In his novel The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway famously addresses the experience of bankruptcy through his character Mike Campbell. When asked how he went bankrupt, Mike’s aphoristic reply is:
“Two ways … Gradually and then suddenly.”
This also happens to be the most common way in which people come to lose whatever physical fitness and vigor they may once have had in their youth. Upon moving away from a school environment with facilities like gyms, playing fields and running tracks into the world of work and commuting, many find themselves insidiously yet seemingly ineluctably leading highly sedentary lifestyles.
In these lifestyles, non-nutritional comfort-eating and temporary sugar ‘highs’ from soda drinks come to feel like rewards – rewards, that is, for the stress and tedium that inevitably arise in the workplace and often during the daily enforced inactivity of commuting.
Weight gain creeps stealthily and incrementally until it starts to feel ‘normal.’ The poor dietary habits and sofa-ensconced TV-watching come to feel like indispensable recompenses for stressful lives. Often, an underlying sense of hopelessness insists, leaving people bewildered about how they could even begin to get fitter and healthier.
Gradually and then suddenly, people discover that they’re overweight and unfit. There are, of course, numerous other factors contributing to how people can either fail to acquire health or slowly lose it. Bereavements and other personal traumas can play a significant part, as can chronic, low-level, sub-clinical mental distress. In some ways, one can think of unhealthy lifestyles as attempted solutions, albeit maladaptive ones, to intractable problems in modern living (comfort-eating at least brings a modicum of comfort, after all).
Thankfully, solutions exist. Nurses may be the key to helping those in need of regaining (or even simply gaining) more vigor, vitality and good health. Here’s how.
Nurses come into contact with the public on a high-frequency basis during their daily work, and it’s fair to say that their professionalism and compassion have earned them well-deserved and widespread trust. They also possess advanced health knowledge that can be deployed for preventative as well as ameliorative and curative interventions.
Arguably, the time for nurses to highlight healthy lifestyle options to their patients has never been more urgent. In the US, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) has compiled statistics that leave no room for complacency about the dangerous obesity epidemic upon us: two in five adults (42.4%) are clinically obese, while one in 11 (9.2%) are severely clinically obese. More disturbingly still, the stats for children and adolescents age two to 19 are no less comforting: one in five (19.3%) are clinically obese, while one in 16 (6.1%) are severely obese.
In other words, there are millions of Americans who are living with a ticking health timebomb inside them, at considerably more risk than non-obese people of suffering life-threatening cardiovascular events, diabetes and other serious illnesses. One can speculate that such people are invisibly nursing much silent despair over how they can turn their lives around and become healthier and fitter. That’s where nurses can play a pivotal role in being the voice of hope and encouragement to those who may have come to feel there’s no prospect of improvement.
Simply eating less processed foods and opting for items like fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, whole grains and nuts can assist in losing weight. These foods contain far less sodium than their processed alternatives, thereby helping to lower elevated blood pressure and prevent cardiac and kidney diseases.
Learning how to eat well is but one front in the benign battle to improve health and fitness. Becoming more physically active is another. It’s a common error to suppose that one is too stressed and tired to exercise; in fact, while it at first seems counterintuitive, exercise is the antidote to tiredness and stress. Regularly exercising to breathlessness helps purge the body of the biochemical breakdown products of stress-related cortisols, for example, and it’s well-established that regular exercise helps lift and prevent low-mood/depressive tendencies.
Reduce or eliminate tobacco and alcohol intake and develop a healthy sleep schedule (nine hours a night minimum for children, seven for adults).
Put simply, too many people are insufficiently active. Turning that around so that inactive people take those first steps toward improved health is a crucial task for nurses.
So, just how do nurses practically help dissolve entrenched and seemingly intractable patterns of eating and inactivity and promote healthy lifestyles in their place?
Most begin by simply opening discussions about lifestyle changes and listening carefully to each individual patient’s particular health aspirations. These then need to be turned into actionable steps.
Giving patients simple monitoring devices like step counters (pedometers) can help them track their activity and encourage them to maintain and extend it.
Referring patients struggling with diet to a specialist like a nutritionist can give them an encouraging roadmap of how to alter their food consumption habits. Patients who are depressed or recovering from trauma may also be helped by referral to a mental health specialist.
Regular ongoing reviews with patients also help encourage them to keep going and not to succumb to despair if they slip back – cumulative small changes and the habit of “getting back on the saddle” after a setback keeps the journey to improvement alive.
Well-established brick-and-mortar universities of high repute, like Texas’ Baylor University, are now offering professional qualifications such as the accelerated BSN online, allowing students to complete the program within one year instead of the conventional four.
Nurses play an exciting, dynamic, and essential part in assisting their communities to adopt healthier lifestyles, thereby helping to forestall the many serious illnesses and disabilities that poor diets and chronic inactivity can bring in their wake. They do so by tuning in to the unique needs and conditions of each individual patient.
Those reading this article who feel inspired to enter the nursing profession needn’t feel dispirited if they don’t have a relevant degree. An existing bachelor’s degree in an unrelated subject is today a passport to beginning study for a fast-track, post-baccalaureate Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Besides the requisite clinical placements, you can complete your degree entirely online from home instead of on campus.