My name is Lauren Drain Kagan (@LaurenDrainFit on Instagram) and in honor of Nurse’s Week, I wanted to write a blog about how all of us nurses can take back our health and practice good self-care. We work long hours, have multiple shifts throughout the week, and attend to thousands of patients a year. From our patients’ basic hygiene to immediate critical conditions, we have to react promptly and assist with every need. We often skip our personal breaks to answer patient phone calls or prepare for urgent care. We always have to be ready to take on admissions and transfers, and we pick up extra patient loads on understaffed days. Most of us work 3-4 long, consecutive shifts with zero time dedicated to personal relaxation or self-care, other than sleep.
Our high-stress work environment demands our immediate attention, leaving little to no time to decompress or focus on our own health and nutrition. Oftentimes, we have zero energy before a shift, let alone after, making it hard to intentionally de-stress and maintain an active, fit lifestyle. At work, we are exposed to carb-filled treats offered by patients and families, or we’re limited to a quick bite to eat during our brief lunch break. Some of us rely heavily on coffee to stay alert and attentive in such a fast-paced, dynamic work-flow, but being on our feet all day still leads to fatigue with no desire to engage in more physical activity when our shifts ends. We spend countless hours dedicated to our patients’ care, but somehow our own sense of health and fitness gets lost in the shuffle.
I propose that we take back our healthy lifestyles and fitness goals! As a nurse myself, I know how important a healthy lifestyle is, even when it’s tough. Today, I’m sharing a few tips and tricks that I developed over the years to help maintain my personal health at work. I hope they help you, too!
1. Find out how many breaks you are designated per shift and take them, or incorporate them into your daily shift routine. For instance, I often worked 12-hour night shifts. During those 12 hours, I had one 15 minute break every 4 hours, followed by one 30 minute lunch break every 8-12 hours. I used my first 15-minute break to chart and eat my first meal at around 9 pm. Next, I would take my 30-minute lunch break at around midnight to eat meal two, decompress, and relax my mind. At around 2 am, I would take my second 15-minute break and eat meal three, my last meal during the shift. Planning my meals and break times was essential to try and prevent stress. High stress leads to high cortisol levels, which can lead to increased fat storage, blood sugar spikes and drops, as well as mood swings. In order to combat all of that, I ate three small, portioned-out meals (30% complex carbs, 25% healthy fats, 35% lean protein). Eating the right nutrients throughout the day keeps your blood sugar stable, mood swings at bay, brain fog away, and fuels your mind and body overall – without leading to fat storage.
I notice many of us feel guilty for taking a full lunch break as if we didn’t do enough to earn those 20-30 minutes of break time. I can assure you, we DO deserve them and we SHOULD take it. As long as we arrange to have that patient covered/attended to, we should take the time to reset, eat, and just take a break from the chaos.
2. Find time to maintain an active, fit lifestyle. When I first started, I would work all three of my 12-hour night shifts back to back. During this time, the only “me time” I had was when I woke up (3-4pm daily), and before my shift started (7 pm nightly). I would get up and workout sometime between 4:30-6pm. After my workout, I went home to shower, change, pack my prepped meals, and head to work. One thing I noticed was how much more energized and prepared I felt when I started my shift! Post-workout endorphins flooded my system, leading to higher serotonin and a happier attitude overall. By working out before my shift, I found a way to jumpstart and maintain a fast metabolism throughout each of my three 12-hour shifts.
I would usually workout for 1-2 hours before work, but you really only need 20-30 minutes of high-intensity training to increase your metabolism for the next 24-48 hours. Take some time for yourself by taking a speed-walk outside, doing an at-home workout video, or a quick spin class to set off your “feel-good” endorphins. Focusing on my personal goals also made it much easier to return to a work environment that is solely patient-focused. However, if working out before or after your shift is unrealistic for your lifestyle, as I know many of you have children and other roles that require your time, try doing 30 minutes of activity on your days off (4x/week). It will still improve your stress levels, mood, sense of accomplishment, and even sleep.
As your endurance builds, you can start to increase the intensity or duration of your workouts. A lot of my fitness clients find it easier to start slow and steady, working up to more intense workouts. Once you find a workout that suits your time and interest, you’ll start to love this newfound “you time.”
3. Prep your meals for work to save time, hassle, money, and stress. Having my meals prepped saved me so much time and money. I never had to wait in line, wonder if anything healthy was on the menu, or spend my money on the food that was left over by the time I got my lunch break. My unhealthy food cravings drastically decreased, I felt more energized for the rest of my shift, and never got that post-carb “foggy brain” that so many of us experience. Heating up my meal and eating only took about 15 minutes of my 30-minute break, so I always had plenty of extra time to de-stress my mind and body. At first, I was skeptical about eating three times at work, but it forced me to take time for myself and even helped accomplish my weight goals, whether I wanted to lose or maintain.
So, what should we eat? Most of us can look at a patient’s diet and identify what is and isn’t ideal for their health conditions. However, not all of us can do the same for ourselves. Do we have a bit of a Nurse Complex? Haha, probably. First of all, the only way to ensure you are getting the proper nutrients is to pack your lunches. My best advice is to pack densely nutritious, whole foods in these amounts: 35% lean protein, 25% healthy fats, and 30% complex low-glycemic carbs (this is perfect for those with celiac disease, diabetics, and Whole 30 or Paleo Diets). This will prevent that “mid-shift slump” and brain fog caused by low blood sugar. Eat every 3-4 hours (if you can’t use all three breaks, eat before work or while getting/giving report). Bring a veggie plate or fruit plate for munchies. NO carb-loaded, concentrated sweets. Avoid the junk! I always had several Quest bars or protein bars in my purse for when the donuts and cookies came out. While others were pounding the empty calories, I would eat my protein bar that was just as tasty but had no carb crash-effect or fat storage issues.
I also brought a large water bottle every day. It constantly reminded me to stay hydrated and be active in my own self-care. I see so many nurses drinking only coffee – which can be expensive, dehydrating, and eventually leads to adrenal fatigue (if taken in large quantities without feeling the effects of caffeine) – I wonder if some of the caffeine/coffee habits can be altered a bit. In fact, I used to get more headaches and cravings by loading up with coffee throughout my day versus water; although, water does cause more potty breaks 😉 .
4. Get the right amount of sleep. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s so important! Your cortisol can only be balanced by the proper amount of melatonin and deep sleep. If your routine keeps you awake all day after a night shift, I highly suggest switching it up and sleeping at least half a day to recoup on lost sleep. Try to get at least 6-7 hours of sleep between each shift. Look for calming nightly routines that help your mind and body relax so you avoid building up residual fatigue shift after shift.
I started off working all three of my night shifts back-to-back because it was easier for my sleep schedule, and to have more days off. After years of this routine, my sanity and energy were both taking a hit. I learned that I needed to break up my schedule if I wanted to stay healthy, so I started working two shifts on, three off; then one on, two off, etc. It became a lot less stressful than living constantly between two extremes: ALL WORK, followed by ALL PLAY, and back, and forth. It was important to find a healthy balance between my health/fitness routine and my work schedule to make sure I was getting enough sleep within a healthy daytime routine.
5. Dedicate more time and attention to lowering stress levels as best as you can. When on break or seated to chart, take deep breaths. Reconnect with your parasympathetic nervous system and really drive down your stress pathways. I would often forget to stop the vicious cycle of stress and anxiety, but all we need to do is pause for a moment, and breathe out our stress.
We all have terrible days, patients, and families at times. Respect for each other’s time and work is necessary in this job, but it’s often unfortunately overlooked. Instead of simply passing report, maybe take a second to acknowledge one another for hard work and give credit where it’s due. Let another nurse know when you tried not to pass the buck. Respecting one another will significantly reduce the pressure we put upon ourselves. Let’s make an effort to create a work environment that is somewhat rewarding, not just full of problems to fix. Many of us chose to be nurses because we’re genuinely passionate about helping others – that should include other nurses! Let’s all take necessary steps to ensure our nursing careers are healthy for our patients, our colleagues, and ourselves.
For those of you interested in developing a healthy routine or reaching certain fitness goals, I do offer custom one on one training (custom meal plans including vegan, vegetarian and any food preferences you may have) on my website: www.laurendrain.com. I also run a 6-week weight loss challenges t that’s extremely popular and generates amazing results. My Summer Kickstart challenge is now open for registration and starts on May 21st – feel free to review the information & results on my website. Wishing you all the best! Thank you for all that you do to help others! I am here for you should you to need help.
Lauren D Kagan, Registered Nurse, BSN
-NASM Certified Personal Trainer
-New York Times Best Selling Author
-FB: Lauren Drain