I know it’s hard. I know it is. Especially when you’re first starting out and you already have to force yourself to get to the gym even on a normal day. But when that day includes an 8 or 12 hour overnight shift? Forget about it. That’s the last place you want to be. It would be nice if, like normal day-shifters, we could punch out, buzz on over to the gym after work and still be home with a few hours to spare before hitting the sack. That’s just not the case with those of us who work the most unnatural hours ever. Most of us go home after work and go straight to bed. Figuring how and when to exercise and work nontraditional hours is not an easy task. I’ll share my tips and tricks for finding what works for you.
The best time to workout while working overnights is highly dependent on the individual person. Try doing different types of exercises at different times to see what works best for you on those days you’ll be working crazy hours. There’s no rule that you have to work out after work, so try getting it in before! We all know that physical activity relieves stress and boosts your mood, energy and concentration so you might find that working out before work makes getting through the night easier. I’ve tried workout out before and after and I’ve found that this is actually what’s best for me.
I used to tell myself I’d work out afterwards, have my gym bag packed and ready to go in the car and then clock out after a busy shift only to give myself a million reasons why I couldn’t work out. Or, on the mornings when I did get to the gym after a 12 hour shift, I never put much energy into it.. because I didn’t have much energy left to give. I was constantly watching the clock, dreading every second I “had” to be there, taking it easy on myself and just wishing it were over. Then I found myself leaving the gym with a workout that wasn’t as efficient as it could have been and that I didn’t get much out of.
After experimenting, I realized that adding exercise before my shift worked much better for me. Setting my alarm a little earlier to workout didn’t seem like I was sacrificing any sleep once I saw how much more energy I had going into my night shift. I started playing around with different ways to exercise prior to work that didn’t eat up too much of my afternoon. Instead of driving to the gym, I reserve my weight-lifting gym sessions for the days I have off of work. I started biking or running right from my house on the days I worked, saving me the commute time to the gym. On the days I spend a half hour to an hour sweating outside before work, I start my shift off in a much better mood. I tend to make better choices throughout the night, too. It’s kind of like working out in the morning for day shift people. It just sets the tone of your day in a positive way.
Not everyone is like me though, that’s why experimenting is so important to find something you can (and want to) stick with. Some people have a difficult time falling asleep immediately after working out and releasing all of those feel-good hormones, which could pose problems for night-shifters. But what if that’s your only option and you can’t workout before work? Try doing a less intense workout after you get off work, such as taking a long walk or doing yoga. When I can’t get a workout in before work, I will sometimes go to a hot yoga class. Sometimes you can find them in a dimly lit room, even. This is an awesome way to relax, wind-down and release stress.. while still sweating!
On the flip side, you may find that getting a vigorous workout in the morning actually helps you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. Some of us 3rd shifters have trouble falling asleep after work, especially in the summer when the sun is shining through our windows. If that’s you, working out in the mornings after work might be just what you need to exhaust your body and get a restful night’s (day’s) sleep.
Experiment with when you do your intense workouts and when you take rest days during the week. Maybe you do a cardio workout on your first day of a stretch of night shifts, have a rest day the next and a tough workout on your last day of night shift before a few days off. Or vice versa! Adjusting your routine could play a huge role in making exercise fit into your schedule better.
If the physical act of getting to the gym, at any time of the day, is the difficult part of working out while you’re working overnights, try out different things you can do at home. Like I mentioned, bike, run or walk right out of your house. Or get a cheap set of dumbbells, kettle bells or a yoga mat. There’s tons of free resources at your fingertips for at-home workouts using weights or just your own body weight!
You’ll never know what you like and works best for you and your schedule until you experiment.
Be Patient & Listen to Your Body
Routines don’t become routines in a day. Making working out a habit takes time and effort. Start slowly. Even 20 minutes before or after work counts! Be patient with yourself as you figure out how to add physical activity to your life in a way that will become a sustainable routine, not something you force yourself to do every day. It’s easy to get discouraged when something you try isn’t working, whether it’s because you just don’t like the activity or it doesn’t fit into your life well. It’s easy to get frustrated when you’re fighting tooth and nail against yourself every single day to do something you don’t want to do. When this happens and you get discouraged, remind yourself that you’re still doing good for your body. You’re still trying, still showing up for yourself, and still making changes in the right direction to create a healthier life.. And then keep going.
It can take weeks or months to go through the experimenting phase to find a routine you want to and are able stick with. I tried many things before I found how to best fit working out into my life instead of making my life fit around working out. When you’re working long shifts at unconventional times, exercise should be something that helps balance your life not something that creates more hassles. If one thing isn’t working, you’re not sleeping well or you just downright hate it (more than the general “ugh, I hate working out!” complaint), it’s time to listen to your body and switch either the activity, duration or the time of day you’re doing it.
Don’t Use Your Job as an Excuse
When I was 300 pounds, I used my weird work hours as an excuse to not do any physical activity at all. Even on my days off I would tell myself I needed those days to recover from the strenuous shifts I just worked at the hospital. Many people with overnight shift hours spend them on their feet, whether it’s in healthcare, the food industry, security, merchandise stocking, airline employee, construction, the list is endless. I know I’m not the only one who uses that to justify not working out.
Even when I started to take back control over my health, I held on tightly to the J-O-B excuse for not exercising on days I worked overnights. I spent all night on my feet. I’m exhausted. I need to sleep more before I work again tonight. My shift was so busy. I’ll go tomorrow if my night goes better tonight. According to FitBit, I walked 8 miles this shift! That counts, right?
I was getting in my own way of my goals. The more you’re inactive, the harder it is to be active. The more you’re active, the easier it is to be active. I had to just start. And so do you. Remind yourself that if you let everything in your life, your job included, get in the way of becoming healthy or achieving a new fitness goal, you’d never get there. In fact, if you’re honest with yourself, like I had to be, you’ll maybe realize that it’s because you let everything in life get in the way that you’re needing to make a change in the first place. By making excuses we’re telling ourselves it’s not that important. No more excuses. Make it a priority. When I stopped allowing myself to skip out on it and made it a priority, it was much easier to find time in my day to make it work.
Fueling your body with adequate nutrition is essential for weight loss and overall health whether you work 3rd shift or not. There’s so much working against our body when we stay up through the night working on a consistent basis. Make sure you’re not adding to that by mindlessly snacking at 3 A.M. or drinking your calories in the form of sugary coffee or energy drinks or soda. Diet is the most important element in feeling and performing your best, weight loss and health. So don’t stress too much if you skip a workout but do make sure you’re eating well during your night shifts. Bring plenty of healthy snacks so you’re not tempted into the break room treats or vending machine finds. Being prepared is half the battle.
Add Activity to Your Work Day
Do what you can, where you can to add a little extra movin’ and groovin’ during the night. Take the stairs instead of the elevator or spend a 15 minute break getting in some extra flights. Do 20 squats every time you use the restroom. Be the one to offer to go do something that requires you to walk, lift, move. Bike to work a few days a week instead of drive. It may all seem silly, but it adds up. If you use three 15 minute breaks to walk the stairs, you just did a 45 minute cardio workout on the stair climber today. Didn’t feel like it though, did it?
Try working out outside, before or after work. When we work long stretches of night shifts, we’re spending a lot of time inside and a lot of time sleeping during daylight hours. At least for me, that begins to wear on my mood after a few days of being cooped up. I’m in one building for 12.5, sometimes 13, hours a day and then drive to a different building to sleep for 6 or 8 more. That leaves me with a good 4 waking hours to do something with. Sitting on the couch sounds like a perfectly good idea most of the time, but I know that getting sunlight and fresh air is much better for me mentally and physically.
Exercise, at it’s core, is about self-care. Working nights is tough stuff and self-care is an important aspect of keeping yourself healthy while you do it. It’s easy for your own needs and mental health to fall by the wayside when you’re so busy working and just trying to get through the next few days. Getting yourself outside when you can, especially for a workout, is a great way to take care of yourself. Plus, it’s easier to be healthy and in the right mindset to want to workout when you’re in a good mood and all loaded up on your daily dose of Vitamin D.
All in all, everyone’s schedule, family commitments and preferences are different. Finding what works the best for yours may take some time and effort, but all good things do! Remind yourself that health is an evolving journey that you have to figure out as you go. With some experimenting and patience throughout the process, working out and working overnights can be done!