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A Guide to Working Out for Shift Workers


Shift work can be pretty tough. It can throw your sleep schedule off into oblivion, it can rob you of normal social hours to spend with your friends and family, and it can also cause some serious uncertainty about how and when to work out.

Since a major part of getting and staying fit is being consistent about sticking to a training routine, anything that makes your schedule a bit more chaotic can cause you issues.

With a few guidelines and general principles to help you along, however, it’s still possible to train effectively and get in shape as a shift worker.

Read on for some helpful pointers.

Anchor your routine to events in your day, not times of day

A routine can be structured in a couple of different ways. The most common way of structuring a day is to use the clock to assign certain tasks and errands to certain times. This approach comes naturally to most of us, since the modern world of work is structured this way.

If you have a conventional job, you have set hours of the day when you need to be at work. You’re not told, “come to work when you wake up and leave a little bit after lunch”.

Using contextual “triggers” like “when I wake up I will…” or “after lunch I will…”, however, is a very powerful alternative way of structuring a routine for those with an unpredictable schedule.

Try to structure your fitness routine around events in your day, not times of day. “After breakfast, I will listen to music for an hour and then lift weights” will work a lot better for you than “I will go to the gym at 8:00am every day”.

Train whenever your energy levels are highest

A lot has been written about the supposed benefits and risks of doing your exercise at certain times of day. The science, however, seems pretty inconclusive on the supposed importance of when you train.

One 2011 study published in the Journal of Sleep Research, for example, found that there was no apparent difference in sleep quality between people who did intensive exercise close to bedtime and those who did no exercise that day at all.

Bearing this in mind, you may be better off training when your energy levels are highest, whether that’s before or after work. This way, you’ll be more motivated to train, and will likely perform better in your workouts too.

Don’t go in too hard if you’ve just woken up

Some people who are especially concerned about using their time as efficiently as possible, will jump out of bed first thing in the morning and be doing vigorous stretching routines, sit-ups, or heavy lifts with fifteen minutes.

This might not be the best idea. If you’re still sleepy your risk of injury will be higher. Why not eat breakfast, pack for work, or read a book for the first hour you’re awake; then move onto training?

On the other hand, don’t avoid training in the morning altogether as this can be a really great time to get a workout in, particularly if it fits quite nicely around your shifts. So long as you warm up sufficiently and do plenty of dynamic stretches, you should be fine. 

Reflect on whether fasted cardio works for you

Fasted cardio has become very popular with early morning trainees in recent times, partly because recent studies have found that intermittent fasting might be an effective tool for fat loss.

Don’t be so quick to hop on the bandwagon, however. 

A 2015 study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that fasted training led to significant increases in the stress hormone cortisol, with the study’s authors warning that the increased cortisol levels may “negatively affect long-term weight loss.”

This is especially bad for shift workers, since other research has found evidence that shift work itself leads to dramatic long-term increases in cortisol.

At the same time; forcing yourself to eat before your morning workout, if you don’t naturally have much appetite early in the day, won’t do you much good. You’ll only end up feeling too full, which could hinder your energy and motivation when you get to the gym.

The trick is to focus on what makes you feel best.

Always get enough sleep

When you already work irregular hours, it can be especially tempting to cut back on sleep for the sake of getting in a workout or catching up on TV.

But in order to stay fit and healthy, you absolutely must get as much sleep as possible.

Sleep deprivation ruins the performance of every part of the body in some fundamental way. Studies have found that sleep deprivation harms mental function across literally dozens of measures, while also causing hormonal problems which sabotage fat loss efforts and reduce time-to-exhaustion during training.

Treat sleep as an integral part of your fitness routine.


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