Stuart Bradford for Scrubs
You probably didn’t need a study to provide evidence that a lot of nurses have a weight problem. But what may surprise you is the extent of the problem.
A whopping 55 percent of nurses are obese or overweight, according to a recent University of Maryland study. So that got us wondering: Is there something about the job that tips the scales against nurses in the battle of the bulge? And—whether portliness is an occupational hazard or not—what’s an overweight nurse to do? We scoured the science and came up with 10 contributing factors that might make it easier to pack on the pounds, and harder to take them off. That’s the bad news. The good news: We offer suggestions to help you mitigate those factors.
1. It’s a bug
Corpulence can be caught as easily as the common cold from sneezes, coughs and dirty hands, according to some scientists. Nikhil Dhurandhar, PhD, a professor at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., says one virus, known as AD-36, may cause an infection that triggers overeating and prompts fat cells to multiply in both number and size. In his studies, only about 15 percent of people were infected with the virus, but they were usually the fattest and the most resistant to weight loss.
2 It’s in the air
Pollution not only fouls the environment, but could also be making the world a fatter place. Exposure to environmental baddies such as insecticides and plastics seems to mess with gut bacteria, which may somehow play a role in how the body processes calories. “Some chemicals may slow digestion to cause weight gain, while others might cause them to increase fat storage, overeat or affect energy regulation,” says Anthony Hay, PhD, a microbiologist and environmental toxicologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
3. It’s in the genes
Genes get passed down from your parents—but your grandparents also make a contribution. Thanks to a phenomenon known as epigenetics, your DNA is influenced by the lifestyle choices made by generations past. So, Dhurandhar says, it’s entirely possible that your grandfather’s poor eating habits and couch-potato ways signal your fat genes to overexpress themselves, predisposing you to pack on the pounds and making you resistant to weight loss.
4. It’s in the drugs
With millions more Americans popping prescription pills than ever before, experts are concerned their buttons will start to pop right along with them. Prescription meds can trigger weight gain in a number of different ways, according to John Morton, MD, director of bariatric surgery at Stanford Hospital & Clinics in Stanford, Calif. “Histamines seem to disrupt an enzyme in the brain that helps regulate hunger,” he says. “Other drug classes cause fluid retention or disrupt the mechanics of metabolism and fat storage.”
5. It’s the temperature
Air-conditioning on a hot summer day feels great, but could be upping the numbers on the scale. Indoor heating and cooling systems keep us in the “thermoneutral zone,” a temperature range where the body no longer needs to regulate body temperature for itself. Some scientists believe this causes us to cling to our body fat more tenaciously since we no longer need to burn additional calories to stay in the zone.
6. Too little sleep
Counterintuitive as it seems, there appears to be a strong link between lack of sleep and expanding waistlines. Getting by on less than four hours of sleep a night increases the chances of being obese by a whopping 73 percent, according to one Columbia University study. Even those who catch six hours of shut-eye are 23 percent more likely to be obese, the study found. It’s not clear why less sleep leads to more fat, but one theory is that even one sleepless night throws regulation of hunger-and-fat hormones out of whack, resulting in a voracious appetite and ballooning fat cells.
7. Too many hours
Long stints at the nurses’ station may also be tipping the scales in the wrong direction. In the University of Maryland study, nurses who pulled overnights and 12-hour shifts were often sleep deprived and lax about their eating and exercise habits—the perfect storm for weight gain.
8. Too much temptation
And speaking of poor eating habits, nurses really do take the cake. The University of Maryland study found that nurses’ stations are a typical drop-off point for high-calorie goodies, and also that nurses rely too often on vending machines for sustenance. Working off-hours when the cafeteria was closed only made matters worse.
9. Too much stress
Nurses are a stressed-out bunch. The American Organization of Nurse Executives reports that 59 percent of RNs find their job so stressful they feel burned out. As the research shows, chronic stress causes a spike in cortisol, a hormone critical in managing fat storage and energy use in the human body. Cortisol is known to increase appetite and may encourage cravings for sugary or fatty foods, which could explain why you crave junk food after a bad day.
10. Too little movement
Sitting at your desk burns a mere 80 calories an hour, whereas standing burns 115 calories an hour. Seems like a paltry difference, but if you spend, say, five hours a day parked in chair, you burn off 175 fewer calories over the course of the day. Multiplied out over an entire year, it equals nearly 64,000 calories unburned—which theoretically translates into 18 pounds you either gained or didn’t lose. New research has also found that muscle movement and muscle contractions play a role in controlling blood fats. After four hours of sitting, the genes and enzymes regulating the amount of glucose and fat in the body start to shut down so that fat in the bloodstream is captured and stored by fat cells throughout the body, tending to concentrate around the organs. In terms of disease risk, this is a very dangerous place for fat to settle.
SO, WHAT’S AN OVERWEIGHT NURSE TO DO?
SLEEP WELL. There’s good evidence that getting at least seven hours of sleep helps ward off excess pounds. If you can’t get your shut-eye all in one shot, consider taking some short naps to recharge energy levels and rebalance hunger hormones
EXERCISE RIGHT. Consider shorter, higher-intensity workouts. Young men who sweated for 30 minutes shrunk their waistlines more effectively than men who sweated for an hour, researchers at the University of Copenhagen found, possibly because they avoided a “burn to earn” sense of entitlement or because longer exercise sessions made them hungrier. Short, high- intensity bursts of exercise also give resting metabolism a temporary boost so you keep burning a few extra calories long after you’ve hit the shower. Can’t fit 30 minutes in one stretch? Break it up—run up a flight of stairs at work, jump rope for two minutes at home, do jumping jacks during commercial breaks when watching TV.
COUNT YOUR STEPS. Studies show tracking your movement with a pedometer to increase the number of steps you take daily can help you shed pounds and may be just as effective for long-term weight loss as going to the gym. Aim for at least 5,000 steps daily to start—about 2.5 miles— gradually working your way up to 10,000. You can do this by taking the stairs, getting up from your chair more often and logging a few extra sets of rounds. Better yet, step outside to help give your body’s thermoregulatory system a workout, too.
FIND SUPPORT. Joining a support group like Weight Watchers ups your chances of losing pounds. One Harvard study found the average weight loss among support-group participants was an impressive 20 pounds versus only 9 pounds for those who did it alone.
TAKE NOTE. Jot down what you eat and how much you exercise. A Kaiser Permanente study found that keeping a weight loss diary helps you lose twice as much weight compared to folks who don’t. Plus, if the scale isn’t budging, the reason why will be on the pages.
CURB YOUR PLASTICS. You can’t do much about your overall exposure to pollution, but you can stop adding to your current chemical load. Don’t microwave food in plastic containers and avoid drinking from plastic bottles.
WASH YOUR HANDS. Frequent hand washing can prevent the spread of many illnesses, including fat-bugs. Until there’s a vaccine, Dhurandhar says that’s the best method we have to avoid catching a case of obesity. And as a nurse, you should be doing that anyway.
CHECK THE SIDE EFFECTS. Most doctors don’t mention weight gain as a possible reaction to medication—that’s why Morton says you have to ask. If you notice weight gain once you’ve started on a drug, discuss concerns with your prescribing physician or nurse. It may be possible to discontinue use, reduce the dose or switch to a less fattening alternative.
TAKE A BREATH. There’s no better way to beat stress than by taking up meditation. But that doesn’t have to mean finding an hour to spend kneeling on a cushion, chanting a mantra. Find a moment alone, close your eyes and take 10 deep, full breaths. It’ll calm your nerves and, as studies show, help make you a more mindful eater.
FORGET FAD DIETS. Did you really think a juice fast or an all-baby-food meal plan was going to cut it? When you’re ready to get serious about weight loss, heed the advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Their studies show that dieters who practice portion control and eat a sensible diet packed with fruit, veggies, high-fiber grains and lean proteins are the most likely to be long- term successful losers.