Your Guide To Working Out As A Shift Worker

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May 12, 2023

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Finding a workout schedule that works for you when you have a predictable weekly routine can be enough of a challenge, but getting into a good rhythm when you’re a shift worker? That’s a whole different ball game. 

For people in lines of work such as emergency services, healthcare, hospitality, events, retail, security, cabin crew, heavy industries and call centres (just to name a few), life doesn’t tend to follow the same schedule each day or week. 

Shift work goes against many of our natural biological mechanisms and can make it difficult to start or stick to healthy habits, whether we’re talking about sleep, nutrition, sunlight exposure, stress management or even finding the time for social connection, so it comes as no surprise that developing a consistent workout routine often gets placed in the too-hard basket.

There are so many women in the Sweat Community who are shift workers, and we know how tough it can be for them to find the time, energy and motivation to exercise, especially once you add their other responsibilities into the mix! But when research has consistently shown that participation in shift work is associated with increased body mass, index, obesity, elevated cortisol levels and increased risk of metabolic and cardiovascular diseases, it’s also so important for regular movement to still be a priority.

Despite the increased barriers to exercise that shift workers experience, these studies have shown physical activity is beneficial for sleep quality, anxiety reduction, improved mood, developing coping mechanisms, tolerating stress and being healthier in general.

But how can you make exercise a regular part of your routine as a shift worker? Here are a few things you can do to make fitness easier and remove as many of the barriers as possible so you can still reap the benefits of an active lifestyle.

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Plan ahead as best as you can

When your ever-changing schedule makes it pretty hard to get into a predictable routine with your workouts, it can help to plan out each week in advance and share your plans with anyone who needs to be kept in the loop. 

Plot out your work shifts, sleep time and any other commitments you might have, then see where you have gaps for exercise. You can also use the Planner tool in the Sweat app! If you have short shifts or days off, those could be your better options for longer workouts or low-intensity cardio sessions

If time is not on your side but you still want to find a way to move your body, remember that short workouts can be just as effective. Take a look at these quick workout options the Sweat Community can’t get enough of. 

If your exercise plans tend to go out the window depending on your mood or energy levels, you might also want to write down a few back-up times. It doesn’t hurt to have a Plan B in your pocket! 

Prioritise sleep

Good sleep and good health go hand in hand, so if your eyes are heavy and your brain is fading, hitting the hay should always be at the top of your to-do list. Pushing yourself to exercise might give you a burst of feel-good endorphins or satisfaction, but working out when you’re already tired can increase your risk of injury, as well as setting your energy levels, recovery and performance back even further for the days ahead.

Prioritising sleep also means being smart about finding the best time for you to work out. If exercise leaves you buzzing and wide awake for hours, you’ll want to schedule your workouts before your shifts, but if it puts you into a deep sleep (and you’re feeling up to it), a post-shift Sweat session could be your ticket to dreamland.

Meal prep like a pro

Aside from sleep, a big part of having enough energy for work and working out is getting your nutrition right, and meal prepping can go a long way. This could mean making a big batch meal before your work week begins, having a tub of go-to snacks ready to go in your pantry or having some different options (such as cooked grains, chopped veggies and protein) ready in your fridge that you can throw together each day, or placing an order with a meal delivery service. If you’re planning out your week, it can also be a good idea to choose a time to go grocery shopping or place your online order.

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Make it sustainable

Regularly cutting your sleep short to squeeze in a workout before your shift or ending an exhausting workday with a tough training session might make you look superhuman, but you definitely won’t feel like it. Making exercise part of your routine as a shift worker needs to be achievable in the long-term, otherwise it’s just going to be a recipe for burnout. Sustainable adjustments you can stick with might look like:

  • Knowing three workouts a week is what works best for you, even though your Sweat program includes four.

  • Choosing days where you’ll buy food at work or on the way home to give yourself more time to rest and recharge.

  • Taking extra rest days when your work schedule is busy or you’re sleep-deprived.

  • Avoiding training styles you don’t enjoy or that leave you feeling exhausted.

  • Swapping intense workouts for walks, stretching, yoga or Pilates.

Plan around events, not times or days

While your friend who works a nine-to-five job might hit the gym every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 6am without fail, that would never work for you. 

Instead, it can help to create a sense of rhythm by attaching your workouts to moments and events rather than days or times. For example, you might do a 30-minute workout three times a week after you wake up, or wind down after each shift with a 15-minute yoga flow. 

Figure out what gets in your way

What tends to stop you from working out? Is it tiredness, motivation, hunger, a lack of time, boredom, or perhaps something as simple as not having your gym bag organised? 

Pinpoint your biggest barriers and then see if there are any simple solutions. For many women in the Sweat Community who juggle their workouts with professional and caring responsibilities, it can be hard to lock down some much-needed me-time. If your partner or loved one is able to help or take on more of the load, don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re struggling to find the time. There’s a very real gender exercise gap that exists in heterosexual relationships, so if you find you don’t have the time (but your partner does!) sit down and try and find a more equal balance that works for both of you.

Get clear on your why

On those days when you’ve got the time and energy but simply aren’t in the mood, knowing your why can help get you up and moving. Are you exercising for your health? To feel strong, energised and empowered? Or perhaps it’s all about reducing stress and relaxing your mind. Whatever your motivation is, keep this at the forefront of your mind. 

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Don’t let location be a barrier

The last thing you need is to feel ready and motivated to move before or after your shift, and then realise the gym you signed up for isn’t even open, your HIIT workout will wake up your kids (or the neighbours in the apartment below), or your backyard is dark, wet and cold.

Find a place you can exercise comfortably and confidently in - no matter the time. The best location for you could be a 24/7 gym close to home or your workplace, your garage or spare room, an outdoor area, or a mixture depending on the time of day and where you are.

Need tips for working out quietly or in small spaces? We’ve got you covered.

Don’t be afraid to change it up

As you ride the physical and emotional roller coaster of being a shift worker, we encourage you to get acquainted with the On Demand section of the Sweat app. This is where you can explore individual workouts by trainer, targeted muscle groups, training style or Express options.

Whether you want a yoga flow, an upper body session after spending all day on your feet or a quick workout - the On Demand section is your new best friend.

Make your movement feel good

After an easy fitness hack to get you moving? Make it as appealing and exciting as possible. That could mean creating a banging playlist, finding a workout buddy, signing up for a gym you enjoy spending time in, celebrating every bit of progress, treating yourself to some new activewear or trying a different training style when you want to mix it up.

No workout, no problem

On those days when you don’t have enough time or energy to workout, the first thing is to not beat yourself up. Shift work is hard in many ways and adding an extra layer of stress or guilt about your workout schedule isn’t worth it. Remember to practice self-compassion each and every day.

Secondly, it can help to shift your focus to simply being more active overall. There are opportunities for exercise snacks everywhere! This could mean taking the stairs, going for a walk on your break, parking a bit further away, getting off the bus one stop earlier, or setting yourself a step target.

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Ready for your first workout?

Making movement part of your routine as a shift worker isn’t easy, but with a bit of experimentation, discipline and self-compassion, you’ll be well on your way to living your version of an active, healthy lifestyle.

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A more empowered you starts with Sweat, and our editorial team is here to bring you the latest fitness tips, trainer recommendations, wellbeing news, nutritional advice, nourishing recipes and free workouts.

* Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. The above information should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, sleep methods, daily activity, or fitness routine. Sweat assumes no responsibility for any personal injury or damage sustained by any recommendations, opinions, or advice given in this article.


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