How long have you dreamed of losing weight and keeping it off—of what it would feel like to be healthier and have more energy for your nursing job and your personal life?
University of Maryland nursing researchers found 55% of nurses surveyed were overweight or obese. For many nurses, weight loss remains an elusive dream that never becomes a reality. Weight loss and weight management can drive you up the wall and down the other side. It’s easy to slip into negativity and end up sabotaging yourself. To stop struggling with your weight, you need to know the three critical factors for unpacking the pounds that weigh you down, and create a list of priorities to help you manage your weight.
The first critical factor that keeps you stuck at the same number on the scale is the emotional and physically demanding nature of your job. For many nurses, the second factor is the huge disconnect between overperforming in your job and underperforming when it comes to your own self-care. This disconnect stems from what I call the Nurse Type E Personality—you do Everything for Everybody, ignoring your own needs.
The third major factor contributing to overweight is fear: Fear of disappointing others if you don’t take care of their needs first. Fear of having to give up your favorite comfort foods on a diet. Fear of committing your time and energy to weight loss. Fear of failing to lose weight. Fear of losing weight but gaining it back.
Fear is an emotional trap that holds you back from a healthier weight. A nurse wrote to me about how her fear, challenging work environment, and Type E personality contributed to her weight gain. She explained, "Since I was a child, I’ve never been somebody who could easily put myself before other people. I can read other people well and adjust my behavior to please them and get their needs met….As a nurse, I have a difficult time setting boundaries. ‘Sure, I can pick up the 12-hour shift after working my own shift. Take care of an extra patient? No problem!’ It doesn’t stop there. It carries over to my second shift of responsibilities when I get home, taking care of my family’s needs. The result is I constantly feel overwhelmed and burnt out, and I eat unhealthy comfort food to ease my stress…I’ve always sabotaged myself when I try to lose weight because of my fear of failure, caused by my yo-yo dieting over the years and my fear that if I give up comfort foods, I won’t be able to cope with my stress."
Patients as role models
To rise above the factors that stymie successful weight management, think of the ill patients you’ve known who’ve successfully transformed their lives. Have you ever witnessed how illness seems to give some patients a new lease on life, how it gives them a strong sense of priorities and clarifies what’s really important? Suddenly they feel more alive and engaged, as if they’ve been given a second chance. Illness forces them to take a hard look at their past, present, and future. It gives them a chance to reconnect with themselves and be the person they were meant to be by rising above their fears, procrastination, and skewed priorities.
These patients transform their lives by being fully committed to integrating what I call their N.E.W. priorities. You can apply the hard lessons they’ve learned to help rise above your own weight-management struggles. To manage your weight, reconnect with yourself and be the person you were meant to be.
The N.E.W. approach
To kick-start your weight-management campaign, you need to fully commit to your N.E.W. priorities and set specific goals in line with them. The N.E.W. approach centers on what I call the weight-management triage list:
N stands for Nurturing self-care
E stands for Exercise, nutrition, and sleep
W stands for Work empowerment.
Managing your weight successfully means integrating these priorities into your life. It doesn’t mean you should make weight an obsession.
N: Nurturing self-care
When patients commit to transforming themselves to be healthier, they put nurturing self-care at the top of their priorities. Nurturing self-care helps you rise above your Type E personality and conquer your fear by helping you see that you deserve to succeed in managing your weight so you’ll be healthier.
E: Exercise, nutrition, and sleep
Daily exercise, healthy nutrition, and proper sleep are essential for ill patients hoping to regain their health. Similarly, to manage your weight, you need to integrate these three elements into your lifestyle. (See Power grocery shopping below.)
Power grocery shopping
On your next shopping trip, use these tips to help fill your cart with healthy food choices.
- Buy produce during the week, because most deliveries are made Monday through Friday. Look for produce that’s in season.
- Select lean cuts of meat.
- Choose beef from grass-fed, not grain-fed, cows.
- Select cold-water fish, such as wild salmon, halibut, and tuna, because they sustain energy levels and satisfy hunger.
- Avoid prepackaged and canned foods (other than soup and beans).
- Choose whole-grain pasta and brown or wild rice. They fill you up so you’re less likely to overeat.
- Select low-sugar cereals with 6 g sugar or less per serving.
Adapted with permission from Fit Nurse: Your Total Plan for Getting Fit and Living Well by Gary Scholar (Sigma Theta Tau International, 2010).
Here are two examples of nurses who lost weight by integrating self-care, exercise, nutrition, and proper sleep into their lives. When her granddaughter was born, Kim, age 45, started thinking about her weight and the things she might miss out on if she didn’t lose weight. She didn’t want to be a grandmother who couldn’t play with her grandchild, so after years of yo-yo dieting, she set out to create a healthier lifestyle by nurturing herself and integrating daily exercise, healthier nutrition, and plentiful sleep. She implemented her "Couch to 5K Plan" by jogging 3 miles several times a week and lifting weights. She lost 150 lb.
Josephine, a trauma nurse, also lost 150 lb—and has kept it off for 2 years. She started eating healthier and taking Zumba (dance fitness) lessons. Eventually she became a Zumba instructor. She went from viewing healthy living as a punishment to seeing it as a form of enjoyment.
W: Work empowerment
When patients return to work after an illness, one of their priorities is to be assertive in getting their needs met and creating a supportive work environment. Otherwise, stress and an unhealthy environment could negatively affect their health and well-being. The same is true for you as a nurse trying to integrate healthier weight management into your daily life. To become more empowered and promote your own and your colleagues’ weight-management efforts, advocate for effective support initiatives in your workplace. (See Workplace strategies that promote weight management below.)
Workplace strategies that promote weight management
Nurse administrators and managers might want to consider implementing the following strategies to help staff nurses manage their weight.
"Let’s do lunch" initiatives
Quality-time meal breaks can promote healthy eating. Too many nurses skip meals because they are busy or feel guilty taking time out to eat. But when you skip a meal, your blood glucose level drops and your metabolism shuts down (what I call "nurse glycemia"). As a result, you go into your next meal famished and eat more than you should.
Quick, healthy food choices
Nurses need quick, healthy food choices. Providing onsite healthy snack carts at nurses’ stations can help you sustain your energy level by maintaining adequate blood glucose levels throughout your shift.
Transforming unhealthy hospital cafeterias to wellfood cafeterias makes healthier foods available to shift nurses. Wellfood cafeterias also can serve as healthier-nutrition outreach models for patients and the family members and friends who visit them.
Healthy food zones
To create a healthy food zone, encourage workers, patients, and visitors to only bring healthy foods to the hospital.
Onsite yoga, tai chi, and Zumba classes can help nurses raise their endorphin levels, metabolism, and energy levels, which in turn aids weight-loss efforts.
Stress can cause unhealthy comfort-food eating. A chair massage program, where nurses can get a 10-minute chair massage several days a week, can reduce stress.
Education on adapting to long shift hours
Topics might include how to integrate meals into the shift, the best foods to eat during long shifts, the most effective types of exercise for shift workers, and how to create proper sleep patterns.
Emotional support programs
When a patient dies, many nurses "suck up" their emotions. This can exacerbate stress, which can cause nurses to pack on the pounds. Instituting an emotional support program can help reverse this trend. In one hospital’s pilot program, when a cancer patient died, the charge nurse conducted an emotional needs assessment of that patient’s nurse. The nurse was permitted to take 20 minutes off to meet with an "emotional support" nurse—a nurse who volunteered to provide emotional support to colleagues on that unit.
An overweight nurse complained to me about her unhealthy eating habits, but wouldn’t take responsibility for them. I asked her, "Who does the grocery shopping in your family?" She replied, "I do." "Who does the cooking?" She replied, "I do." "And who puts the unhealthy food in your mouth?" She said, "I do." Then I asked, "So whose responsibility is it that you eat an unhealthy diet?" Without hesitation she replied, "It’s my husband’s fault because he drives me crazy!" While this story makes you laugh, it also drives home the point that we all need to take responsibility for our actions—including those that jeopardize weight management.
You become what you believe. Choose to believe you can make a shift toward healthier weight management by modeling the N.E.W. priorities of patients who’ve transformed their lives.
Gary Scholar is a health and wellness consultant, wellness coach, speaker, and author of Fit Nurse: Your Total Plan for Getting Fit and Living Well.