Does your work schedule change every day? Work shifts at night or around the clock? Getting exercise in, especially a well-executed weight lifting routine can be particularly difficult with an irregular work schedule.
Most people have a set weekly schedule and have a set workout or muscle group they focus on each day of the week.
But if your schedule changes every day and is never the same week to week, what can you do?
I work in the ER and work 8-12 hour shifts around the clock, randomly scheduled every day. It wasn’t easy for me to find a good lifting routine that was doable and effective. After years of trial and error, and reading some interesting shift-work research, I’ve found some useful tips on the best way to approach it.
Tip #1: Same Time Before or After Shifts
Keeping a regular daily routine with shift work (including timing of activity and meals related to timing of work) can help your body shift its circadian rhythm to fit your shift work as best as possible.
Whether you decide to work out before or after your shift, try to keep that the same every day.
Your body likes to get into a routine and so will be ready to exercise after work or be ready to work after exercise if you maintain this pattern day to day.
If you’re at a loss which to pick, before shifts is likely the best time to do your workout.
Shift work is much more exhausting than regularly scheduled work. Even when it’s the same tasks as scheduled work, the element of doing the work at different scheduled hours every day, day or night, simply makes the work more grueling and more exhausting.
For this reason, I’ve had much more success scheduling my workouts before my shifts, whenever they will be.
Your body is naturally going to be more energized early in the day. Encouraging this normal pattern of higher-energy time and getting-ready-for-sleep time will let you get more out of your workout and put you in a better mindset to tackle the job.
Pro tip: I’ve also found it helpful to use a lightbox whenever I wake up to wake my brain up best and get my body ready to move.
Regardless of before or after, do your best to keep it the same every day.
Keep this the same on off days as well. Work out earlier or later on your day off relative to your sleep that day as you would on work days.
Tip #2: Rotating Exercise Schedule
With such a random schedule, I am able to get to the gym 4-6 days per week but they are never the same days of the week, week-to-week. So it’s impossible to schedule leg day every Monday for instance.
What has worked exceptionally well for me is a lifting routine broken into 5 workouts. I label them “Workout 1,” “Workout 2,” etc. to “Workout 5.” Then whenever I have a day to lift weights, I just do the next workout in the cycle.
For example, if I do Workout 3 on Tuesday and I have a really busy day on Wednesday, then I will skip the gym on Wednesday and do Workout 4 on Thursday.
I personally do full body with each of these workouts but you could easy do different splits and even rotate cardio days in.
You could also split your workouts into 4 or 6 or whatever number works for you, there’s nothing special about the number 5 I use, it just works well for me.
Think about what your exercise goals are as a whole and then divide that into 4 to 7 workouts. Rotating through this way ensures you get everything in that you want to regularly and automatically.
Tip #3: Adequate Rest and Recovery
Rotating, random, and night shift work can be incredibly stressful to your body. The irregular sleep schedule and discordance with sunlight cycles means you simply live with higher amounts of stress hormones, like cortisol, chronically.
Even if you don’t feel particularly stressed and even if you’ve been doing this for years and feel used to it, studies have shown that the body never 100% adapts even after decades of this work schedule (Haus, 2006).
When your work schedule is out of sync with your natural circadian schedule, this causes increase in (catabolic) cortisol hormone levels. Increases in cortisol over time have been shown to cause many diseases such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, insulin insensitivity, anxiety, and depression which all counteract your work at the gym.
Additionally, growth hormone (which naturally helps build muscle) peaks during sleep as part of your sleep cycles. When sleep cycles are disrupted, this means you lose out on your natural anabolic hormones. So prioritize sleep hygiene to maximize your growth hormone time. (Read some great sleep hygiene tips here!)
Exercise also puts stress on your body. While exercise offers many health benefits which outweigh the detriments of this increased stress on the body, it is important that you ensure you have adequate rest and recovery time.
As a shift worker, your body will simply need more rest and recovery time than a regularly scheduled worker. Don’t neglect this. Schedule it into your days if you need to.
And don’t forget that adequate nutrition and protein from whole food sources plays into rest and recovery as much as rest time!
Working rotating shifts or night shifts for work can be a pain at baseline. Trying to add a robust weight lifting or body building routine on top of it is not straightforward.
Keeping a daily exercise-work routine, having a flexible rotating schedule, and ensuring adequate rest and recovery can help.
Haus, E., & Smolensky, M. (2006). Biological clocks and shift work: circadian dysregulation and potential long-term effects. Cancer causes & control : CCC, 17(4), 489–500. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10552-005-9015-4