Feeling like you can’t keep up with healthy habits? It’s not surprising. Establishing proper sleep and training patterns is challenging enough for 9-to-5ers. And it’s even more difficult for shift workers like first responders and medical staff, who research has shown are more susceptible to obesity, heart disease, and other health challenges.

Combining stressful work with long (often overnight) shifts can lead to a reliance on adrenaline, caffeine, sugar, and minimal sleep. However, these quick fixes are unsustainable long-term, making proper training and sleep routines even more important.

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Just because you work shifts, it doesn’t mean you can’t find the time to fit in a regular workout routine.

The good news: Consistent training and healthy habits are possible. It just takes more planning. Here are five strategies to live a healthy lifestyle, even when working marathon shifts during irregular hours.

1. Block your calendar

High-achieving professionals block out time in their calendars for training, even if that means getting up at 4am to make it happen. But many shift workers are still on the clock at that time, so, figure out what time works for you. Some firefighters work the same (unusual) days and hours for years, but most shift workers receive their schedules at least a week or two ahead of time. Make a habit of sitting down each week to plan things out.

The key to success, according to Jennifer Noiles, a senior performance director at EXOS, is to establish a routine, however unusual. Some shift workers struggle to sleep immediately after a rotation ends. For them, it makes sense to train and work off the adrenaline. Others prefer to hit the sack.

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Day or night, be sure to factor in your regular workouts. ©Pexels

“There are only so many shifts,” Noiles say. “Once you figure out whether you like to train before or after a shift, it’s just a matter of training consistently at that time, even if the particular days might vary from week to week.”

2. Sleep it off

Undergoing the same sleep ritual, preferably at the same time every night, is necessary for quality sleep. The problem: This is next-to-impossible for shift workers, who often go through stretches where they might not go to sleep at the same time more than two nights in a row.

Dad and toddler sleeping together in the sofa, rest, recovery, family, sleep
Don’t underestimate the importance of a good night’s sleep. ©Mayte Torres

Ben Dubin, a firefighter and paramedic in Tempe, Arizona, says it’s important to establish consistent sleep patterns, even if the hours of sleep are irregular. Like many in his field, Dubin works 24-hour shifts where even a nap isn’t always possible. When he comes home, he might want to sleep, but his family wants to spend time with him, having not seen him for at least a day.

“It’s important on your off days to get that seven to eight hours of sleep, whenever that occurs,” Dubin says. “Young children don’t understand that you need to sleep when you come home. The key thing is to go to sleep at a consistent time on the days that you are home.”

3. Focus on recovery during shifts

Careers like nursing and firefighting are physically demanding, which makes a regular training regime essential. Dubin’s fire station, like many, has a well-equipped fitness center where he and his colleagues will train between calls.

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Fitness studios are cropping up in workplaces across the globe.

An increasing number of hospitals have fitness centers, which make it convenient for medical professionals to train before and after shifts. During a break in a shift, it might be possible to get in a few minutes of foam rolling or other recovery techniques. If you don’t have a fitness center on site, pack a trigger point ball in your bag or download a yoga session to follow when you have a moment.

“You have to do the best you can while you’re at work,” Dubin says. “I work on getting my harder workouts in on off days. You dedicate your life to a career that requires you to be physically fit, so training needs to be part of your life.”

4. Start slow and simple

Many professionals’ lives are centered on their careers and families, then realize in their mid-30s that they’ve ignored their physical health for a decade. This decline is especially frustrating for those who were accomplished athletes in high school or college. Some plunge into marathon or triathlon training, which is a big undertaking for those with conventional schedules. With challenging hours, it’s more important to start slow and simple.

“You’re never going to have the amount of time you had in college,” Noiles said. “So don’t assume you’re going to return to that level of athletic performance, at least not quickly.”

5. Vary the intensity of workouts

Just as weekday 9-5ers might use the weekend for longer workouts, you are going to need to find suitable times to schedule your more intense efforts.

“If you have a certain goal that demands a harder or more intense workout, find a day where you’re not working to focus on that session.” Noiles says. “Try to marry your training intensity with your work schedule and fatigue level. As a person who works various shifts, you can achieve balance in your training. It might look unusual from a scheduling and expectation perspective, but it can be done.”

Tell us about you. How have you tackled the challenges of shift work?


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