They take care of us but it appears they aren't taking care of themselves.

A study finds that hospital nurses are not getting the physical activity they need to maintain their health. Most of us don't get the physical activity we need for optimal health. And when we break down, it's the nurses, these front line workers, who help take care of us.

But who is taking care of them?

At the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, the rehab track is busy today, not only with patients.  The medical staff there, including nurses, is encouraged to use it to keep in shape. A study from 2005, the National Survey of the Work and Health of Nurses in Canada, showed an alarming number of them report being overweight, with high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes.  Many report experiencing depression or smoke:  all known modifiable risk factors for heart disease.

Rotating shifts, long hours and a physically demanding job leave little time to work out.

Jane Brownrigg should know.  Now a clinical manager at the Heart Institute working regular hours, she did shift works for many of her 28 years. 

“The positive news is that nurses are getting more physical activity than the average Canadian,” she says, “but they are not meeting the recommended physical activity guideline for the prevention of cardiovascular disease.”

Dr. Jennifer Reed is the Director of the Exercise Physiology and Cardiovascular Health Lab, CIHR New Investigator at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute and a primary investigator in the Nurses’ study.  She looked at the exercise habits of 4`0 nurses from 14 hospitals in the Ottawa area throughout the Champlain region of Ontario.

“Seventy-seven percent of nurses are not meeting the guidelines,” Dr. Reed says, “We need to take care of nurses who take care of us.

Irene Toonders, a nurse at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, was one of the study participants.  When she found out she wasn't meeting the physical activity guidelines, she stepped it up.  But she knows many other nurses are struggling with that.

“A lot of the girls work 12 hour shifts,” she says, “they are working nights.  It is a demanding profession and we're often giving to others and putting ourselves last.”

We know that heart disease is the number one killer among Canadian women over the age of 55.  We also know that the majority of nurses are women.  This survey shows the importance of focusing on the health of these nurses right now.

“We need to do more than just say we are not meeting the guidelines,” says Dr. Reed, “We need a global strategy to help nurses who help us.”

The physical activity guideline recommends 150 minutes a week, or about 20 minutes a day, of moderate to vigorous physical activity, in bouts of at least 10 minutes.  Not surprisingly, most Canadians, eighty-five percent, don't meet that target.