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‘Never trust a skinny chef’

An epiphany during the pandemic made public health nurse Paul Watson realise he had personal and professional reasons to improve his physical fitness 

The phrase ‘never trust a skinny chef’ implies the chef does not enjoy their own food enough to fill up on it, and so may not be fully suited to their role in that respect. Of course, this is just a baseless trope but despite that, at the start of the first Covid lockdown in 2020 I did find myself feeling like a ‘skinny chef’. Although in my case, I was (in my own words) a ‘fat nurse’! 

This happened. Sitting on my couch one day I bent over to tie up my shoes. There was a sudden epiphany, as I realised I was so heavy and out of shape that even the act of doing my laces had me out of breath. I began to wonder how this was impacting on my role as a nurse and I sat and reflected on how my patients and colleagues must view me. I am saddened to say I felt ashamed of how I was representing myself and the nursing profession. 

I am a public health nurse, and have spent many years delivering health education to many different groups of service users, educating them and encouraging positive health changes. 

I realised I had now become one of those professionals who preach to others, giving a positive message while subliminally saying ‘do as I say, not as I do’. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, how can I sort this out?’ 

Life-changing decision
Following a period of self-reflection, I reached decisions that I hoped would start to change my life in positive ways. Becoming fit and healthy before I turned 50 (three years from then) seemed a realistic and achievable goal, I thought. 

I was working from home because of Covid, which gave me an opportunity to make positive changes. With shops closed or limited in their supplies, and as I was unable to get out of the house regularly, I signed up to a subscription service that delivered meal boxes to the door with menus and all the fresh ingredients required. This meant I only had food in the house for the meals for the week – nothing else. I couldn’t snack or eat anything ‘outside the box’. 

Being on a limited (but appropriate and tasty) meal plan and calorie intake soon started to make a difference, and the weight began to go in the correct direction. However, at 17.5 stone and not feeling very healthy, I knew this change alone would not bring the desired results quickly enough. I needed to start exercising alongside my new diet, plus find the determination to stick to this new way of living. 

Fitness plan
Again, while working from home during a national lockdown, I could have easily justified doing nothing, blaming my outcomes on the pandemic restrictions. I was lucky that I had a good treadmill and static cycle at home and I started using these. I built myself a fitness plan to go with my new diet. I began running on the treadmill every day, before and after work, and two to three times a week I rode on the bike and did some sit-ups and push-ups. I can’t lie, I did really struggle, but I knew I had to persist to ensure I was fit enough to live a happy life and deliver my nursing duties to the best of my abilities. 

Don’t worry, I’m not going to go into detail about my fitness regime, or try to sell you a DVD! What I will say though, is that I’ve managed to make significant changes to my lifestyle and my health. I am pleased to report that I’m now fitter and healthier than I’ve ever been, and I’m reaping the rewards. 

I have slimmed down to just under 12 stone, and now run two to four times a week. I needed a completely new wardrobe, and my uniform also needed changing. As I continued to exercise, I put on a little weight from adding muscle but also increased my fitness. I now alternate between a 1.5-mile run, a 1.5-mile run with a 3.5-stone backpack, and a 5.5-mile run. This is supplemented most days with sets of 60 sit-ups, 30 push-ups, 10 pull-ups and a three-minute plank. 

Benefits for physical and mental health
It hasn’t been easy getting to this stage but the process is fun and I feel so much better. Not only is my physical health the best it’s ever been, but so is my mental health. Feeling healthy and believing I look nice makes me feel happy and content, and able to handle things that might previously have been a struggle. 

Feeling positive, I wanted to offer some of my free time back to my local community. I applied to become a retained firefighter and passed all the physical assessments without any difficulty, outperforming others half my age. However, there was only so far my health and fitness could take me; despite successful completion of the fitness and workbased assessments, my poor eyesight put paid to my chances. Instead, I have now started the process of becoming a community first responder for the ambulance trust – wearing glasses doesn’t stop me doing this.

As I said, this has not been an easy journey. It was tough to get started and even harder to maintain the progress. I suffered some basic injuries associated with weight and exercise, and had various joint pains as well as pulled muscles and tendons. I got through these, and my weight loss and increasing fitness gave me the motivation to keep going. I worked hard most days and managed to break the treadmill and the static cycle – they weren’t up to repeated use by a 17.5 stone man!

The worn-out gym equipment forced me to take to the streets. I now enjoy running around the town but do so early in the morning to avoid walkers and dogs. This has also not been without problems. On one occasion I was hit and thrown over the bonnet of a car that was driving on the pavement at 25mph as it entered a driveway. This resulted in soft tissue, joint and ligament issues. I am pleased to say that 10 months later I’m back to 99% strength and still improving, day by day.

I know you’re wondering about the fabled ‘skinny chef’ and what any of my ramblings have to do with being a nurse. In summary, I feel being able to ‘trust your chef’ allows you to enjoy your food and your dining experience; in the same way, believing your health adviser is following their own advice makes it more relatable. 

We should be role models
I believe that nurses, now more than ever, are in the spotlight and should see themselves as role models and positive examples for others. 

I deliver training to NHS staff, mainly around CPR and resuscitation. Daily, I see staff struggling with their general level of fitness and many for whom it’s an effort to get up and down off the floor. I haven’t written this to shame others or to impose my fitness routine onto anyone. My aim, instead, is to demonstrate that change is possible. 

I strongly believe nurses are, and continue to be, respected by the general public. But this means we are under scrutiny all of the time. As a profession, we need to be living the positive, healthy lifestyle we are hoping the wider population will aspire to. 

Don’t we all have a duty to be the best that we can be and to support others to do the same? Let’s not have nurses being thought of as like that ‘skinny chef’.  

Paul Watson RN, BSCPHN, is clinical skills trainer at Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust