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Health & Wellness

Fitting Exercise into a Busy Schedule

Even the busiest nurses can make time for physical fitness

"Exercise is medicine." So goes the slogan of the American College of Sports Medicine, which encourages healthcare providers to incorporate physical activity into their patients' treatment plans.

The benefits of exercise are well-documented and numerous. They include, but are not limited to: losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight; reduced heart disease risk; reduced type 2 diabetes risk; reduced risk of certain kinds of cancer; increased bone health, leading to reduced risk of osteoporosis; elevated mood and energy; and improvement of depression and anxiety. Despite these positive effects, only 49% of U.S. adults are getting the recommended 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity aerobic exercise, the CDC reports.

Nurses are part of that 51% who are not as active as they should be. Between the draining demands of shift work, the stressful nature of the profession, and the full lives nurses lead outside the hospital, it's easy to see why exercise can slip through the cracks. It doesn't have to be that way.

ADVANCE sought the advice of nurses who pull double-duty as fitness instructors to find out the value of sweat sessions and how nurses can carve out the time for them. To adapt a popular phrase, "Nurse, heal thyself."

Nurses Need Self-Care
Physical exercise is important to the health of everyone, but the unique demands of a nursing career make it especially important for nurses. Anja Garcia, MSN, a pediatric ICU nurse at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital in Los Angeles, is a group fitness instructor at Equinox West Hollywood and Equinox Westwood. "It's my mission in life to teach nurses they need to care for themselves as much as they care for others," Garcia said. It takes strength to be on your feet for 12 hours at a time. Nurses need to be fit so they can properly move patients and not injure themselves.

Alyssa Cabrera, BSN, a labor and delivery nurse at Virtua Health in Mt. Holly, N.J., and a Zumba instructor at Cherry Hill Health and Racquet Club, noted how much nurses care for the mental, physical and emotional needs of their patients. "We give our all during our 12-hour shifts," she said. "If we can't care for ourselves effectively, how can we care for others?"

Exercise is also important to nurses for its mental health benefits. "Our jobs are quite stressful and stress can cause illness," noted Donna Christian-Harris, RN, NP, FNP, a family nurse practitioner at the University of Chicago Medicine and a self-employed Zumba instructor. "Exercise is important because of how you feel after you work out."

Physical activity releases endorphins, helping to fight stress. When Christian-Harris hears the music for her Zumba classes, she's motivated to move and forgets about the stress of the day. Simply put, exercise puts you in better mood. group fitness class

"It does something good to your soul and your spirit," Cabrera remarked. Exercise raises serotonin levels and can prevent that dreaded midday slump. "Being able to sweat it out clears your head," Garcia explained. After working out, Christian-Harris said she feels balanced and better able to focus.

Value of Movement
Christian-Harris, Cabrera and Garcia became group fitness instructors because they knew the value of movement in their own lives and wanted to encourage others. Garcia and Cabrera are former gymnasts who had the value of fitness instilled in them from a young age. After Garcia suffered a competition-ending injury in college, she felt adrift and gained weight. She started taking fitness classes and found a new purpose. "I became passionate about health prevention," she said.

Being a nurse offers her extra credibility as a fitness instructor. "I take my nursing education very seriously as it's part of the biomechanics of exercise," she said. The students at the gym where Garcia teaches are often surprised she has the time to teach and work full time as a nurse. If she can do it, why are they making excuses?

"Every nurse should promote a healthy lifestyle," Cabrera noted. A former professional salsa dancer, she felt a natural progression to teaching Zumba, a dance fitness program that primarily uses rhythms from Latin and South America. Teaching helps her channel her energy in a productive outlet. "It encourages them, the fact I am a medical professional," she said of her Zumba students. She is acting out what she preaches about physical activity. "When we embody wellness, it's beneficial not just to ourselves, but to our patients."

For Christian-Harris, exercise has always been part of life. Since she is a nurse, students "are more willing to listen to me," she said. Christian-Harris works with breast cancer patients and sees firsthand the connection between weight, fitness and cancer. Those patients motivate her to stay active. "I wanted to maintain my fitness and give back at the same time," she said.

Scheduling Workouts
These nurses have made exercise a priority and found the time for it in their busy schedules, so it is possible for their fellow nurses to the same. Given that most nurses do not work every day, it actually may be easier for them to find the time than traditional 9-to-5 workers. Those days off are the perfect time to be active. With the rise of 24-hour fitness centers, some of which are reasonably priced, clocking out late means there are still chances to hit the gym.

Another option for early birds are pre-shift workouts. Cabrera prefers early morning workouts and said starting her day this way gives her extra energy and helps her make better food choices at the hospital. She incorporates self-responsibility by signing up for classes that have a cancellation penalty.

While at work, Cabrera and Christian-Harris both advocate for exercise during lunch breaks. Nurses can bring sneakers and exercise clothes to work and walk during lunch. Christian-Harris used to lead a 30-minute aerobics class at her hospital during employee lunch breaks.

SEE ALSO: Lifestyle for Nurses

"Make it part of your lifestyle," Christian-Harris said. That's a common sentiment about finding the time to be active. Cabrera pointed out, "Just like we schedule work, we need to schedule exercise."

"If you have kids, make it something you do with them. Be a role model for how important health care is," Garcia recommended.

Find Your Motivation
While any type of activity is beneficial, some exercises may be especially helpful to nurses, given the fast-paced, always-on-their-feet nature of the job. "I like Zumba for the release and the cardio aspect," Cabrera said. She also recommends Pilates because it builds core strength.

Stretching should be a key part of every nurse's routine, especially neck and quadriceps stretches that can be done during shifts. Squats and lunges should also be incorporated into workouts, to build leg strength. "People don't squat properly and that's where our back issues in nursing come from," explained Garcia.

Exercise doesn't need to cost a lot of money. Walking, running and jumping rope are all low-cost ways to get fit. Many healthcare systems have fitness centers that employees can join at a discounted rate. Christian-Harris recommends finding a fitness buddy and holding each other accountable to meet up for workouts. This brings an added social element to exercise, which can be a motivator. Cabrera echoed this sentiment. "A support system is good to have among nurses."

There is no one-size-fits-all exercise routine. Each nurse has different motivations, and a different style of exercise will make them want to lace up their sneakers. "What gives me results might not work for my co-worker," Cabrera said. Finding your personal fit is crucial.

Whether it is one of the core strengthening or high-intensity interval training classes that Garcia teaches, the Zumba workouts favored by Christian-Harris and Cabrera, or simply running around the neighborhood, nurses should be role models for their patients and work up a sweat.

Danielle Bullen Love is a staff writer. Email her at

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