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What’s the best exercise routine for nurses?

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You’ve heard all this talk about healthy coping mechanisms, and exercise keeps coming up as a great way to de-stress and stay fit.

If you weren’t exactly a college athlete, you might be wondering where to start and how to find time for exercise during your workweek. 

Exercise routines don’t have to be fancy, but it all comes down to motivation no matter what you do. If you HATE high intensity or jumping workouts, adding 3 of them into your week isn’t going to make you successful. Likewise, if you can’t stand running, training for a half-marathon is a waste of time.

Let’s start with some of the basics. There are three main types of workouts divided into many “types” or “forms.” You don’t need all the details, just the down and dirty requirements.

The first is LISS. 

Or low-intensity steady-state workouts. LISS has been around for a long time; it’s just disguised under a new name. Think steady-state running, biking, walking, or swimming. The goal is to keep the heart rate at a reasonable level for an extended period. This is great for people who want to have a conversation with a friend while walking or running. It helps with endurance and is excellent for the cardiovascular system. This activity is great for people who actually enjoy running or biking (even if that isn’t you… yet) and for people who need some exercise but don’t want to feel like they are dying the whole time. Think pushing a stretcher down to CT vs. CPR.

The second is HIIT. 

This is high-intensity interval training. This means you go all out for a brief amount of time, experience some lower intensity effort while you “rest,” and then do it again. It’s wildly effective for fat burning, and it gets a massive amount of work done in a short amount of time. For many nurses, this 20-minute fat blaster is easier to manage than a 45 minute LISS workout. The effort is real though, think 2-minute rounds of really high-quality CPR followed by small breaks in between.

The final is Strength training. 

Most people assume that cardio is needed to lose weight, gain muscle and relieve stress. Strength training is the magical combination of all three. In fact, 3 twenty-minute strength training sessions a week can lead to stronger bones, better balance, better weight control, and better body functions. You may find yourself working hard like HIIT on leg day and slow and steady like LISS on arm day. No matter what, you will find yourself gaining lean muscle and likely losing fat. This is more like lifting your patient for 20 minutes but using better body mechanics in a controlled environment.

What’s right for you comes down to… well… you. Functionally, strength training mimics the skills you need throughout your day the best. It will increase your cardiovascular strength as well as your legs, back, and arms. This makes your day easier, keeps you from getting hurt, and stimulates your metabolism while not depleting your stores.

Some people find that they get mental relief through the act of lifting weights. Some people find that steady-state activities like running help them achieve mental clarity and feel accomplished. Some people need to get all that angst out fast through HIIT. You aren’t limited to one form or the other. 

The most well-rounded athletes will incorporate two or all three processes into their routine. You may choose to do HIIT once a week on a day off, or if you have enough energy after your shift, the short time may fit great into your schedule. Some people choose to run or bike on their days off and do short strength workouts on their shift days. Some nurses can’t do a single thing after their shift and will divide their off time with the type of workout they enjoy. 

However you choose to squeeze some exercise in, it will help with your mental and physical state. Just remember to start slow and work your way up. You don’t need to run a marathon tomorrow, just like you don’t need to deadlift 200 lbs on day two. Consistency is the key to improvement. 

While we are at it, there is no such thing as spot correction. Abs are made in the kitchen, so your diet will determine how much progress you see. You can increase muscle where you want to, but fat has a mind of its own, so don’t be surprised if your thighs stay chunky while your arms lose inches. Stick with it, and it will all even out in the end. Finally, strength training will NOT make you bulky. Lean muscle is a good look on anybody. It’s downright HARD to get bulky lifting weights. The only changes you will see here are better mental health and a slimmed-down, toned-looking body. 

Don’t know where to start? Here are some great free resources for each type of exercise! You got this!


Amanda Ernst, DNP, RN, CEN

Amanda Ernst, DNP, RN, CEN


Amanda is an ER nurse with 10 years of healthcare experience. She currently works as a nurse educator and as an adjunct professor for several schools. She also works as a freelance healthcare writer in her spare time. Amanda thinks the greatest thing about nursing is the endless possibilities and opportunities to learn. What have you learned today?


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