As a former teacher who has spent the last 20 years teaching students and teachers about health and nutrition, Nora Howley has seen first-hand how hard it can be for NEA Members to find time to take care of themselves.
“Lots of people in this country struggle with healthy eating and active living,” says Howley, formerly of NEA's Health Information Network. “Educators have some challenges in that area very unique to their jobs.”
It’s easy to think about picking up a fitness routine and eating healthy, but not always easy to fit those priorities into the hectic schedules kept by most educators.
Luckily, there are several quick and easy ways you can fit physical activity, good nutrition, and stress-relieving activities into your busy workweek. Read on for a few simple techniques Howley has seen pay off in her years in the field.
One great way to get fit is to incorporate exercise into your workday. “If you need to chat with somebody, get up and see them, rather than send an e-mail or chat by phone,” Howley says. Small, subtle changes can have a healthy cumulative effect. For example, replace your desk chair with a yoga ball, or make time to stretch between periods.
For some educators, the primary obstacle to engaging in regular fitness activities is feeling self-conscious about the way they look. “I’m a middle-aged woman who struggles with her weight,” says Howley. “I don’t particularly feel comfortable going into a fitness club where everyone is 20 years younger and looking like they’re not having issues.”
But there’s safety in numbers, so convince friends and fellow educators to create a workout club with scheduled meet-up dates. The commitment and camaraderie will provide positive reinforcement to keep you on track. You can also work with local community organizations like the YMCA to create after-school workout programs at the school, or see if a yoga-savvy colleague would be willing to lead a weekly class. NEA members can even get a discount to T-Tapp Wellness Workout, a fitness program that incorporates physical therapy techniques into a mind/body workout.
Investigate what fitness options your school offers. “If you’re in a building with fitness facilities, find out if those facilities are available to school staff,” Howley says. For example, a nighttime custodian she knew worked out an arrangement with the school he served so that he and his staff could use the weight room on their lunch break.
But make sure you’ve got the proper gear—or exercise could do more harm than good. “The most important thing if you’re doing a workout that involves walking, running, or aerobics is a good pair of shoes,” says Howley.
Exercise is great, but it’s important to fuel your body adequately to get the most out of physical activity. “Maintaining a healthy weight is a matter of calories in and calories out,” Howley says. “Calories in is the so-called diet. Exercise is the calories out. Ideally you’re doing both because that gives you the most well-rounded approach to maintaining a healthy life.”
There are plenty of gimmicks when it comes to dieting, but Howley reminds educators that eating healthy doesn’t always mean dieting. She recommends following the basic nutrition standards put out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, called MyPlate, to determine portion sizing and to evaluate your food intake.
Although sweet and fatty packaged foods are as cheap as they are tasty, Howley is quick to point out that eating right doesn’t have to be expensive. “Frozen fruits and vegetables offer the same nutrients as fresh fruits and vegetables.” For example, you can blend frozen berries with a fresh banana and some coconut for a quick, inexpensive snack to take with you to work.
If your busy schedule often becomes an obstacle to eating right, try stocking up on snacks that need no preparation, such as carrot sticks, celery sticks, or almonds. Make use of short cuts, like pre-chopped veggies, if you’re making a meal from scratch, she says. Or prep food on Sunday for the entire week’s meals. Try making a large crock-pot recipe over the weekend, and you’ll have lunches for rest of the week. If cooking still seems burdensome, get help from a nutrition delivery service.
When you do eat out, make healthy choices. Many restaurants have incorporated the new menu labeling required for restaurant chains under the Affordable Care Act; nutritional information must now be visible or available to patrons. And while it can be hard, try not to overeat just because there’s food left on your plate. If a portion is too big, don’t hesitate to have it boxed up for a later meal. To help stay on target, try sectioning off your ideal portion before you start eating. Then, once that portion’s gone, take a 5-minute break to see if you still want more.
You can avoid the temptation of empty calories in the staff lounge by bringing in fruit or other healthy snacks. “Oftentimes we hear the staff lounge is just a minefield of unhealthy eating,” says Howley. “One of the best ways to change that is to be the change yourself.”
Making “Me” Time a Priority
As an educator, making time for yourself can be an added burden when your schedule is packed. But taking care of yourself means you’re less likely to form diet-busting habits.
As it turns out, stress, eating, and physical activity are all closely linked, says Howley. “One of the best behaviors for improving sleep and addressing stress is physical activity.” More activity leads to reduced stress, which decreases your desire to overeat.
Sleep and stress are also tied together: Some educators may struggle to sleep because they’re stressed or because they don’t have time to sleep.
Howley suggests coming up with ways to manage stress and cut back on your obligations. If you’re well rested, you’re more likely to remain calm when stressful situations arise.
Managing stress requires determining your stress triggers. Don’t forget that positive events—like getting married or starting a new job—can also cause stress.
The next step in stress management, according to the Mayo Clinic, is to find ways to address stress or at least reduce the irritation level. If financial woes are causing stress, for example, speak with a financial planner.
For stressors outside your control, try relaxation techniques like breathing exercises, yoga, or spending time in nature. Sometimes blocking out a little time to do something for yourself—like going to a spa—can help with relaxation.
When it comes to wellness, make sure your motives are right. “People often say to me, ‘I was bad today, I didn’t exercise,’” says Howley. “Stop thinking about these health behaviors as whether you’re a good person or a bad person. Think of them as whether you’re taking care of yourself for your own sake, your family’s sake, or for the sake of the students you serve.
In Your Own Words
NEA-Retired member Kalyn Denny shares the importance of being fit.
Occupation: Former elementary school teacher, former NEA board member, former vice president and president of local association; currently a full-time blogger.
Membership: 30-year member, now a retired member
NEA Member Benefits She Has Used:
Valuebuilder, NEA Credit Card, NEA Complimentary Life Insurance
What is your weekly fitness routine?
I walk at the gym five days a week with my best friend, Bonnie. In the winter we walk for an hour in a gym that has a track. When we first started walking we did 40 minutes, then we gradually bumped it up to a full hour. I have a 10- or 15-minute routine with free weights and some abdominal exercises that I do in the evening. I’m also a fan of “Walk Away the Pounds.” It’s an exercise DVD you do at home that’s very easy to follow and a really good workout.
How do you fit workouts into your busy lifestyle?
Pick a time—and that is your time. That’s one of the keys to developing a fitness routine. It’s great to have a partner; I still exercise when Bonnie’s not there, but I’m much better when I’m with her.
What are the benefits you’ve seen from making fitness a habit?
When I don’t exercise, I don’t sleep as well. I think when you exercise more, you’re more inclined to eat healthy, because it’s crazy to exercise and not eat healthy food. You just make that connection in your mind. In every way you feel better when you exercise; your body needs it!
How has NEA inspired or assisted your fitness goals?
I taught school in a little town that was about 20 minutes from Salt Lake City. So I really wanted to exercise right in the school. At the same time, our local NEA affiliate decided to have this after-school exercise program where they just hired people to teach classes. So I asked to teach a class. Having it right at school made a huge difference for me because it was convenient. It became part of my routine.