Shift Work and Working Out
Written by: Coach Randi Levendusky
Shift work and the struggle to find work life balance is near and dear to my heart. In case you didn’t know, I am a nurse who works 12 hour shifts. I currently am lucky enough to have made it to dayshift, but I did work the night shift for over a year as a nurse and during college, so I understand the struggle!
Working third shift, and also rotating shifts, has a SLEW of unique challenges that are different than the normal working population.
If you work night shifts, rotating shifts, or really anything outside the typical 9-5 hours, I am sure you’ve noticed the struggle in not only finding an optimal time to workout, but finding the motivation to push through a workout in general…
So how can you optimize your workouts while working shift work?
Let’s rewind a bit. Your backwards sleep schedule causes numerous issues, resulting in decreased performance in the gym. One of the most important changes caused by the manipulation in your circadian rhythm is the change in hormone levels.
For example, your insulin-cortisol response.
On a normal schedule, you awake in the morning and your cortisol level is high. When you go to sleep at night, your cortisol level is low. When your job requires you to wake and sleep outside this schedule, your cortisol levels are now counterintuitive to your schedule, and how your body needs to function. Cortisol is your body’s response to stress–meaning when cortisol levels are high, your body is in fight/flight mode. Definitely not sleep mode.
High cortisol in the morning, after working third shift, leaves you feeling “tired and wired”. When you awake in the evening to prepare for your night shift, your cortisol is low, causing drowsiness. Cortisol has an inverse relationship with insulin, meaning when insulin is high cortisol is low.
Cool, how does that help? If you decide to workout after work, and put your body into stress mode, you will raise your cortisol. However, you can counteract this by consuming carbohydrates post workout. Carbs will increase your body’s production of insulin, therefore decreasing cortisol, and removing your body from “stress mode”.
Another concern regarding training and shift work is overtraining and under-recovering.
How does this happen?
First let’s take a look at who our shift workers typically are. Jobs requiring shift work include police officers, firefighters, nurses, doctors, and numerous others. Many times these jobs require a unique personality.
Have you ever noticed the nature of the jobs and the shift workers mindsets can play into each other?
How many of you are shift workers and have thought to yourself well screw it, I can get through anything- what’s another meal missed, a few hours of sleep missed, and then pushing the intensity in the gym?
This “all in” mindset is incredible at work, but it will bite you in the butt if you keep it up outside of work. Failing to achieve maximum recovery, and prioritizing sleep and nutrition over workout intensity will lead to burnout and injuries, fast.
No one wants injuries or burnout, so how can we optimize our workouts and recovery while working shift work?
- Food quality and quantity: Your food intake should be sufficient to repair your body from the stress you encounter in the gym AND at work. Shift work is a significant stressor, in order to support your body against the stress caused by shift work it is important to eat enough calories, from high quality food.
- Prioritize recovery: Learn how to down-regulate your body. Proper nutrition, breathing exercise, and night time routines, can optimize sleep and recovery.
- Earn your training: If you’re getting solid quality sleep (7-9hrs), keeping stress low, eating mostly nutrient rich foods – you have earned your training! When these things are in check, your body can do its thing.
If you don’t have the above in check, yet you enjoy high intensity training, I am sorry to say but this is not the ideal workout style for you until you’ve “earned it”. High intensity workouts can raise cortisol levels and keep them elevated if you do not have adequate recovery. Combine this with the already elevated cortisol levels caused by the chaos of shift work. Overtime, consistently elevated cortisol levels will lead to increased inflammation and decreased recovery.
So what kind of workouts should you do in this situation? A combination of functional body building, steady state cardio – anything that is not considered a “sprint” is ideal. If stopping high intensity workouts isn’t in the cards for you, try to limit such workouts to 1 or MAYBE 2 times a week, then fill in your other days with purely lifting and low key cardio sessions to balance out the intensity and recovery.
- Keep a schedule: If you work night shift, do not flip on your off days, or at least minimize the “flip” For example, if you typically work 7pm to 7am, on your off day, try to stay up until at least 3am. This allows your body to adjust to a rhythm. By keeping a schedule, your hormones are able to adjust, you develop a sleep routine, and recovery can be optimized.
- Get your steps in: A body in motion stays in motion. Movement is crucial for our mental and physical health. It boosts our mood and immune system, aids in digestion, keeps our metabolism running at a higher speed, and combats chronic disease.
Focus on increasing your non-exercise thermogenic activity (NEAT). When we work crazy hours it can be hard to make it to the gym or find time to do a home workout. Instead, we can focus on increasing our daily activity – get 10k steps in every day, take the stairs instead of the elevator, park far away, use a basket instead of grocery cart- all of these little things add up, and will take you one step closer to a healthier and happier you.
It sounds counterintuitive to eat more and workout less, but it is crucial to optimize the efforts you are putting in at the gym. Remember, training is earned! You need to prioritize recovery and nutrition.
By front loading nutrition and recovery, your body will be prepared to train. When it comes to workout frequency, consider the stress your body comes in contact with at work. You can train hard 1-2 times per week, and fill in with parasympathetic workouts- workouts that will not raise cortisol (bodybuilding, aerobic work).
Shift work can make it difficult to find time and motivation to hit the gym, but it doesn’t have to be impossible. Nutrition and recovery are key. Pay attention to what your body is telling you. If you are feeling exhausted, do not go to the gym, focus on catching up on sleep and fueling your body with quality food.
Feeling awesome? Go to the gym and crush your workout!
Learn to find your own body’s balance.
Everyone is different!
It also helps to have a coach in your corner to help hold you accountable to these suggestions.
I have my own performance & lifestyle coach that keeps me grounded and helps me remember to listen to my body. I am thankful every day that I have them in my corner.
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