20 June, 2020

A guide to exercise for shift workers

Shift work can be tough. It throws 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 make exercising feel challenging!

A guide to exercise for shift workers

Shift work can be tough. It throws 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 make exercising feel challenging!

You are already juggling disruptive hours, social or family commitments and getting enough rest. So when and how should you integrate exercise alongside shift work?

There's no one answer for everyone

The first step is to understand that everybody enjoys and requires different things from exercise – and that often shifts with time too! It can be a matter of trial and error but find an exercise that makes you feel good (whether that feeling comes once you've finished, or during!). Exercise can be challenging both physically and mentally, but that sense of accomplishment and the whirling of positive endorphins usually overrides the feelings of struggle or discomfort ... once you find something that works for you. The post-workout buzz is a fantastic feeling once you find it.

Find flexible exercise regimes

Whether it's an online training programme or a studio, make sure they have options that are flexible. If your shifts are changing week to week, you will want to make sure that regardless of your work and sleep hours, there is an option for you.

Online and on-demand workouts are often a great answer as you can schedule workouts in at a time that suits you. The group-training environment, however, can often be the ticket when you're needing that little bit of added inspiration of stickability.

Find your routine – and be open to that shifting

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, it's easier to have regular routines that rarely change week to week.

For shift workers, however, things can look quite different! You might not be able to view your routine the same every week. Be open to this shifting. Perhaps one week your routine includes most rest, and the other week has more space for fitness. Understand that this is ok, but find your own groove that works with you, not against you.

Contextualize your routine, rather than live by a clock

For shift workers, it can be about using contextual triggers, rather than time triggers, to feel motivated. Structure your fitness routine around events in your day, not times of the day. For example, “when I wake up I will start with a 45-minute barre workout…” or “before I head to sleep, I will take 30 minutes to stretch my hamstrings…”. This is a very powerful alternative way of structuring a routine for those with an unpredictable schedule.

“After I wake up, I will listen to music for an hour and then do a barre class” will work a lot better for you than “I will go to the gym at 8:00am every day”.

Listen to your body


noun1. an activity requiring physical effort, carried out to sustain or improve health and fitness.

2. an activity carried out for a specific purpose.

So ask yourself. What is the purpose? What benefits do I need today? And be honest with yourself!

Perhaps you've had a particularly active or stressful week at work. Maybe today you need to run through a slower, more mindful, workout. Maybe your week has been frustrating, and you just need a high-intensity workout to burn off some steam.

Aim to mix up your workouts. Work through the emotions and mood that you bring to the table when you decide it's time to work out. Perhaps you feel tired but want to feel uplifted, or maybe you use this tiredness to move through a gentle stretch class. Take a deep breath, and be honest with what you need – even if you're not in the mood at all. Think about the end result.

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 dozens of measures, while also causing hormonal problems which can cause disrupt weight-loss efforts (if that is your goal) and reduce your 'time-to-exhaustion' (how long it takes for you to fatigue) during training. Sometimes you have to slow down to speed up. Get enough sleep. Always. Your training will be that much more productive!

Ask yourself some questions

  • Why am I exercising?
    Do I have a goal in mind to build strength and stamina, to limit pain in my body, to lose weight, or is it just to live a healthier, shift work lifestyle? Your answer should get you thinking about the type of exercise you need to be doing. And there might not be one answer!
  • What is convenient for me?
    Is the fitness studio close by? Do I have a space at home or in a spare room for me to do an online class? Or is there a gym space at work I can use around my shifts to save time in commuting?
  • How much do I want to invest? 
    For many, paying for exercise can be a motivating factor... there is that feeling that you can make the most of your investment. There are so many affordable options too that don't break the bank! Walking is free. Look for options that are affordable, but that isn't so cheap that the product is not valuable. Online options like Barre Base Anywhere also offer monthly subscriptions that are hugely cost-effective, especially if your schedule changes weekly.
  • How do I like to exercise?
    Do I need other people around to keep me motivated or do I like to be alone listening to music and doing my own thing? Again, everyone is different so choosing a method of exercise you’re comfortable with makes it more likely you’ll keep doing it, even on the days you don’t feel like it…such as after a dreaded night shift.
  • What has stopped me from exercising in the past? 
    It could be time, your roster, kids and even your health but I bet there is a way to still workout even when taking these roadblocks into consideration.

Find your why, and don't give up until you find something that works for you. Even if it can take time to learn to love this exercise regime. You've got this!

If you're looking for an online fitness alternative, healthcare workers receive $5 off per month for Barre Base Anywhere's monthly subscription. Please reach out to redeem the discount code for this at hello@barrebase.co.nz.