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Physical wellness: A must for sustained energy

By: Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk, PhD, RN, CPNP/PMHNP, FAANP, FNAP, FAAN, and Susan Neale, MFA

Take steps now to ensure your future good health.


  • Sitting for 3 or more hours a day increases cardiovascular risk by 30%; sitting for 5 or more hours a day is comparable to smoking 1.25 packs of cigarettes a day.
  • Relatively small weight loss in obese people may lower diabetes and heart disease risk and improve metabolic function.
  • Adults need at least 7 hours of sleep each night.
  • Set SMART goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound.

By Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk, PhD, RN, CPNP/PMHNP, FAANP, FNAP, FAAN, and Susan Neale, MFA

This is the second installment in a series of articles on wellness. You can read the first article here.

physical wellness energyNurses are tireless advocates when promoting physical health and well-being for our patients. Yet, in a recent study of 1,790 nurses across the United States published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, more than half reported being in poor physical and mental health. This may be because the demands of nursing leave us feeling too tired, stressed, overworked, or rushed to find time to take care of ourselves.

Focusing on self-care now can have lasting positive effects on our long-term health and well-being. It’s time to put aside the guilt and think about what you can do to enhance your health and well-being today.

If adopting a healthier lifestyle seems overwhelming, take heart. Even small changes can have a big effect on how you feel and how you take care of others.

Let’s start with your heart

Heart disease remains the number-one cause of death in both men and women. Heart attacks and strokes kill more women than all cancers combined. Hypertension can be present with no symptoms; people can appear healthy and then suffer a heart attack or stroke.

The new blood pressure (BP) guidelines from the American Heart Association (AHA) and American College of Cardiology define normal BP as less than 120/80 mm Hg, elevated BP as systolic between 120 and 129 and diastolic less than 80, stage 1 hypertension as systolic between 130 and 139 or diastolic between 80 and 89, and stage 2 hypertension as systolic at least 140 or diastolic at least 90 ( The AHA recommends getting your BP checked at every visit or at least once every 2 years if it’s lower than 120/80 mm Hg.

The good news is that 80% of cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases are preventable with healthy lifestyle behaviors. Research has shown that people who engage in the following four behaviors have 66%  less diabetes, 45% less back pain, 93% less depression, and 74% less stress:

  1. Engage in 30 minutes of physical activity 5 days a week.
  2. Eat five fruits and vegetables per day.
  3. Don’t smoke.
  4. Limit alcohol intake.

Sit less, get active

If getting more physical activity sounds difficult, relax; you don’t have to join a gym. A simple 30-minute walk every day is effective, and those minutes don’t have to be all at once. If you can squeeze in two 15-minute walks before and after work, you’ll be doing your body a world of good.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise a week for adults to protect bones from osteoporosis. High-impact, weight-bearing exercises such as dancing, running, and aerobics are the most effective, but low-impact, weight-bearing exercise such as walking or using an elliptical machine also helps.

Get strategic about food

Most nurses are well-informed about nutrition, but busy schedules and exhausting or stressful days can lead to overeating or indulging in high-fat or high-carbohydrate foods that can make you feel tired shortly after eating them. Taking a few moments to rethink your eating strategy can make a big impact on your health.

Habit and convenience dictate many of our food choices. With a little planning, you can change those habits. Make a list of what you eat often, and then substitute healthier options. A good rule of thumb is to eat lightly and eat often. A healthy breakfast is important to fuel your body for the day; people who skip breakfast are more likely to overeat during the day. Midmorning and mid-afternoon small healthy snacks, such as a handful of almonds, can help sustain your energy throughout the day. (See Boost your nutrition.)

Boost your nutrition

Small changes can have a big impact. A recent study showed that relatively small weight loss in obese people—just 5% of their body weight—lowered diabetes and heart disease risk and improved their metabolic function. Take these actions to boost your nutrition and physical wellness.

  • Switch an apple or some carrot sticks for an unhealthy vending-machine snack.
  • Substitute water for sugared drinks (a good goal is eight 8-ounce glasses of fluid a day).
  • To lower sodium intake, eat fewer processed, frozen, or packaged foods, and avoid adding salt to food.
  • Choose whole grains instead of white bread or white rice.
  • Use olive oil for cooking. Look for flat cold-pressed olive oil to boost your high-density lipoproteins.
  • Avoid trans fats.
  • Check out for meal planning and healthy recipes.
  • At parties, try the 80/20 rule: Eat 80% “healthy” foods and 20% “want” foods.
  • Add one serving of antioxidant-rich fruits or vegetables a week to your routine.
  • Keep some emergency protein (a small bag of nuts or a high-protein energy bar) in your backpack, purse, or car.

Be tobacco-free

Good habits can help you quit unhealthy ones; moving, eating healthier, and reducing stress can help smokers quit. The American Lung Association recommends swimming, jogging, brisk walking, and other activities that don’t allow for smoking. Healthy snacks such as carrots, plain popcorn, and fresh fruit can be a good diversion. And learning new ways to relieve stress can help curb the urge to reach for tobacco.

When trying to quit, remember the 4 Ds:

  1. Delay until the craving to smoke passes.
  2. Distract yourself.
  3. Drink water to beat smoking cravings.
  4. Deep breathe—it’s a quick and effective way to reduce the stress of early smoking cessation.

Limit alcohol intake

Evidence shows that alcohol intake should be limited to one alcoholic beverage a day for women and two for men. Examples of one alcoholic beverage include one beer, one 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits or liquor (rum, gin, vodka, whiskey).

Set SMART goals

To make changes that stick, start with SMART goals:

Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timebound. Write down your physical health goals in clear, specific language; for example, “walk 15 minutes each morning and night.” Start with small, realistic goals that you know you can achieve, and set specific time limits for them.

Your good health is good for others, too. The recent national study of nurses’ health found that those in suboptimal health were 26% to 71% more likely to make medical errors. That points both to the need for nurses to take better care of themselves and for hospital and healthcare administrators to make their employees’ health and well-being a priority. Take care of yourself this year; it will translate into optimal health with sustained energy and great care for others.

Healthy behaviors

Adopt these behaviors to boost your immune system, reduce the risk of chronic disease, and stay healthy.

  1. Sleep well – Adults need at least 7 hours of sleep a night. Insufficient sleep can cause cortisol release, which plays havoc on many of our body’s systems. Try establishing a regular bedtime routine, including some meditation, and turn off your laptop or TV at least an hour before your head hits the pillow.
  2. Beware of the chair – Population health studies show that if you sit for 3 or more hours a day, your cardiovascular risk goes up by 30%; sitting for 5 hours or more a day is comparable to smoking 1.25 packs of cigarettes a day. Take a recovery break at least every 50 minutes. Try walking meetings instead of sitting, and consider an adjustable standing desk.
  3. Get grounded – Taking just a few minutes for stress relief when you start to feel tense can make a big difference in your overall wellbeing. Five deep breaths, a few minutes of meditation, or a short walk may be all it takes to get grounded.

Both authors work at The Ohio State University in Columbus. Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk is the vice president for health promotion, university chief wellness officer, dean and professor in the college of nursing, and professor of pediatrics and psychiatry in the college of medicine. Susan Neale is senior writer/editor of marketing and communications in the college of nursing.

Selected references

Ford ES, Zhao G, Tsai J, Li C. Low-risk lifestyle behaviors and all-cause mortality: Findings from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey III Mortality Study. Am J Public Health. 2011;101(10):1922-9.

Magkos F, Fraterrigo G, Yoshino J, et al. Effects of moderate and subsequent progressive weight loss on metabolic function and adipose tissue biology in humans with obesity. Cell Metab. 2016;23(4):591-601.

Melnyk BM, Orsolini L, Tan A, et al. A national study links nurses’ physical and mental health to medical errors and perceived worksite wellness [published online ahead of print October 1, 2017]. J Occup Environ Med.

National Osteoporosis Foundation. Osteoporosis exercise for strong bones.

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