COVID-19 pandemic leads physicians to new hobbies

January 8, 2021
Rebekah Bernard MD

Dr Bernard was a National Health Care Scholar and served at a Federally Qualified Health Center in Immokalee, Florida for six years after her residency. She then worked for a large out-patient hospital group before opening her own practice, which she con

As dismal as the last year has been, the pandemic has offered a few tiny silver linings

As dismal as the year 2020 year has been, the pandemic has offered a few tiny silver linings. Some positives: more time at home with family, extremely well-exercised pets, and the opportunity to cultivate hobbies and interests. In fact, new hobbies seemed to be one of the best parts of 2020 for physicians, with the post “What new hobby have you taken up during the pandemic?” on the private Facebook group Physician Community, garnering a whopping 1,200 responses.

Nisha Mehta, MD, a radiologist and the founder of the Facebook group, wasn’t surprised by the number of responses. “Physicians are becoming increasingly aware that pursuing interests and developing talents can enhance career longevity in this era of physician burnout.”

While some responses were tongue-in-cheek (competitive eating, wine drinking, and homeschooling to name a few), most physician respondents were enthusiastic to share a wide array of new hobbies they developed during the post-lockdown period. (I reached out to the physicians quoted in this article to recieve permission for using their comments.)

Comfort hobbies

One of the most common responses in the thread included comfort hobbies like cooking, crafting, and gardening. Many physicians reported a newly awakened interest in baking, with sourdough bread a particular favorite. Why the obsession with sourdough? According to Anne Lee, MD, a preventive medicine physician in Ann Arbor, MI, making the perfect loaf is simple yet challenging.

“Although it only has three ingredients—flour, water, and salt—the technique and timing take practice. When it is finally done correctly and you get the delicious aroma and texture and flavor of airy light sourdough, it feels great.”

While lots of physician bakers enjoyed crafting homemade treats, Maeghan Williams, MD, a neonatology fellow, has taken her baking a step further by “getting serious” about cookie decorating.

“Creating something fun and beautiful is such great therapy and allows for an escape from the long days at work.”

Another physician who put on a chef hat is Nicholas Tomsen, MD, a family physician in Wichita, Kansas, who scandalized his Facebook friends by telling them that he had taken up smoking—until he clarified that he wasn’t smoking cigarettes, but rather, all types of foods, including salmon, cheese, meat, and jerky. “I built my own smoker out of a 55-gallon drum,” says Tomsen, who likes the hobby because, “it gives me a chance to work on and perfect something while still being present and home with my wife and kids.”

Some physicians practiced more than just cooking food—they began to grow it themselves! During the pandemic, Atlanta-area plastic surgeon Carmen Kavali, MD talked her husband into raising backyard chickens. Kavali and her daughter researched the requirements for raising chickens, ordered a coop, and took in four rescue chickens, which are now yielding fresh eggs. “It appears we have become the Atlanta Chicken Rescue,” jokes Kavali, who, in classic physician-fashion, has readied a “chicken first-aid kit” in anticipation of potential hen ailments.

Another comforting hobby to many physicians is watching something grow. Sara Bazán, DO, an OB-GYN Columbus, Ohio who began 2020 with two plants that were “near death,” now has a total of 54 houseplants.

“I’ve had to spend hours reading about their care. My sister and I either text or talk daily about how our plants are growing and we share what we learn. We meet up to shop for plants and share cuttings.”

Bazán also loves sharing her plants with others, especially cuttings from an Easter cactus that originally belonged to her mother, who passed away in 2018. “My sister had propagated a cutting from the mother plant, and we will continue to pass babies off to others for generations to come.”

For an aspiring houseplant gardener, Bazán recommends starting with one of her favorite plants, pothos. “They are the most basic but are easy and beautiful if kept tidy. They are super- easy to water propagate—once roots appear, just plant into soil and they do fine.” For more challenging plants, she recommends joining a social media group for experienced houseplant hobbyists.

“The key to success is really simple—know the water, soil, and light preferences. With unlimited, virtual access to professionals, anyone can be successful.”

Someone who took on a much bigger planting project is physician Donna Givens, MD, a family physician in Grant’s Pass, Oregon, who planted a lavender farm. “I really love working in the dirt and experiencing more time outdoors; it’s a welcome change from the practice routine,” says Givens, who is looking forward to sharing her harvest with family and friends. “I love that lavender makes people happy. It is beautiful to look at and known for its relaxing properties.”

Creative hobbies

Many doctors used extra time at home to indulge their creative side. Alisa Helfgott, DO, a pediatrician in New York City, channeled her emotions into chalk art. “During my time at home when I wasn’t caring for patients, I took chalk to asphalt and harnessed my thoughts and energy into drawing.” Helfgott loves that she can practice her hobby at home with her children. “It enthralls them and calms me. I call it driveway therapy,” she says.

Deepti Mundkur, MD, a family physician, reports that she revived her childhood hobby of painting during the pandemic. “I decided to quit my ‘big box clinic job’ and open a direct primary care practice. Since I had some extra time initially, I picked up a paint brush for the first time in nearly ten years.” Mundkur features her art on her practice website, “My Happy Doctor,” including custom pet portraits, nature scenes, and medical art.

Some doctors took the time to learn new skills, like Nixi Cat, DO, a family medicine physician who learned to craft jewelry from molten metal to create his own custom wedding rings. “The pandemic stepped up my timeline to propose,” says Cat, who made an engagement ring, two wedding bands, and silver bracelets “out of about $40 of metal and alexandrite I bought on eBay.” While Cat had never worked with molten metal before, he found all the necessary information by researching YouTube videos, and practiced until he got them right. “I made many that were imperfect before I finished.”

Some doctors took up hobbies to help others. During the pandemic, Mississippi psychiatrist Katherine Gantz Pannel, DO learned to crochet to make ‘fidget-sleeves’ for nursing home patients. While Pannel loves that her hobby can help dementia patients with anxiety and agitation, she notes that it has been helpful for her as well. “It controls my anxiety, and keeps my hands mobile,” an important part of controlling her rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. Pannel invites other doctors to join her at her Facebook group, Crocheting for a Cause. After all, altruistic hobbies are associated with a greater sense of well-being, better health, and longevity.

Relaxing hobbies

As anxiety levels increased during the pandemic, many doctors looked to hobbies to relax. Meghan Scears, MD, a family physician and eating disorder specialist in Oklahoma City, read or listened to eighty books throughout the year. “I had forgotten how much I love reading and how much it relaxes me,” she says. Scears also relaxed by doing puzzles and with music. “I write music, sing, and play the piano. I have a whole notebook full of new songs I wrote this year.” She notes that COVID19 and self-isolation led to “more self-care than I’ve done in a long time.”

Carlos Portu, MD, an internal medicine physician in Naples, FL relaxes by collecting coins with his children. “It was an easy hobby to start, doesn’t take much space, and has a residual value in case I ever get bored with it,” says Portu, who was inspired when he began sifting through coins in an old coin jar at home to teach history to his homeschooling kids during the pandemic.

Other physicians developed hobbies to help them connect with family members far away. Mervyn Thynne, MD, a retired radiologist, turned to a phone app called Voice Memos to record stories for his grandchildren. “It’ very easy to use. Once you start the story, it just drags you along.” Thynne, who records for about 14 minutes every night, estimates he has told 200 stories since COVID began.

Active hobbies

Lots of physicians reported exercising more during the pandemic. Leslie Treece, MD, a pediatrician in Cookeville, Tennessee, turned to indoor cycling in October when the weather became too cold to bicycle outdoors. She bikes most days with her boyfriend as a hobby that they can do together. “It’s life-changing and so much fun.”

Other doctors took the opportunity to learn new sports, like Bella Agrawal, MD, a family physician in Sacramento, CA, who started taking tennis lessons. “I always wanted to learn but never thought I’d be able to because of my late start and previous injuries,” she says. But with other activities canceled due to the pandemic, Agrawal began playing tennis at the encouragement of a friend. “It’s made a big difference in my life.”

Jessica Madden, MD, a neonatologist in Cleveland, OH, also indulged in a lifelong dream by taking ballet lessons as an adult. “I always wanted to do ballet, but my family couldn’t afford to pay for lessons when I was growing up.” Madden enrolled in lessons before COVID cases in her community surged, which allowed her to learn basic techniques. She now takes virtual group classes and private one-on-one classes with an instructor following COVID precautions. She bought a simple barre and dance mat on Amazon, and practices in her bedroom with online instruction. Marie, who had a prolonged recovery from COVID19 herself, says that ballet has helped her to regain strength.

Another physician who found multiple benefits from dancing is Shannon Mitchel, MD, a wound care specialist who began ballroom and Latin dancing lessons this year. “I love that focusing on the music and movement takes away any stress of the day, and it also helps my balance and coordination.” Mitchel’s dance studio follows safety measures to reduce the risk of COVID19, including wearing face coverings while dancing.

Still other physicians used the pandemic time to exercise their minds. Marlene Smith, MD, a pediatrician, fulfilled a longtime dream of becoming a publisher, launching Physician Outlook magazine in 2020. The physician lifestyle magazine includes a digital and print edition, and features articles and artwork from physicians.

Cultivating hobbies

Enjoying hobbies and activities outside of medicine is one of the best ways to improve quality of life and mental health. Creative outlets like writing, knitting and crochet, cooking new recipes, painting, drawing, sketching, and musical performance have been found to improve emotional wellbeing and creativity. According to psychologist Steven Cohen, PsyD just zoning out in front of the television doesn’t get the same results as more active hobbies. 

“Often we are not even really interested in these activities—we are just doing them because we are bored.” While watching TV or internet scrolling may feel relaxing, Cohen notes that they are not psychologically beneficial. “Often, these activities just make you feel less productive, less motivated, and more dysphoric.”

The good news is that hobbies need not be elaborate to be beneficial. Activities as simple as working a puzzle, playing a boardgame, or making simple craft projects can have a big impact on your mental well-being.

Rebekah Bernard MD is a family physician in Fort Myers, FL and the co-author of Physician Wellness: The Rock Star Doctor’s Guide.