hysteria, stay home and get better. I give you permission to do so. If you don't take care of yourself, you'll end up missing more days when your illness turns into something more serious. There's also no shame in taking a mental health day.
  7. Get more high-quality sleep. Your body needs sleep more for your brain than anything else. Since that's the most important tool in your teaching arsenal, don't you want to keep it in the best condition possible?
  8. Don't drink too much. Stress relief doesn't come from a bottle. I'm the last person to tell you to stop doing this, but making it a frequent or daily habit will only lead to more problems, not less. Some of us, especially those coming right out of college, immediately seek refuge from stress in this way. If you need a concrete reason, I can tell you that in addition to poor diet, daily drinking was certainly another contributor to my ulcer and acid reflux problems. As Homer Simpson once said, alcohol is "the cause of—and solution to—all life's problems."
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