Health and fitness for shift workers

While many of us are practising social distancing and self-isolation, not everyone has an opportunity to do so. From medical professionals battling the COVID-19 outbreak on the frontline to those providing essential community services, we would like to thank you so much for your hard work and dedication during these incredibly difficult times. You are truly appreciated!

Here's the story of our incredible 8 Week Bikini Build Challenge winner, Ali!

Ali is a Registered Nurse from Canada who has experienced firsthand the challenges of juggling shift work and fitness. Through her BBR journey, Ali was able to achieve incredible progress, inspiring everyone to set ambitious goals and work hard, no matter what!

Ali admits: "Registered Nursing takes all of my energy — emotionally and physically — and I eventually found myself emotionally eating, laying around after 12+ hour shifts, and working ~80 hours a week... it really took a toll on my body. I started the Bikini Build Challenge and it PUSHED ME - in all the best ways! My relationship with food improved drastically since I started implementing flexible dieting. I am also stronger than ever, hitting PBs and lifting heavy! Through my BBR journey, I have learned to reflect on my failures and turn them into successes. I believe that all you need to do to succeed is simply JUST DO IT! I am a much more resilient person now, and will continue working on the frontlines knowing I’ve got all the tools I need to cope with the challenges and be there for others”

Along with Ali, 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 BBR community, we have many amazing women doing shift work AND absolutely crushing their goals!

Today’s 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. 

Gastrointestinal issues

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.

Fatigue

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

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.

  • 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!”
  • If you don’t have time, energy or 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 on the BBR forum to find out what services are available in your area!
  • 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!”
  • Remember that eating 5-6 small meals per day isn’t a viable strategy for everyone - you may simply not have time for these many meal breaks! When adjusting to a fitness routine, bartender Christine “started to combine meals to make it easier to get it all in, and also and use the protein shake in the middle of a shift to curb hunger”. A great strategy to stay full and nourished!

Training

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 Rachel's programs on her app makes it so much easier. You can look ahead, get excited and do so much from the app anytime you want to!”

As for the training schedule, Kate says: “I find working out before work is best for me, except on day shifts where I work out straight after clocking off. I end my shift drinking pre workout, which means I HAVE to go exercise - and vice versa for working out before night shifts. It's hard to get into a routine when you don't have a normal schedule but once you start planning everything around YOUR shifts, it gets easier!”

Georgia, who works as an operator in oil and gas industries, seconds the importance of being flexible with scheduling, yet firm on the fact that it has to be done!  

Georgia “will often move around workouts and rest days to suit”, depending on how she feels and what kind of workout needs to be completed. She adds: “When I have a night shift, I will get up first thing and exercise, then come home and have my post-workout meal and then sleep until about 3 or 4 pm. Then I’ll have a meal followed by dinner at 8-9pm. I try to keep somewhat of a normal eating schedule as I find it works for me!

On some days, you may find that you’re unable to commit to a longer workout, 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 on the spot.

Conclusion

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!

Don’t fall off the bandwagon after one ‘bad’ day! Instead, use the next day to keep pushing yourself forward. Keep an open, positive mindset - and you will achieve your goals in due time!

 

Hope you found this helpful,

Much love,

Liz and Team BBR xxx