It’s no surprise many shift workers find it difficult to adhere to their health and fitness goals. From long shifts to inconsistent hours, there are so many factors that can make one feel tired, unmotivated and lost. However, please know you’re not alone - in the MWU community we have many amazing women doing shift work AND absolutely crushing their goals!
This blog is all about tips and tricks of achieving your health and fitness goals as a shift worker. It’s definitely challenging, but you CAN do it - let’s explore how!
Health effects of shift work
The reason why shift work is so hard, especially initially, is because it goes against many biological mechanisms and requires lots of effort to adapt to. Some common challenges include:
Disrupted biological clock
Many bodily functions in humans operate on 24-25 hour cycles, known as circadian rhythms. Working a variety of shifts, especially night ones, can really shake up your “body clock”, influencing working, sleeping and eating patterns.
For example, you may not feel hungry when you have a break, and then get ravenous in the middle of the shift when you can’t actually pause what you’re doing. Or, you may find yourself incredibly tired over that night shift - only to get home seemingly exhausted, yet unable to get proper sleep.
Increased stress levels
Shift work can be a stressor on its own - and the actual workplace demands can add even more pressure on top of managing a difficult schedule. Elevated levels of anxiety and stress are quite common for shift workers, and it can be difficult to unwind or adhere to a fitness regime while feeling that way.
Since digestion is one of the many bodily functions adhering to circadian rhythms, gastrointestinal issues are also more prevalent in shift workers compared to the general population. When experiencing gastrointestinal discomfort, it can be difficult to adhere to a nutrition plan - and limited opportunities to have a meal do not make this any easier.
Shift work is often very demanding physically - so adding structured exercise on top can be a challenge, even if it’s necessary for reaching your goals. And even if you do get that workout in, it can be tough to get in the right headspace and have a really good session, purely because you’re exhausted.
These are just some of the challenges shift workers face - however, the purpose of listing them was not to scare you off or imply that achieving fitness goals is not possible while working long hours at odd times. Rather, you need to remember this: with so many factors going against you, the only way you can overcome these obstacles is to be prepared.
Preparation is key
In most cases, if you’re failing to prepare - you are actually preparing...to fail.
This may sound harsh, but is unfortunately very true - especially if you need to juggle long shifts, other life commitments, and your fitness regime. It is unfortunately well-established that both nutrition and physical activity often get neglected by shift workers. However, creating those habits can improve both mental and physical health dramatically - so it’s well worth the effort!
Before we get into more specific strategies, a broad piece of advice is to map out what kinds of shifts you may be required to work, and come up with a slightly different routine for each option.
Here’s what Trish, who works as a nurse, recommends: “Plan way ahead! Don’t just hope you make the time. Check your shifts & decide when you’re going to work out on which days, and what your meal schedule is going to be like. I work out different times all week depending on my shifts - could be 4 am, 4 pm or anything in between - and if I planned it, I know I’ll do it.”
Below you will find more specific tips on managing your exercise schedule and nutrition as a shift worker!
Nutrition is one of the biggest challenges faced by shift workers! Below are a few specific strategies backed up by experiences of our amazing clients.
- Prepare Your Meals! Meal prep can be a life saver - otherwise you may find yourself stuck with canteen options, which are often expensive and may not be the best for you! Trish says: “I meal prep on my days off. It’s exhausting but I promise you will thank yourself later!”
- Consider a meal delivery service. If you don’t have time, energy or the desire to meal prep, consider a meal delivery service! There are many brands these days offering healthy meals that can be delivered regularly to your home or workplace - and some will even let you customize macros to your specifications. Ask around or have a quick online search to find out what services are available in your area!
- Eat to your schedule rather than your hunger. Try fitting in your meals whenever you can (e.g. during designated breaks), even if you’re not necessarily super hungry. If your schedule is inconsistent, your body clock may simply not have the time to adjust and fine-tune hunger cues, but it doesn’t mean you don’t need nourishment. International flight attendant Diana admits: “I cannot always choose when to have my meals, in fact it’s almost impossible with my job. What I do is simply eat when I can, and make sure I fit it all in that way!”
- Combine your meals. Remember that eating 5-6 small meals per day isn’t a viable strategy for everyone - you may simply not have time for many meal breaks! When adjusting to a health and fitness routine, try combining some of your meals so you are having fewer but larger meals. This can help you to get in all of your nutrition across the day and is a great strategy to stay full and nourished!
Determining when to train is a common dilemma for shift workers. Should you always do it before/after work, or is there a different approach to take?
Registered nurse Kate believes that flexibility is what you need to embrace - along with creating a routine where possible. She confesses: “It can be so hard to find motivation to go after a busy day on the ward or finding the time whilst on night shift, but having and following the app makes it so much easier. You can look ahead, get excited and do so much from the app anytime you want to!”
If you’re not sure where to start, try some of these options and find what works best for you:
- Make a plan! Schedule your sessions into your calendar for the entire week so you know exactly when they will be. This allows you to be flexible with rest days and set yourself up for success.
- Work WITH your shifts. Book in your workout consistently directly before or after your shift so you don’t have to think about it.
- Try some home workouts! Experiment with a blend of gym and home-based workouts to save yourself some time on those busy days.
- Make use of your days off. Plan your harder sessions for your days off work, so you can be a little more flexible with time and really use your mental space to be present in the session.
On some days you may find that things pop up and you’re unable to commit to your planned session, and that’s fine too! Health authorities suggest opting for a few short bursts of physical activity throughout the day instead, such as going for a short walk or performing some body weight exercises. The important thing is to get your body moving most days of the week, and remember if you are on your feet all day that counts too!
When it comes to juggling fitness goals and shift work, something to acknowledge is that your routine probably won’t be perfect. But that’s ok - making an effort to make it work is what really matters! Remember: progress, not perfection!
Plus to make it even easier for you, we have introduced our Busy Girl Workouts, a brand new 6-Week Program designed to fit around your busy schedule and keep you moving towards your goals, no matter what life throws your way.
As part of Busy Girl Workouts we provide you with personalised macronutrient targets, Meal Guide options, and new busy girl recipes to share healthy, delicious recipes with minimal cooking time and maximum enjoyment. You'll enjoy 30-45 minute workouts that require minimal equipment and movement between exercises, allowing you to maximise your results with ultimate efficiency. Plus access to all the tools, support, and education you need to help carry your new habits and progress beyond this program and into the rest of your life.
It’s time to unlock your potential and create the lifestyle you need to upgrade your fitness journey!