By Megan M. Krischke, contributor
January 13, 2011 - In the midst of all you are already doing—working nursing shifts, cooking dinner, putting kids to bed, serving on committees and trying to have a social life—it can be a challenge to figure out how to also make space for an exercise routine.
Gary Scholar is a nationally recognized health and wellness consultant and author of Fit Nurse.
“Nurses work in a challenging environment that doesn’t support self-care; add to that the common trait among nurses to sacrifice their own well-being to meet the needs of others, and it is very difficult for nurses to set aside time to meet their own wellness needs,” remarked Gary Scholar, who has served as the health and wellness coordinator for the American Hospital Association for over a decade.
“Additionally, many nurses work long shifts and can come to the end of the day feeling like they have already walked all day long. The idea of more exercise may not seem all that attractive,” he added
While working a hospital shift, many nurses walk an average of four miles a day, yet this type of walking isn’t aerobic and does nothing to relieve stress and increase endorphins. And even with all that movement, many nurses continue to gain weight.
While it may be hard to get started, Scholar reflects that all the nurses he knows who are intentionally exercising have significantly more energy than those who are not.
Get inspired, and choose what works for you
Because nurses already spend a lot of time on their feet, Scholar suggests that they may particularly enjoy activities that are more meditative and easy on their joints such as yoga or tai chi.
“Many nurses are able to fit exercise into their schedules by exercising just before or after work or gathering a group to take a walk outdoors during a lunch break. This is a great idea because it also creates some stress relief and a change of scenery during a long shift,” commented Scholar. “I am also hearing rave reviews from nurses of all ages about Zumba (an exercise program that combines Latin and international music with dance).”
Scholar says the key to success is to love what you do for fitness.
“I know one nurse who looked to her childhood for inspiration. When she was a kid she loved riding her bike, so she started bicycling around her neighborhood on her days off and, in conjunction with some changes in her diet, lost 40 pounds at age 60,” said Scholar.
Since nurses are often already motivated by the needs of others, looking for a cause that inspires them can motivate a workout.
“I know one oncology nurse, an exceptional marathoner, who donates her winnings to cancer related causes. And another who was inspired by the birth of her granddaughter to strive to live a longer, more active life. That’s when she started her ‘couch to 5K’ eating and exercise plan,” noted Scholar. “You have to know what inspires you. Is it being able to fit into your wardrobe of clothes? Or reducing the amount of stress in your life?”
Increase energy with quality nutrition and better consistency
Scholar, who is the author of, Nurse Fit: Your Total Plan for Getting Fit and Living Well, understands that fitness isn’t all about exercise. In fact, only one chapter of his book focuses on exercise. The others touch on topics such as back pain, night shift work, skipping meals and other nutrition issues.
“Skipping meals is a huge problem at work for nurses,” Scholar commented. “Either they are too busy or they feel guilty taking a break and leaving other nurses to do more of the work. I always encourage nurses to work to be consistent about eating at certain times. To keep up their energy levels they need one healthy meal and a couple of snacks of a healthy protein and whole grains. The real goal is to keep their blood sugar levels as steady as possible while they are working. “
Fredi Usher-Weems, aerobic specialist with the Lifestyle 180 program at The Cleveland Clinic, offers suggestions for increasing strength and flexibility throughout the day.
“Another challenge nurses face is that the food choices which are easily available at work are often less than ideal. Patients’ families and other nurses bring in unhealthy comfort foods and, sadly, most hospital cafeterias aren’t offering a menu that is a model of healthy eating,” stated Scholar. “I would encourage nurses to take the time to pack a lunch at home and to come together and agree as a unit not to bring unhealthy foods to share.”
Find exercise opportunities throughout the day
Aerobic specialist with the Lifestyle 180 program at The Cleveland Clinic, Fredi Usher-Weems, MR, BA/Ed, ACSM, HDCI, AFAA, sees all activities in life as an opportunity to increase flexibility and strength. She offers the following suggestions for incorporating exercise for different parts of your body into the course of your day:
Abdominal muscles. While sitting in a chair, take a moment to take a deep breath, exhale and turn from side to side. If you are standing and waiting, you can do isometric contractions of your abdominal muscles (abs) or punch side to side. You can even focus on creating a twisting motion as you add groceries to your cart. Just be aware to never twist and lift at the same time.
To work your lower abs, do anything that will bring your knees to your chest. You can lift your knees while seated or standing, perhaps during a solo elevator ride, or even lift your knees high as you walk up stairs.
Leg muscles. Speaking of stairs, you can strengthen your leg muscles by taking stairs slowly, two at a time, and creating a sort of lunge movement. Stairs are also handy for calf stretches and raises. Think about times when you can do side or back leg lifts—like when you are at the end of the line at the grocery store or again on that solo elevator ride. Purposely use a squat motion when picking things up or squeeze a ball between your knees while sitting to strengthen your inner thighs.
Additionally, walking sideways can strengthen your hip muscles, and taking the stairs at an angle can take some of the stress off your knees; just make sure to hang onto a railing if there is a chance you might lose your balance.
Arm muscles. Grab a couple water bottles during a break and do some curls and/or chest butterflies—bringing your elbows in and out. Almost anywhere you go there is a wall available for some standing push-ups.
“The keys are to be creative and ‘Keep it Simple, Sweetie,’” Usher-Weems said, putting her own twist on the KISS acronym that applies to so many fields of endeavor. “Getting started with fitness doesn’t take a lot of time—maybe 10 to 15 minutes two times a week and building up from there. If you haven’t exercised before, be sure to check in with your physician first.”
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