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‘Urgent’ action needed to tackle Scottish nurse obesity


Levels of obesity and being overweight among nurses in Scotland is “worryingly high” and significantly more likely within the profession than among other healthcare workers, according to new research.

A study found 70% of nurses to be overweight or obese, compared to around half of other healthcare professionals. It said interventions were “urgently required” to address the issue.

“The high levels of overweight and obesity raises some concerns about the effectiveness of health promotion”

Study authors

Due to be published in the International Journal of Nursing Studies, the research – by Edinburgh Napier University – also showed the prevalence of weight problems among Scottish nurses was worse than the US nursing workforce (around 55%) and other countries including the UK (59%) as a whole, New Zealand and Australia (both 61%).

The high prevalence found in Scotland not only potentially harmed nurses’ own health but could also reduce the impact of public health advice they provide to patients, said the research paper.

Previous studies have found nurses are effectively seen as role models and that the general public has less confidence in advice about diet and exercise if provided by an overweight nurse.

“The high levels of overweight and obesity observed in our study raises some concerns about the effectiveness of health promotion that is reliant on seizing ‘teachable moments’ during routine patient interactions,” said the paper.

Reasons behind the high levels of weight problems were unknown, it added, but were likely to have resulted from individuals’ health-related behaviours and occupational factors.

“Our findings have important implications for… the development of supportive workplace interventions for nurses”

Edinburgh Napier University nurse obesity study

The study paper noted that individuals’ health-related behaviours such as poor diet and low levels of physical activity, which are known to increase the risk of overweight, had been found in around half of UK nurses from previous research.

Occupational factors including lack of access to healthy food in the workplace and working shifts – which disrupt regular sleep, eating and exercise habits – were also highlighted as potentially having an impact.

But, the paper noted, the fact that other countries where nurses also work shifts had lower prevalence of overweight meant this may not explain the much higher levels in Scotland. It called for more research in the area.

“Our findings have important implications for health promotion policy, nurse education, and the development of supportive workplace interventions for nurses,” said the study paper.

It suggested student nurses in Scotland should be targeted by using undergraduate courses to promote healthy eating and exercise behaviours.

survey solution 

“Curricula might incorporate more teaching about nurses own health behaviours, as well as opportunities to establish healthy habits through timetabled or extra-curricular exercise classes,” it said.

“Campuses might incentivise and normalise healthy food choices, and educators might consider how their own role modelling influences students’ health-related behaviours,” added the paper.

The researchers also noted that knowledge about healthy choices alone may not be enough to bring down the high levels of obesity and overweight, and called for more research into this issue.

“That such high prevalence of overweight and obesity is evident among a health literate group, suggests that either cognitive dissonance or structural factors may be more influential than health knowledge,” they noted.

The study used information from 13,000 people across the adult working population who took part in the Scottish Health Survey between 2008 and 2012.

It included around 400 nurses, 300 other healthcare professionals, around 700 unqualified care staff and 12,000 people in jobs outside of health.

The research forms part of an ongoing project led by Edinburgh Napier University called the Nurses’ Lives Research Programme.


Readers' comments (28)

  • HCSW

    Too much time behind the desk.

    Medice, cura te ipsum!

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  • We were all skinny back in the 60s and 70s. Wonder why...?

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  • What were the breakdown figure's I wonder.
    How many staff nurse and above Vs HCA's.

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  • proper meal breaks might help rather than stuffing chocolate in towards the end of the day as glucose levels drop (dont even like chocolate) - lack of energy and time to exercise would definitely help, decent wage so we didnt all have to work 2 jobs and have the time to cook proper meals would help instead of grabbing less nutritious convenience food... dont really need to spend money on research as i already know the answers to my weight gain

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  • Matthew  Carr

    Hey, maybe if Nurses got a decent breaktime and were given time to sit down and have a real meal rather than rushing something. You try rushing around for 12 hours and eating healthy, then going home and preparing a main meal while you're half asleep.

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  • I actually find this an offensive and judgemental.
    As individuals we are all different, smoking, overweight, underweight, malnourished, overnourished, disabled, mental illness. Whatever each individual has does not mean that we cannot provide good advice all because we as individuals are unable to change our behaviours due to whatever reason throughout life stresses, does not mean we cannot support others to achieve what they need through providing access to services and providing them with good information, all we can do is support people ans promote good health and wellbeing,its left to the individual to want to make changes. All because fat is visible people are so quick to judge that we are not able to do our job. It's discriminating!

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  • The shift patterns (especially long days) make regular balanced meals a thing of the past. Nurses regularly miss breakfast, lunch is often not until 3-4pm and then eating a meal once home past 8pm just leads to "a lifetime on the hips"!

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  • Lunch = 3 chocolates and 2 biscuits grabbed as you pass by the nurse's station to answer that buzzer

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  • Studies have shown shift work makes you put on weight. There is a reason why doctors, OT's, physio's etc tend to be slimmer than nurses and HCA's. If cheaper and healthier meals were offered in canteens, cheaper hospital gym memberships, decent breaks at regular intervals and not doing irregular shifts that affect your metabolism nurses wouldn't balloon so much.

    Oh and to the post that said nurses were thinner back in the day, no, we were as fat back then as we are now.

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  • If you don't eat regularly then when you do eat the body puts lays down fat as it switches into famine mode. Also once fat is laid down it is difficult to remove, there are physiological changes that is more complex than energy out > energy in = weight loss, it involves endocrinological changes. If a nurse made these sort of comments to a patient they would, rightly, be condemned, so why can nurses be criticised?

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