Nurses are a valuable part of our health care system and we work very hard to deliver good patient care. As a profession we sometimes get a bad rap for not being exemplars of health because some nurses are overweight. I would like to change the channel on this discussion and approach this issue from a different perspective. Health is more than just looking good and being fit has important implications for the nursing workforce and healthcare generally.
First of all, body composition is only one component of being healthy. Hopefully by now you know about the “skinny fat” phenomenon and why being thin doesn’t necessarily mean you are healthy. On the flip side, I don’t think that people should use this an excuse to overeat. I encourage us to embrace a more holistic view of health and well-being rather than simply judging nurses’ health based on their appearance.
Secondly, the nursing profession is predominantly made up of women (many of whom are aging) which is important for a few reasons.
1. The Western cultural ideal of what women should look like influences the standard against which women are measured. Most nurses are women so therefore some people judge nurses’ “health” based on how well they meet this ideal. Again, you cannot tell solely by appearances how healthy someone is.
2. Women and men have different hormones which, like it or not, influences our body fat levels. Women are supposed to have more fat than men and as we get older (which many nurses are), we tend to put on weight because of changes in our hormones.
3. Women have been fed a lot of BS about fitness and nutrition. This ties into my point about the Western beauty ideal. I find it shocking that I still meet so many women who are afraid of lifting weights because they think it will make them “look like a man” or who spend hours doing cardio and counting calories in their fat free asparatame-filled cancer-causing diet “foods” that have pretty much no nutritional value. While this may come across as being a little harsh, I want to make it clear that I don’t blame women entirely for buying into the propaganda that has been fed to them for years. There are tremendous rewards for those who live up to conventional beauty standards so how do you blame people for wanting to be successful, even if many of us don’t agree with the definition of “success” that has been handed to us?
At any rate, I think we do a very good job as women of being mean to each other and I think that needs to stop. Be a beauty – there is nothing wrong with that if that is what you want. However, you are more than just a beautiful object to look at! You can be beautiful and strong and smart and whatever you want. Sometimes it seems like there is this idea that you can only be one or the other – that beautiful women are stupid or that intelligent women don’t care about their physical appearance. I don’t think I need to point out how naïve and simplistic these assumptions are.
So why am I talking about beauty in a post about fitness anyway? Well I believe that many women steer clear of strength training because they think it will sacrifice their beauty. In other words, if a woman thinks that lifting weights will make her look masculine, she will avoid doing it.
Well, as I mentioned, most nurses are women so this has some implications for our profession. Nursing work can be very physical at times and requires a high capacity to do work. Many of us work busy 12 hour shifts and help turn, stand, transfer, and walk patients throughout the day. Back and shoulder injuries are common among nurses in addition to high levels of stress and burnout. Being fit and strong can help increase our work capacity, prevent injuries, and improve work recovery. Increasing our physical strength and endurance can help make our jobs (and lives) easier to handle, provide us with more energy, improve our personal health, help us manage stress, and improve our physical appearance. With so much to gain, what are we waiting for?