As you well know, America is in the grips of an obesity epidemic. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, over 70% of adults are considered overweight or obese, which is associated with multiple medical conditions. Nurses, as role models, advocates, and educators, are poised to make a difference in reversing this trend.
Unfortunately, nurses are not immune to weight problems themselves. In fact, research suggests the rate of overweight and obesity within the profession is on par with the general working-age population.
Here nurses and wellness professionals offer savvy advice for managing weight and fitness. Even for those working long, stressful, rotating or night shifts that offer few healthy food and exercise options.
Becoming a Healthy Role Model
Many nurses feel hypocritical telling patients to exercise and eat right if it’s obvious that they don’t walk the talk. Maybe that’s one of the reasons nurses enjoy a stellar reputation for honesty and trustworthiness, according to annual Gallup polls.
Yes, nurses are role models for patients, but there’s another professional reason to take care of one’s weight and fitness—the health and longevity of your career. The American Nurses Association Code of Ethics for Nurses includes several mentions of the importance of self-care (e.g., “The nurse owes the same duties to self as others”).
Nurses Helping Nurses
Many nurses know about the power of a group for establishing healthier habits like eating better and moving more. Most of those groups are comprised of people from all walks of life. But you may find there’s even more power in teaming up with fellow nurses who understand the struggle, especially if they’ll be around regularly to hold each other accountable.
Victoria Randle, MSN, NP-C, is a family nurse practitioner in the Atlanta area and cofounder of Nurses 4Ever Fit. Since January of 2018, the organization has held monthly in-person events at venues such as a nurse-owned yoga studio. “We all have a special bond that only another nurse can understand. It’s a platform for like-minded individuals to talk together, it’s a form of therapy, a form of camaraderie, and you can get your fitness in,” she explains.
Randle says the emphasis is on fitness, rather than diet, because “I see a lot of nurses who are vegan, for instance, and they don’t seem healthy. The element that’s missing is movement. When you’re 90 and you don’t have good muscle tone or you have brittle bones, that’s not healthy.”
Also, many women say they are “fearful of going to a gym because ‘I’m afraid people will look at me and judge me’ but here we’re all learning, and it’s a judgement-free zone,” she adds.
Saturday morning fitness sessions are only part of the Nurses 4Ever Fit experience. “We’re going to do an annual retreat. We take a weekend away and it’s a form of therapy. It includes a massage or a hot tub together,” she explains. “Exercise is good, but it’s not everyone’s idea of self-care. The nature of a nurse is to care for others and put the patient first. So, when it comes time to care for yourself, you don’t have much left. That is embedded in you—the workplace culture needs to change. Nursing school actually taught that if you get a 30-minute break in a 12-hour day, you’re lucky!”
Healthy Workplaces Equal Healthy Nurses
Some hospital systems have started programs to ensure that healthy food and fitness opportunities are available to their nursing staff.
MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, is lauded as an outstanding example of a wellness workplace. Evan Lee Thoman, MS, PMP, CWP, wellness specialist in the HR Wellness and Recognition unit has been in health promotion field for 13 years.
He works to find out what other employers at other top hospitals and universities are doing to engage employees toward a healthier lifestyle. And he investigates what his own hospital’s employees want before offering up a range of at-work health initiatives.
“The program is different for every unit. I go in and have a conversation with the leadership and we may do a needs and interest survey. We’re asking: ‘What do nurses need?’,” Thoman says. For instance, “we had many questions in one unit regarding how to make use of dental insurance. Who would not have guessed that medical consumer information was a top concern?”
But it was, so the wellness department set up a program to fill the knowledge gap. They aim to provide education and services to every shift ranging from an on-site fitness center and gym membership to ergonomic assessments and resources to address compassion fatigue, resiliency, and spiritual care.
Workplace leadership that buys into a wellness culture will reinforce the healthy behaviors that nurses must adopt. Thoman helps nurses to create those wellness habits, without overwhelming them. He asks them: “Who’s going to be your support system? Who’s going to hold you accountable?” The wellness team is there, of course, but so are fellow nurses and nurse leaders. “We get the best results and greatest engagement when we have a leader who walks the talk,” he says.
For example, nurses are notorious for neglecting to take meal or water breaks. “If you eat lunch it’s almost like you’re the weak one on the unit,” he says. “We’d been talking to nurses about planning their meals but then we thought, maybe we can bring something to the nurses. So now we try to take snacks to each department—‘Here’s a little something, a granola bar or piece of fruit, to fuel you during the day.’ We also stress micro breaks and encourage them to find five minute for a snack, go for water.”
When overworked and overstressed nurses complain that they don’t have time to take care of themselves, Thoman suggests gardening, journaling, or even coloring as a way to decompress.
Because nursing is a predominantly female occupation, Thoman notes that rest and relaxation may be difficult for women who do double-duty as caretakers at work and at home. Then there are the biological factors that may hamper a woman’s weight management efforts.
“From a weight-loss perspective, men tend to have more lean muscle than women, which burns more calories than body fat at rest, so, at the onset, men may lose weight a little faster,” explains Thoman, who was previously a university strength and conditioning coach.
Exercise Early, Exercise Often
Cara Sevier, RN, codeveloper of Nurses 4Ever Fit and the CEO of Cara Sevier Industries in the Atlanta area, knows that exercise isn’t always convenient for busy nurses working crazy shifts or living in extreme weather zones.
When nurses tell her that they have difficulty finding time to exercise, she asks them to challenge that belief. Even nurses with legitimate time constraints, such as parents of young children. “They call it a time barrier or challenge, but we say it’s a self-care issue; they feel guilt over finally taking care of themselves first,” she says.
Sevier has personally experienced that challenge and now meets it by waking up at 3:00 a.m. to drive to a gym 30 minutes away. Though the gym is open only Monday through Friday, she maintains her schedule seven days a week. “I found out I had to be consistent or I was thrown off. It gives you a peace in your body that you’re doing something for yourself—getting up at 3:00 a.m. for a 4:00 a.m. class,” she explains. “It takes discipline, forcing yourself, forcing my body to get to my highest physical self. On the weekend, I will find a cycle class or something else to do. Is it easy? No. It’s a lot of sacrifice, but it’s worth it.”
On the other hand, we do need adequate sleep to stay slim—and to stay sane. One study at Columbia University suggests that getting less than four hours of sleep a night could raise your obesity risk by an astonishing 73%. (Seven hours a night is the sweet spot.) Nurses who work overnight or pull 12-hour shifts are also at greater risk for weight gain, according to a University of Maryland study. Scientists suspect that when circadian rhythms get thrown out of whack, so do hunger and fat hormones, which results in excess pounds. Or perhaps lifestyle factors lead tired nurses working off-hours to make poor food choices and avoid exertion.
Become a Healthy Living Warrior
Uniqua Smith, PhD, MBA, RN, NE-BC, associate director of nursing programs at MD Anderson Cancer Center, slowly gained weight after transitioning to an administrative role. But with the help of a fitness boot camp and workplace wellness challenges, she started making healthier food choices and exercising consistently.
“On Sunday, you had to send in a picture of all the groceries you just bought—to show that there are no snacks, no high-sugar foods,” she explains about a challenge with friends, using a social media app for accountability. “For the weekly weigh-in, you had to take a picture of your feet on the scale.”
“Workplace weight loss challenges, like the March Madness challenge, keep you going when you have a month-long goal,” Smith explains. “You’re also motivated because you don’t want to let your team down.”
A little over a year later, she’d lost 40 pounds through calorie-cutting, portion control, and cardio exercise. Only 10 more pounds to reach her goal weight, but then came a diagnosis of breast cancer.
“I truly believe everything happens for a reason: 2017 was about getting myself together health wise,” she says. “It got me ready for 2018, when I had to fight for my life. It gave me the strength to fight cancer.”
After six months of chemotherapy, she underwent three separate surgeries over the next several months.
“I went through 16 cycles of two different types of chemotherapy. It takes a big toll on someone—I lost my taste buds and energy,” she says. “It took me literally an hour to take a shower, which before that took 10 minutes.”
She started exercising again slowly, at the beginning of 2019, after the last of her surgeries. From walking to running and then completing a 5K, she challenged herself to get to her previous state of fitness.
Smith is now a healthy living spokesperson and encourages everyone to eat clean and condition their bodies so they’re strong enough to fight any disease that comes their way.
Don’t Fool Yourself
For many nurses, weight gain happens slowly, and they may not even notice it at first. Or they have a pattern of yo-yo weight loss and gain, with pregnancy, holidays, or shift work.
Sevier knows what that’s like. “Even at my highest weight—I reached 188 lbs—I told myself every story in the book. ‘Maybe these scrubs had shrunk in the hot water. Oh, wait, is this the U.S. size or the European size?” But those excuses didn’t hold up under examination and soon she started working out with a trainer at a gym. “Now scrubs that were once tight on me are loose,” she adds.
Though it may be painful to face facts, research shows that being aware of and tracking certain behaviors can help drive healthy habits. A daily food log, whether paper or digital, can help some people to lose weight or keep it off. You can’t argue with the truth, when it’s detailed right in front of you, in black and white.
Feed Yourself Healthy Meals, Healthy Snacks
If you’re like most nurses, you struggle to plan, shop, and cook yourself nutritious meals and snacks. Regular meals may go out the window, replaced by chaotic eating habits. But simple meal planning strategies can help nurses to eat well.
Tiambe Kuykendall, BSN, RN, a clinical nurse at MD Anderson Cancer Center, does everything she can to fight off chaotic eating. “I work in pediatrics and our [patients’] parents want to feed us all the time. Nobody ever buys us a fruit basket, though we would enjoy it,” she notes. “I’ve realized that I have to pack a healthy snack to make sure there is one at work.”
But desserts, junk food, and other caloric gifts and treats aren’t the only landmines threatening your waistline at most nurses’ stations. “In my unit, someone will bake chocolate chip cookies two or three times a shift. We’re surrounded with unhealthy snacks—chocolate, cookies, chips, pizza, and other junk,” she explains. “But the wellness department brings snacks on a weekly basis—granola bars, bananas, apples, and popcorn. When everyone is trying to be healthy it makes it so much easier.”
Kuykendall notes that when she works out in the morning, her level of energy is much higher later. She’s made other changes in the a.m., too: “I don’t drink energy drinks anymore, just green tea in the morning before I go to work, and sometimes in the afternoon.”
She avoids the cafeteria even though there are healthy food options there. “We have a 30-minute lunch break and MD Anderson is huge, so the cafeteria lines are long,” she says. “Yesterday I planned meals for the next three days and will bring my own lunch and snacks. You can make small changes, like eating grapes instead of candy. I don’t advise that you deny yourself all the time, but indulging should not be the norm.”
Ditch Dieting in Favor of Mindful Eating
Most nurses are familiar with programs such as Weight Watchers, and in fact, some hospitals hold on-site meetings. But there’s been a nationwide shift in attitudes away from dieting and toward a focus on healthy living. Mindful eating is one such approach.
“We don’t promote any particular diet, or if you don’t follow a diet, we want to teach people to simply be aware of why they eat,” explains Mark Mitchnick, MD, CEO of MindSciences, Inc, a New York City developer of digital therapeutics apps. “Right now, it’s keto, but we don’t want to chase fads.” The company’s Eat Right Now app teaches users about the habit loop and how to navigate triggers to eating.
Most of us eat for a variety of reasons, most often the trigger doesn’t have anything to do with physical cues. “Sometimes it’s that you’re hungry, and sometimes it’s that you’re stressed, or you’re tired, or it’s a fight with your significant other,” Mitchnick says. “You can learn to separate the trigger from inappropriate behaviors and do something more productive. If you’re stressed about an upcoming test, study, don’t eat.”
The app helps people to break the habit loop through educational content in a highly sequenced series of 28 modules. It’s constructed to deliver a module a day, which takes only eight minutes, and which can be repeated as desired. A user can also access lessons when on a just in time basis. When feeling a craving, they can bring up a short series of questions to help shape their response to it.
A scientific study showed a 40% reduction in craving-related eating—eating for reasons other than hunger—after use of the app.
In addition to the mindful eating app, there is one to relieve anxiety and one for smoking cessation. “A lot of behavior people would like to change in a high-stress field like health care—smoking and eating—is actually stress-related. Ask yourself: ‘Do I have an eating issue or an anxiety issue?’,” Mitchnick advises.
It’s not easy for nurses to stay slim, but it’s worth doing. Shift work, long hours, sedentary lifestyle, heavy lifting, high stress, and fatigue can be overcome with a mindful approach.