As nurses, we know how to check blood pressure, administer medications, and counsel patients about healthy living. But let’s face it—some of us don’t practice what we preach. At the end of a long shift taking care of others, we sometimes fail to take the best care of ourselves.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Take it from me—a busy practicing nurse, chief executive officer of a women’s website, a wife, and the mom of a 1-year-old boy: You can fit healthy habits into your life. You just have to want to. And once you do, you’ll see how much better you feel, physically and emotionally. As a bonus, exercise and healthy eating habits improve your cardiovascular health—a major concern as we age. (Heart disease is the #1 killer of women.) If improving your own health and well-being isn’t reason enough, keep in mind that getting healthier can help you take even better care of patients.
The power of exercise: Working out your body and your stress
I learned at a young age I’m not one of those women who can eat whatever they want and stay thin. I also discovered I can’t simply cut calories to lose weight; I need to exercise, too. For weight and overall fitness, I can’t stress enough the importance of physical activity. As a country, we exercise more today than we did 10 years ago—yet obesity rates are higher than ever. Why? Researchers suggest diet and other lifestyle changes are also components to maintaining a healthy weight.
Most people need to exercise (and eat well) to keep weight off and stay fit. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week, or a combination. This comes to at least 30 minutes, 5 days a week—a good goal.
What form of exercise is right? Like me, you might want to mix up your workouts to keep your mind and body challenged. I run one day, do kickboxing the next, and go to boot camp the next. (Kickboxing and boot camp are great ways to relieve work stress, by the way.) I also do strength training a few times a week.
To stay motivated, I exercise with friends. It’s much harder to make excuses for skipping an exercise session when you know others are counting on you. Once you show up, friends will push you to give it your all. I run with a group of 40+ moms every Saturday morning. Last year, I trained with the group and completed a half-marathon and three triathlons. Running is a great therapy session, too. One of us might say, “Hey, I’ve been having this problem at work”—and get great feedback from friends while running.
During the week, I fit my workouts in early—at 5:30 in the morning, while my husband stays home with the baby. He gets his turn to work out at night. It’s all about juggling and balancing your schedule to fit exercise into your life.
Nurse Nutrition 101
I plan my meals ahead of time. Healthy eating is crucial to controlling weight and promoting cardiovascular health. Research has deemed the Mediterranean diet a winner for a healthy heart. With this diet, you consume a lot of vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, and olive oil, plus a weekly intake of fish as the primary protein—but very little red meat or other sources of saturated fat.
To follow both the Mediterranean diet and U.S. nutritional guidelines, try to eat fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as tuna, salmon, or mackerel, at least two or three times a week. As an added bonus to its heart-healthy benefits, fish may improve brain function and fight depression. (And in nursing, we all know the power of a clear head and a positive mood.)
Here are more nutrition tips:
- Always eat breakfast. To be on your feet all day taking care of patients, you need the proper fuel. I never miss breakfast. My regular breakfast is instant, high-fiber maple oatmeal with walnuts. If I go out for breakfast, I order an egg-white omelet with cheese and ham.
- Keep healthy snacks with you at all times. Unless you plan ahead, a busy shift can leave you reaching for the worst convenience foods. Mix a pouch of tuna with low-fat Greek yogurt topped with avocados (hold the mayo). Sprinkle this over your lunch salad or make a sandwich packed with super foods. Also, I never leave home without an apple, yogurt, an energy bar, and a package of almonds.
- Don’t set yourself up for a binge. Fight the urge for a peanut-butter cup. If my sweet tooth beckons, I give in—but just a little. If I really feel as if I need something sweet, a few Twizzlers or Swedish fish usually do the trick. (Editor’s note: If you work shifts, read “Nutrition for night-shift nurses” for more ideas on how to eat healthy.)
No need for extremes
You don’t have to go on an extreme fad diet or exercise 3 hours a day to become a model of health for your patients. Healthy living isn’t hard. Go online and bookmark webpages that offer tools on how to eat right and maintain a healthy lifestyle. If you incorporate small, enjoyable steps into your life, before long you’ll see a real difference in how well you work and play.
Click here for a list of selected references.
Beth Battaglino is the chief executive officer of Healthywomen.org, a nonprofit organization providing objective, in-depth, medically approved information on a broad range of women’s health issues. In addition to her BSN, she holds degrees in political science, business, and public administration from Marymount University (Virginia) and the University of Oklahoma. Ms. Battaglino currently serves as an educational consultant to the National Fisheries Institute, a nonprofit organization that offers a health-focused website with fish tips and recipes.