Get on a self-care kick

Caring for ourselves helps us become better role models for patients

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By Robert G. Hess Jr.
PhD, RN, FAAN Executive vice president and chief clinical executive
EDITOR'S NOTE: Robert G. Hess Jr., PhD, RN, FAAN, is OnCourse Learning's executive vice president and chief clinical executive, and founder and CEO of the Forum for Shared Governance. As an editor for Nurse.com, Hess has penned several editorials on career topics. As a presenter at professional conferences, Hess often addresses participants on how to find the right job and steps for building a successful career.
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Bodies don't stay healthy by themselves; they have to be cultivated and maintained.”
— Robert G. Hess Jr., RN
There are ways to care for ourselves and maintain our status as healthy role models. Here are some practical measures:
After 10 grueling hours of hard nursing work, Tim, a critical care nurse, smoked a cigarette during a short break. Afterward, he returned to his unit where, after vigorous pulmonary hygiene, he extubated Bill, his post-cardiac surgical patient.
"Bill, you can talk now. How do you feel?" Tim asked. Bill, a 30-year veteran of cardiac risk factors, sniffed, paused and spouted, "Tim, I can't believe you smoke."
Tim's shift wasn't quite over. At 6:45 p.m., a code was called. Since he was a member of the code team, Tim exhaustively puffed up three flights of stairs to the unfortunate patient's room, where he was met by two other members of the code team whose own health was compromised by unhealthy diets and lack of exercise. Breathlessly, the trio initiated CPR. Although the preceding story is a hypothetical scenario, it is not a complete break from reality. Many nurses have a hard time maintaining their own health these days. They are constantly juggling multiple roles as mothers and fathers, full-time professionals and intermittent students, healthfully challenged by the 21st century. As they try to balance their time between patients, family, friends and self, they don’t seem to have time for adequate rest and nutrition. No wonder many have a difficult time caring for themselves. For years, my primary health maintenance involved the martial arts, which allowed me to take time out of my routine to meditate and to strengthen and renew my body and mind. But even that holistic discipline could fight back. One day I hurt my back while stretching and spinning for higher kicks. I chose a chiropractor to treat my injury, and after a few weeks of heat, adjustments and electrical stimulation that made me twitch like a laboratory frog, I was able to work out again. I pronounced myself healed and informed my chiropractor we could discontinue therapy. He responded that I would need treatment for the rest of my life. But I insisted that I felt fine. Why would I need ongoing interventions? “To counteract the stress of living," he answered. I was not about to give up responsibility for my own health. I would continue my self-constructed health program, however cautiously. But there was a message for me: Bodies don't stay healthy by themselves; they have to be cultivated and maintained. Living healthfully in the 21st century isn't easy for nurses — or for our patients. And if we ask them to modify lifestyles to stay healthy without modifying our own, we may be less than convincing. Many nurses don't live generally unhealthy lives. But those who do — smoked out, overfed, overworked and underexercised — generate an additional risk beyond their personal health. They diminish our persuasiveness with people who need to believe in our coaching and counseling.

  • Incorporate exercise into your lifestyle as regularly as sleeping or eating. Don't confuse the mental exhaustion from work with the physical fatigue from a good workout. Exercise before or after professional work, even if you're feeling tired, to gain additional energy.
  • Find a form of exercise — such as walking, bicycling or aerobics — that is convenient and enjoyable. You shouldn't have to argue with yourself about whether you can or want to work out.
  • Don't smoke. If you do, cut down or switch to a brand with less nicotine; find a cessation program and follow up with a support group. Don't give up.
  • Examine your dietary habits. Nurses already are experts in nutrition, and many simply need to apply their knowledge to their own situations. If your eating patterns are getting the best of you, treat it like any other health problem and get some help. Again, don't give up.

In our self-care digital edition, you can find other tips for caring for yourself. We address issues that surround implementing a self-care plan, both in the personal and professional spheres. With the holidays fast approaching, we consider those who work straight through the celebrations and the accompanying physical and psychological stress and how to counter it. Resolutions for self-care? This is the time to make them. We want to encourage our patients to be as healthy as they can be, and one way is to convey a healthy image ourselves — by staying fit as a nurse.
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