Researchers at the University of Maryland's School of Nursing found that 55 percent of the 2,103 female nurses they surveyed were obese, citing job stress and the effect on sleep of long, irregular work hours as the cause.
The study, which measured obesity using estimates of body mass index, found that nursing schedules affected not only the health of the nurses but the quality of patient care.
"Health care professionals are often involved in providing advice or care to patients that relates to things that aren't totally under control in their own lives. It's not uniform for health care professionals to eat well or avoid tobacco," said Dr. David Katz, the director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center.
Keith-Thomas Ayoob, associate professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said nurses are just as susceptible to health problems as the rest of society.
"Before we were health professionals, we were real people. Just because we became health professionals doesn't mean we stopped being members of regular society with all the problems that go along with it. It illustrates that knowledge alone isn't always enough to produce behavioral changes," said Ayoob.
The same is true with smoking, Ayoob said.
"We all know smoking is bad. It doesn't matter if you're a doctor or a nurse or a plumber. You might postulate that your interest in health would be higher if you were a health professional, but a lot of doctors and nurses smoke," said Ayoob.
"Nurses need to understand the importance of taking care of themselves before patients or their families," Ayoob said.
To combat the high obesity rate among nurses, Kihye Han, the author of the study, proposed more education on good sleep habits, and better strategies for adapting work schedules. She also called for napping at work to curb sleep deprivation, reduce fatigue and increase energy.
The 2004 National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses found that more than 40 percent of nurses who left nursing said they did so because of irregular and long hours, indicating that better scheduling could help nurse retention.
Han also proposed increasing making healthy food more available, and allowing enough time to consume it.
For instance, Han recommends on-site farmer's markets to serve health care workers who work nonstandard hours, healthier vending machine choices or having food delivered to the work unit.
"There's an awful lot conspiring against weight control in nurses. The solutions are ... giving the nurses the knowledge and skills they need to manage their weight, and environmental reforms, like having opportunities for physical activity breaks in hospitals, and having nutritious food options readily available 24 hours a day," Katz said.
"Nurses, who dedicate themselves to helping others," said Katz, "deserve that support from us."