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It’s time to offer support, not criticism, to overweight nurses


If I had an old-fashioned phone, and not my mobile, it would have rung off the hook on Tuesday. The national media were crawling all over the story that some researchers had found that one in four nurses in the UK were obese. I was being asked if this surprises me, why, and should we care?

Of course, it doesn’t really shock me, and we know why it’s happening. A stressful job, with little time to take breaks at all on some days, litter the workplace with unhealthy food, put people on long shifts that are both physically and emotionally demanding so they are too shattered to put on their workout gear when they get home, and that’s the perfect recipe for obesity.

Is the fact that the largest workforce in the healthcare space, is well, ahem, also the largest workforce really something we should care about?

Is this just yet another stick to beat nurses with? A bit of body fascism? After a long, tough day, do you also want to make nurses feel bad about consoling themselves with a chocolate or two from the box the patient in Bay 2 left earlier when they were discharged?

“While in an ideal world, nurses should be slim, healthy and fit, I think many of them are exhausted, overworked and too busy”

Of course, we want nurses to be happy and healthy, and we know that evidence supports the idea that taking regular exercise leads to both physical and mental wellbeing. We also know a healthy diet plays a large part in keeping people well, and we need our workforce to be at work, and healthy right now. Care providers cannot afford anyone who is on the roster to not show up because of sickness.

There were suggestions in the study that the size of nurses was preventing them from getting into tight spaces or helping patients with personal care – but if I am honest, that is not something I commonly hear about.

There is also a suggestion that nurses should be good role models with regards to making healthy lifestyle choices – and therefore they should have a much better BMI than the general population, but in fact, it is slightly worse.

While in an ideal world, nurses should be slim, healthy and fit, I think many of them are exhausted, overworked and too busy to make consistently good choices around diet and exercise. It is that which we should be concerned about in my opinion.

While an individual has to take some level of personal responsibility for their own health, could the NHS do more to motivate and inspire nurses to get fit and could it provide an environment that helped them eat well?

“If the overall goal is to reverse nurses’ weight gain, then you also need to fix the system”

In many cases, nurses will have tiring jobs, or work shift patterns, which prevent them from committing to a regular exercise routine or gym class, and often mess with healthy eating regimes and disrupt their sleep, which has been linked to weight gain.

If we want to fix this problem, we need to stop finger wagging, and start finding solutions to support nursing teams to be fitter and thinner.

A flick through the Boorman report into NHS health and wellbeing would not go amiss. The report, published in 2009, was commissioned by ministers to specifically look at some of the issues that I have been discussing here but its recommendations seem to have been largely forgotten.

Of course, there are already some excellent pockets of work in the NHS at a local level – organising exercise classes, healthy canteen options and support for walking or cycling to work – but, as ever, there are not enough.

Instead of the media asking me why this is happening, employers should be asking their nurses. If they want to keep them healthy – and keep them working – they need to understand what more they can do to achieve that. At the moment, it is clearly not enough.

If the overall goal is to reverse nurses’ weight gain, then you also need to fix the system. If the NHS provided a less stressful environment, and nurses were properly resourced so they could finish on time and take proper breaks, I am sure they could eat better and exercise more.

As ever, the problem here is not nurses. It is what the system is doing to its nurses. We must look deeper than the symptoms – and fix the cause.



Readers' comments (4)

  • Is working 12-14 hour shifts on your feet not classified as exercise? The unhealthy snacks, disrupted sleeping patterns, lack of breaks and high stress levels all for sure contribute to nurses being overweight but, LACK of exercise? I don’t think so.

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  • I walk 7 -8 miles every shift according to my pedometer but I agree that lack of shift pattern (I swap my body clock at least twice a week) and stress have been detrimental to my health.

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  • Walking miles on a shift is indeed exercise but to shift weight / improve fitness don't you need to work hard enough to raise your heart rate for a period of time?

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  • Above comment - yes you do need to raise your heart rate. Walking miles as part of your routine sadly doesn't count as it is not over and above what you would normally do. I am 60 years old and recently lost 36.5lbs by eating less and exercising more. I also work 3 13 hour shifts a week and regularly work nights. To the astonishment of friends, I even joined a gym. It has not been hard but I have had to be incredibly organized and focused. If I was 30 years younger, had two school age children that I had to pick up and drop off at breakfast club, do laundry, cook their meals, help with homework, take to various activities, do housework AND work shifts, I couldn't have done it. As the article states, let's support not denounce the overweight nurses who may be trying, without success, to tackle yet another issue in an overcrowded schedule.

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