Lifestyle The Shift Worker’s Guide to Health and Fitness

Having been a shift worker for the last 16 years with 10 of those being 20 kgs heavier than I am now, I know how difficult it can be to eat well, include fitness, manage sleep, AND juggle family commitments.

I used to ponder on how I can possibly eat well and fit in exercise around some pretty nasty shift patterns. Over the last 6 years, I stumbled across a successful way of doing it, one that doesn’t have a negative impact on my life and something that can be changed to deal with any shift pattern an organization throws at you.

The Shift Worker Guide

If you are someone who works shifts and struggles, then this is for you!

Regardless of what shift pattern you work, there is one thing that you need to have nailed down. That is routine. “How the hell can I have a routine when I work shifts I hear you say?”

Well it’s easier than you think! Most of the ‘normal’ world work 9-5 type hours and in some respect it can be harder to remain consistent simply because you either have to exercise before or after work and then prepare meals late in the evening when you are most tired. Also, you only get 2 days off a week which is usually the weekend, which is usually full of things that you can’t get done in the week and you may feel that you have no time!

But if you are a shift worker you usually have extended days off. My current roster is 6 on 4 off meaning I get 4 days off work, and between an early and a late, and a late and a night I get anything between 18-20 hours off.  That’s a lot of time.

The good news is that you have a bit more time to prepare and get your life planned to ensure success.

The Shift Worker Routine

So let’s talk about this routine. The normal 9-5 is a routine, its simple its rinse and repeat daily, but the shift worker has to work a little smarter. You need a plan.

The end of the day you are still working 8-10 hours a day, the only difference is that the start time is different, so that in mind you need to establish for each shift:

  • When the best time is to exercise.
  • When is the best time to prepare your meals.
  • When to sleep.

Think of it this way, if you were on a 9-5 what time of the day would you prefer to work out? Before or after? With that in mind, work that into your shift.

I always exercise  5 days out of 7, this is now a habit for me and i rarely struggle to find time. It just happens. I’m an early exerciser and my routine revolves around exercising before work regardless of the shift.

Early Shift 07:00 – 16:00

On this shift I get up at 04:30, hit a coffee and head to the gym at 05:00 giving me plenty of time to get to work, have a shower get breakfast and start my shift.

Now some of you may not be early risers so that’s fine but the reason I work out earlier is if I schedule in a training session at 16:00 I may well miss it, due to being tired and not wanting to, or working overtime which is unexpected. Therefore I will miss training completely due to unforeseen circumstances.

The beauty of getting up early is that I get a huge feeling of accomplishment completing an early workout, and by the time I get to work I’m full of energy and feel a ton better throughout the day. Also, as long as I’ve had 7-8 hours sleep the workouts are good.

Late shift 14:00 – 23:00

After 2 early morning starts I am usually quite tired, so here is my chance to catch up a little. I may have a later night and wake up without an alarm. This means I feel pretty refreshed, even if my toddler decides to come in and say hello. I then have breakfast and prepare my meals for the day which takes less than an hour, do some chores and head to the gym at 12;00. This allows me plenty of time to get to work, have a shower get breakfast and start my shift.

You could always work out in the morning upon waking and that’s perfectly fine, I choose not to as I like my little routine.

I have in the past trained after work but for the same reasons as the early shift I won’t chance it.

Night Shift 21:00 – 07:00

This is probably the trickiest shift and just because it’s nights and it’s tiring. After my late shift I will usually get up earlier say 6 am or 7 am and the reason I do this is so that I can go back to bed for a couple of hours in the afternoon. I find that waking up closer to my start time helps me through the night.

If I stay in bed til 10 or 11 am and try and stay up all of the way through, I really struggle. So, I split it up. I may be a little tired in the morning but I know I will get another 3-4 hours sleep in the afternoon. I still get a lot of time to prepare meals and do any chores I need to.

I occasionally train in the morning, but I usually have a poor workout due to being a bit tired so the before work option works better for me. However, if you want to spend time with your family or if you have plans in the evening, get it done in the morning. You’ll probably sleep better in the afternoon, too.

Then, I will get up, have ‘breakfast’ and hit the gym at 18:30 – 19:00 get to work, have a shower, get breakfast and start my shift.

I have also trained after nights at 07:30 – 08:00 and I feel dreadful, so it’s a before work for me.

As you can see as long as you get a little routine, working out on shifts is really doable.  I mentioned above I work out 5 days out of 7 and that seems to be the sweet spot for me and can hit all my goals doing this.

After my last night shift, I always use this as a rest day, no matter what day of the week it is. Simply because I force myself to wake up after only 4-5 hours’ sleep to reset my body clock ensuring I can sleep that night. Exercising on this day with so little sleep will hinder any progress and make me feel a bit… well shit!

On my days off I’ll just train when I wake up. There is no real structure but a morning workout is usually done.

Meal Prep

I am meal prepper and it has kept me on track for many years. I don’t just have neatly portioned Tupperware containers. I eat normally, mostly healthy I just take it with me. I usually prepare 3-4 meals and snacks that I can eat on the go without the need to head into the drive through.

I usually eat 6 meals/snacks per day, I take 4 meals/snacks into work and other two meals are eaten at home. Most meals are very similar and are things I like.

Let’s start on earlies and work through it step by step.

Early shift, this starts the day before because planning is essential.

The meals I take to work are:

  • Breakfast
  • Morning Snack
  • Lunch
  • Afternoon Snack

I prepare 2 days’ worth of meals/snacks because I know when I get home after the 1st early I don’t want to have to cook and prepare. I just want to relax with my family.

The main meal usually takes the longest to prepare, so I cook up 2 days worth of protein (chicken/steak/eggs), carbohydrate, and vegetables.

It could be a stir-frys, sandwiches, salads, fajitas, or just a simple meal of grilled chicken, sweet potato and steamed veggies. They are always full of flavour as I use a lot of herbs and spices and if I cook a sauce it’s usually tomato based and easy to make.

While I’m cooking this meal I get cracking on the rest. I usually have 3 squares a day with 3 snacks in between those meals.

Breakfast usually consists of a high fibre cereal (Weetabix, all bran, oats) with a protein source, usually a shake and this takes 2 minutes prep. It’s a matter of dividing two portions or dry ingredients into two containers. Recently I have been using chia seeds soaked in milk with protein powder stirred in. A perfect breakfast right there.

Mid-morning snacks / Afternoon Snack are usually easy to eat and can be;

  • 3 eggs or another protein shake with a piece of fruit.
  • A Peanut butter sandwich on wholegrain bread,
  • Yoghurt and fruit
  • A good quality protein bar.
  • A handful of nuts and a piece of fruit.

That is it. It only takes me 35-40 minutes to do the lot. Hardly a chore.

Late Shifts are usually very similar and I tend to make these meals in the morning each day as they are fresher. But these can be bulk prepared too if you want. The key is to prepare something and do not leave it to chance.

The meals I take to work are:

  • Lunch
  • Afternoon Snack
  • Dinner
  • Evening Snack

Night shift is again a bit different. When I wake up after the late shift I have a solid breakfast to last me until I go back to bed. Then when I wake up I’ll have breakfast again. I usually have one of my breakfast options because it’s easy or I may just wait and have dinner with my family. It depends.

Then I treat the night shift as a normal day, the first meal is breakfast and so on. I make my food fresh on both nights.

The meals I take to work are:

  • Morning Snack – 21:30 hrs
  • Lunch – 01:00 hrs
  • Afternoon snack – 04:00 hrs
  • Snack (occasionally) – 07:30 hrs only if I’m hungry.

The second night shift is the same only I wake up at 14:00 – 16:00, then start with breakfast then carry on as normal.

When I come off nights and on to a rest day, I wake up at 12:00 hrs, have breakfast, afternoon snack and then dinner. Obviously my waking hours are less and therefore I don’t want as much.

My nutrition is fairly simple and I make sure I don’t go with out and if I fancy a treat then I will. I don’t look at foods as being good or bad more the fact are they high in calories or not. My calorie limit is like a bank balance and I account for my meals via Myfitnesspal. So if I haven’t got the budget then I won’t eat it. It’s that simple. I focus on real whole foods that are nutrient dense and filling. Eat like your grandparents used to! Meat and two veg anyone?

Type of exercise

This is where the go hard or go home mentality has to stop. Most of us aren’t athletes, we aren’t doing body building competitions and we are not looking for sub 10% body fat. We are here to maintain our health, be durable, have more confidence and enjoy life by being fit. Let’s face it everyone wants to be slim, fit and it is extremely rewarding.

Each workout I do I try to outdo last week’s effort, this is simply because to change body composition levels and become fitter then you do need to push yourself a bit, but it doesn’t need to be at such an intensity that it completely wipes you out.

Working shifts is hard enough as it is and recovering from them are hard. The fact we work night shifts has a detrimental effect on our health so we need to be smart about our training. Training at super high intensities subjects us to huge amounts of stress and that combined with shift work can affect us negatively.

I personally do 3 full body workouts, focusing on big compound moves, such as squats, deadlifts, rows, and presses. This is typically Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and this usually takes between 35-45 minutes.

On Tuesday and Thursday I normally do an interval style circuit incorporating some direct core work. A strong core is more than a 6 pack and it is essential to our posture and overall function and a weak core is responsible for, lower back pain.

Intervals have also been heavily studied and are superior for fat loss, increased fitness and you can get a very effective workout in half the time and I usually do about 35 – 45 minutes. That’s much better than a 90 min jog!

For overall fitness and health, full body workouts are by far, more efficient for both fat loss and fitness. If you are only working out your biceps on one day and doing tons of cardio on treadmill you are selling yourself short and it will take you much longer to see results.

I see it all the time… people are training like body builders because that is what they read in magazines. This style of training does have its place but if your goals are to lose weight, and be healthier then go for full body workouts and interval style training, trust me!

As a shift worker, rest and recovery must be balanced with exercise and nutrition. If not you will experience burn out pretty quickly and a poor diet wont help your cause. As you get fitter and stronger you can add intensity and you will get a good feel as to what you can handle and what you can’t.

By taking this approach I am able to maintain a good level of leaness and fitness all year round and only fluctuate about 5 kg’s depending on my fitness goals at the time. If I have a beach holiday coming up then I will maintain my workouts and adjust my nutrition to lose a few kilos and its really easy.

Sleep

This is extremely important to the shift worker and I try to average between 7-8 hours sleep per day. Even if that is broken into 2 parts. Sometimes I struggle to sleep after nights and I may only get 5 hours, in that case I make sure I try and get an extra 2-3 hours after.

I find as long as I am getting this amount of sleep I’m doing ok. If it’s less, and sometimes it is then I do struggle. You may be different so try and sleep more. What I found over the years is that the fitter I am the less sleep I can manage on. Being fit has some incredible benefits and more energy is one of them.

Mindset

Rid your mind of “I cant because…” Believe me you can do anything you decide to do.

As with anything if you can’t be bothered then nothing will ever change. So don’t let your mood affect a decision…..It takes a decision to change and a plan to get moving. Now I’d never expect you to start doing everything I’ve outlined above so encourage you to work on 1 thing at a time.

Ask yourself the question “what can I do today that will make my goal easier to obtain” and just do that one thing. Don’t say ‘what should’ because it’s not as powerful as CAN.

Once you start taking daily action on the 1 thing, and once that becomes a habit, choose another thing. It takes on average 66 days to create a habit then once it’s established it becomes easy and that thing becomes easier. Once you have established the said habit, re visit the above question and pick something else. Keep going in this fashion until you reach your goals. Whatever you do don’t try and change too many things in one go you are likely to fail.

Some examples of habits to change:

  • Preparing healthy meals on a daily basis. (you could even break this down to making 1 healthy meal)
  • Exercising 5 days per week (if this is too much commit to just once a week and build up from there)
  • Get in 8 hours sleep.
  • Drink 8 glasses of water per day
  • Cut down on caffeine
  • Eat veggies at two meals per day.
  • Change nothing about your diet other than reducing portion sizes by 25%.
  • Log meals in MyFitnessPal (or just one per day until you get used to it)

The list is endless, but whatever one you pick make it something that you can easily commit to and what will directly contribute to your goal.

If you don’t make a change today how will tomorrow be any different

I have great success when changing my fitness goals by taking this approach and it is fairly effortless, because the things that proceed it are now habits and take very little effort. They are just things I do now, just like showering or brushing my teeth. Anyway, that’s my take on shift work from a lot of experience and this works well for me.

I really hope that you’ve gotten something from this blog about g, and I’ve gone from fat to 6 pack all while being a shift worker and doing what I said above..

If you would like any advice or a chat about how you can Start Afresh and create your own habits and routines I’d love to hear from you. If you would like a copy of my complete workout and nutrition schedule covering 7 days send me a reply saying “ I want to Start Afresh” and I’l send you a copy free of charge.

Start Afresh

What do you think?