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Fitting in Fitness on a Shifty Schedule

Weird schedules. Lack of sleep. Eating on the run. Decreased exercise. Night shift can absolutely get in the way of meeting your fitness goals.

Shift workers often struggle to fit in enough sweat time due to demanding schedules and working long hours. And chances are, you just might be eating more overall to compensate for a shorter sleep. Fortunately, exercise can help to minimise the negative health impacts associated with shift work. It can help us stay alert on the job and sleep better when we get home.


Assess your current needs 

Are you ready to fit in fitness? If you’re new to working nights or are struggling to keep your balance, then you need to prioritize good sleep before moving on to incorporating exercise into your schedule. Sleep is more important than squeezing in a workout. If you aren’t meeting your individual sleep requirements, waking up to make it to the gym should not be a priority.

If good sleep, good food, and good exercise cannot all fit into your ‘shifty’ world right now, then make sure you prioritize pillow time and nutritious food before you even think about hitting a high-octane spin class or high-intensity interval training. Once you’ve got your sleep and food in line, then by all means get moving—but be careful not to run yourself into the ground.


Reframe fitness as self-care

Exercise, at its core, is about self-care. But when grinding through a series of night shifts, your needs and mental health can fall by the wayside. 

Your body’s ability to recover and perform can be compromised because night shift means that you are working against your natural circadian rhythm. The last thing you want to do is add workouts that stress your body further and leaves you seeing stars. Avoid anything so vigorous that it spikes cortisol (stress hormones! Eeeek!)  and leaves you breathless/on the verge of vomiting.  

Moderation is key. Once-a-week running sprints with full recovery? Sure. If you can’t recover in between sprints, make them shorter by ten yards until you can. Long walks? Great. Your body will thank you. Heavy lifting? Maybe, depending on what your body can handle. Keep an eye on how you feel. If you stall on the same weight twice, drop the weight or the volume. 

Did you know? Some folks have come up with fitness routines specifically for night shift workouts. Find a Youtube video example here and its corresponding download here.


Shift workers in the wild

We scoured the web for first-hand accounts of what sleep schedules work best for real-life shift workers. Here’s what they said about delaying sleep. (Edited for clarity and conciseness.)

I am a night shift trauma RN. I like taking stair or squat breaks. (I am NOT touching the floor to do push ups. Yuck!)—Emily

I am a nurse and I work the night shift. I have developed a healthy meal routine, but I always struggle to find time to work out. I am usually tired from being on my feet all night at work and have trouble finding the motivation for my shift.—Sarah

I am a nurse and regularly work odd shifts. I find it best to eat a late breakfast after waking up, followed by lunch before work, and then dinner around midnight to keep me going through the night. I find my body really suffers when I work out during the day and work at night as it doesn’t have the proper time to recover.—Jessica 

Find the best time to work out

The best time of day to work out is up to you. For some people, exercise increases their energy. For other people, it prepares them for a great sleep right after. Find the workout time that fits into your schedule. Can you exercise right before work, shower, and head into a great shift? Or should you be hitting the gym on the way home from before hitting the sheets? (Personally, I cannot even contemplate doing that, but some of my coworkers swear by it.) It might also work for you to work out during your shift. Try out all three to determine the time of day that is best for you.


Before work

Exercise fights stress and anxiety, improves your endurance, concentration, and focus, and boosts your energy and mood. Before you head to work, spend 30 minutes performing some form of cardiovascular activity such as swimming, bike riding, or playing a sport. Ride your bike to work or take the stairs. You may notice improved alertness while on the job.

During work

Incorporate movement into your night shift. Stand instead of sitting, walk during slow periods, take the stairs, and schedule ‘movement breaks’ at least every hour. Bust out some stretches when you have a chance. You can do push-ups and squats pretty much anytime, anywhere. Set your phone or smart watch with an alert to get moving. All of these things can make a massive difference in your fitness level overall. Bonus: you’ll sleep better when you get home. 

After work

Some of my athletic co-workers eat breakfast, leave work as the sun rises, work out at the gym, shower, and hit the sheets by 10 a.m. They sleep til about 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., then eat dinner and head to work. These folks admit that this only works for them if they go directly to the gym. Stopping at home is deadly for this routine as they inevitably crawl between the sheets and never make it back out.


Based on your individual circadian rhythm, you can determine your optimal workout time. For example, try morning exercise for a couple of weeks, then try evening exercise. Choose the time that works for your schedule and makes you feel best afterward. No matter which time of day you choose, treat exercise as if it’s an important date you cannot miss. Lacking motivation? Team up with a coworker to keep you motivated.

Last updated: 2024-03-09

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Lauren McGill

I work at the intersection of healthcare and storytelling. As a medical writer, I help healthcare experts publish content so they stand out as thought leaders.

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