Did you make a New Year’s Resolution to eat more healthily, lose weight, tone up, or do more exercise? By the time this blog is published, apparently most people will have failed.
This week’s blog is about looking after you as a student nurse, focusing on food, exercise and sleep. I’m giving suggestions based on what has worked for me and knowledge I have acquired over my years as a fitness professional. This is a topic I notice comes up every few months in the media and on Nursing Times.
I am genuinely appalled by some of the food I see various healthcare professionals eat. I think nurses, where possible, should be role models for health. I do occasionally slip-up but this is where planning ahead is so vital. I feel able to conquer a lot of the stresses that come my way if I am looking after myself. I’m a strong believer that the food that we eat, the exercise we do and the sleep we have makes for good mental health and wellbeing. I place health as my top value in life. I am a firm believer that despite commitments, if you want something badly enough then you will make time for it. Time expands to fill the work allotted to it!
Despite saying nurses should be role models; I’m not saying I am expecting the entire nursing population to be skinny minnies. I am talking about how what you eat affects the way you feel and subsequently, how well you can perform your role without burning out and becoming sick.
Whether at university or on placement, I make a packed lunch. In fact I am known for them. What I can’t understand is why I am seen to be the exception rather than the rule. Granted, I don’t have children but I see many people with full time jobs and children who are able to plan ahead. I tend to think about my food 1-3 days ahead and make a meal plan. If unable to do that, my partner or me, will cook dinners in bulk and then freeze them so I have always have something ready to take. These meals will usually be high protein e.g. lean meat, eggs or fish, with lots of vegetables and unprocessed carbs like sweet potatoes and a healthy fat like avocados.
I always carry a bottle of water around on shift. I use a quality blender to make vegetable juices and smoothies to take with me. The prep time before shift, more often than not, will save you time the other end and you will have more energy. Unsure what to do? The internet is your oyster for ideas.
When on shift as a student, taking breaks is vital. If you are qualified and unable to take your breaks physically away from a ward, keep some healthy snacks like nuts or carrots and peanut butter, or just eat your lunch at points between phone calls and writing up your notes if you can.
To get me through the last few very stressful months I really honed in on my making my diet not a diet, but nutrition: food that fuels me for long 13 hour shifts on mental health wards, assignments and exams. Food is fuel. Eat lots of natural, unprocessed, wholefoods. Think ‘if it was alive, EAT IT! If it was grown in the ground, EAT IT’. Follow this and your energy levels will change, you will think more clearly and the sugar and junk food cravings will decrease; it will even help improve your focus for exams and assignments.
Exercise does not have to mean hours of slogging in the gym. Put simply, it’s being less sedentary. Humans are meant to move, not sit down all day. Are you aware of how much time you spent sat down each day? On a ward, have you noticed you feel more active by being on your feet all day? That’s the feeling you want (mixed in with some weight training, for which you should of course seek advice from fitness professionals where appropriate). Your body adapts quickly to similar exercises so try and do something different often, like a zumba class, high intensity interval or circuit training. NICE guidelines recommend yoga, which is great for stress relief and is a practise in relaxation and mindfulness - and precisely what mental health nurses such as me should recommend! Make a regular commitment if you can; consistency is key.
Finally, sleep. Have a regular time you go to bed, keep the smartphone out of the bedroom, and have a way you wind down before bed, such as reading a book or taking a bath. Practice good sleep hygiene.
How do we expect our patients to make changes from within if we cannot be self-aware enough to recognise it in ourselves? I would be interested to hear your thoughts.
Becky Kidman is Student Nursing Times’ mental health branch editor