Fiona McQueen: "If I can do it, anyone can"

07 September 2017

Professor Fiona McQueen, Scotland’s chief nursing officer, describes her journey to fitness, and ‘walking the walk’ when it comes to public health advice on healthy eating and physical activity.

Fiona McQueen

After a lifetime of yo-yo dieting that left her overweight and low on energy, Professor Fiona McQueen is now seven stone lighter, a picture of health after getting fit with healthy eating and walking. As chief nursing officer for Scotland, and a nurse for 35 years, she knows better than most the importance of eating well and exercising. Likewise, as a mum-of-three working full time, she knows how hard it can be to find the time and motivation to do so.

But last October, several factors combined to set her on a new path – her high-profile job and the desire to be a role model, work being done around supporting the health and wellbeing of nurses, and the expectation that they will now work into their late 60s.

She says: ‘It was a “planetary alignment”. I took myself in hand. It was about taking personal acceptance and responsibility rather than saying “I’m too busy”, “It’s too difficult”, “I don’t have time to cook, shop, or exercise”.’

The process, as she describes it, was ‘not rocket science’. It meant eating more healthily and choosing ‘real food’ over refined and highly processed options, eating less, and incorporating exercise into her daily life.

Better choices

A large aid in her transformation was a fitness tracker. ‘I got it for my birthday a couple of years ago, and it certainly did get me walking more,’ she adds. ‘It was so interesting to see how many or how few steps I took each day.

‘Last October I seriously started using it to keep physically active. I set myself a target of 15,000 steps a day and I feel disappointed if I don’t get 140,000 a week. The fitness tracker also monitors sleep, which is so important to managing health and wellbeing.’

Now a dedicated walker, Fiona habitually incorporates it into her 80-mile commute to work from Ayrshire.

‘I travel in on the train, get off a station early and walk the 40 minutes to work. Sometimes I can get into work at 8am with 10,000 steps done already.

‘I try to walk when I take calls at work; there are ways to fit extra physical activity in if you just look hard enough.

‘And I find walking washes stress away,’ she adds. ‘As well as the physical benefit.’

‘I also do classes at the gym which I find incredibly helpful, although I know it’s not for everyone.

Fiona's fitness success

Fighting fit

While she is keen to inspire others, she is under no illusions about how tough it can be.

‘Absolutely it’s difficult,’ she adds. ‘If you are working full time, working shifts, have very young children or are caring for an elderly relative, it can be really difficult, but what I would say to people is just look at what you are doing in terms of physical activity and try to increase it by just 5% to 10%. It’s about believing it’s possible rather than impossible, and finding ways to do it.’

The reward is having more energy, sleeping better, feeling better and, crucially, being a positive role model, says Fiona.

‘I think being chief nurse of the country – and being a nurse in general – I was having to apologise quietly, or not so quietly, for being overweight.

She adds: ‘As a nurse I have received complaints and there have been times people have raised that with me as a nursing director.

‘“How can a nurse who is very overweight advise me to lose weight?” or “How can a nurse who smokes advise me to stop smoking?” People need to understand that nurses are human too.

‘But particularly as chief nurse of the country, there is something about being a role model and being able to communicate and support healthy eating and healthy living advice.

‘It was also about having the stamina and resilience to do the job. I’m in my 50s now and I’m thinking about how we support nurses to work into their late 60s – we all need to keep healthy and well to do that.

National health

‘I know how hard it is, having always been a yo-yo dieter. Some nurses smoke, some nurses have other addiction issues such as alcohol and drugs. Nurses reflect our society and that doesn’t make them bad people. It is important that we support nurses’ own health and wellbeing.’

She said community practitioners – and nurses across the board – have a big part to play in changing attitudes and helping to improve the health of a nation.

‘People used to say it’s okay to smoke because they have a stressful job – now we tell ourselves it’s okay to get a takeaway or to eat a lot of high-sugar, high-fat foods. It’s an issue in society and the Scottish Government and others are looking at strategies to raise the activity level of the population and get people eating healthily.’

She adds: ‘Nurses are not the only ones – but they are absolutely key and fundamental in being able to support and improve the health of a country.

‘We need nurses working at all levels in organisations. Community and public health nurses in particular have a huge wealth of knowledge about the needs of the population, what challenges families, and they need to have a voice to help improve public health.’ CP

All about Fiona 

  • Became a nurse in 1982 and has been an executive nurse director since 1993. She was appointed Scotland’s CNO in March 2015
  • Attributes her desire to go into nursing to time spent in hospital as a child. ‘It was the impact the nurses had on my life – how they helped me, how they made me feel,’ she says.
  • Is married with three children aged 16, 18 and 24. Her 18-year-old is about to begin training as a nurse.
  • Loves weekend walks around her hometown of Ayr with her dog
  • Advises other practitioners who want to improve their health: ‘If I can do it, anyone can. Take a look at what you’re eating and be honest with yourself about how nutritious it is. And up your physical activity.’


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