A recent study by researchers at the University of California Los Angeles reveals that the number of American nurses who smoke decreased significantly between 2007 and 2011.

The results, published Jan. 8 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), have certainly produced echoes of optimism when it comes to the health of nurses and the example they are able to set for patients.

The survey of health professionals from various regions of the United States found no significant decrease in the number of nurses who smoked between 2003 and 2007, but the percentage of smoking nurses decreased from 11 percent to 7 percent between 2007 and 2011, a difference of 36 percent overall.

Encouragingly, the study also found that smoking rates are down for every healthcare profession that was queried, including physicians, dental hygienists, pharmacists and respiratory therapists. And while doctors have the lowest rate of smoking of all healthcare professionals (2 percent), licensed practical nurses have the highest rate (25 percent).

One would assume that reaction to this news is optimistic among both patient advocacy groups and organizations that represent nurses and other healthcare professionals. As the study points out, the poor health habits of healthcare professionals sends a confusing message to patients.

Meanwhile, the fact that a larger percentage of healthcare professionals (78 percent) than laypeople (65 percent) never started smoking in the first place underscores the notion that healthcare workers can indeed use their own lifestyle choices as a teaching tool for the patients they serve.

Nurses and self-care

When it comes to self-care and healthy choices among nurses, there are certainly mixed opinions regarding how well nurses heed the advice they are likely to give to their patients.

A September 2012 article in Nursing Outlook revealed that although nurses are indeed knowledgeable about the most healthy choices they can make, when it comes to their own self-care, their actual practices fall far short of what we would wish for those charged with the education and care of the general public.

According to the aforementioned Nursing Outlook study, 72 percent of participants reported "a lack of exercise" in their daily lives, and the average BMI of the respondents was 28.3.

With a large percentage of study participants either overweight or obese, it is distressing to also learn that many participants reported eating as a frequently-utilized strategy for the release of stress. Luckily, an almost equal number of nurse respondents reported using exercise as a form of stress management.

A positive response

Despite the news that nurses' self-care practices leave much to be desired, there are programs and organizations working diligently to reverse this disturbing trend.

The Interprofessional Institute for Self-Care at the Kent State University School of Nursing is dedicated to championing the self-care and wellness practices of nurses, and their website abounds with statements underscoring their belief in the importance of nurses' self-care.

"The IISC is dedicated to the investigation, translation and dissemination of the scholarship and science of self-care. We anticipate that these efforts will have a far reaching and sustaining impact for the nurse, the profession, patients and families, the organizations in which they work and the communities in which they live."

Based on their description of the organization's mission, the education of nurses about their own self-care practices has the potential to ripple widely into the very communities in which nurses live and work.

Self-care in the 21st century

In the 21st century, methods of self-care abound. From coaching and peer support to yoga and mindfulness-based stress reduction, highly-educated nurses and healthcare professionals have access to a plethora of literature, practices, studies and data. This information corroborates the fact that better self-care inevitably leads to decreased stress, improved physical health, a decreased risk of burnout and increased life satisfaction.

Nurses are the largest professional cohort within the healthcare arena. With an aging population and a growing need for hard-working, compassionate and attentive nurses, it is paramount that we have a robust, healthy nursing workforce to provide the care that the population will only continue to demand.

While it is encouraging that the number of nurses who smoke cigarettes has declined in recent years, other studies also demonstrate that we have a long way to go when it comes to nurse self-care and overall health.

As a profession, it is imperative that we encourage one another, support organizations like the Interprofessional Institute for Self-Care, and continue to increase awareness of the importance of self-care for nurses and other healthcare professionals.

The health and well-being of our country depends on nurses. Therefore, our collective well-being also depends on those nurses caring for themselves as well as they care for others.