I’ve worked shift for the last 10 years. On an ambulance in a busy urban center, with long hours: 2 – 10 hour days, 2 – 14 hour nights, with 4 days off. My first day off has been ruined because I need to sleep. How have I maintained myself? Let me tell you, it’s been a struggle. Not impossible, just takes some work around to keep my goals intact. The decision to become a shift worker is more than just a career, it’s a life style. Can you live with it?
You need to weigh the pros and cons — you get 4 days off, there is time to do business during the week, you don’t have to take time off for appointments, you can make it to the gym during slow periods and not have to wait for equipment. If you have kids, you get a lot of time with them on your days off. On the other hand, you’ll miss their bath time and bedtime stories. You’ll miss waking them up and having breakfast with them as you’ll already be gone to work. There’s no doubt about it — shift work can be difficult. The demands of juggling alternate work hours and staying connected to family and friends can have a big impact on your health — both mentally and physically. But you can still get enough sleep, eat the right foods, be physically active and maintain social ties — even when you work the graveyard shift.
Sleeping. Changing your normal rhythm of waking and sleeping as a result of switching shifts requires a period of adjustment. Insomnia, mental and physical fatigue, indigestion, and an overall feeling of ill health are common when your body’s internal clock is disrupted. If your job requires you to constantly change shifts, your body will have more difficulty adjusting and readjusting as you get older. Here are some strategies to help you sleep well:
- Develop a bedtime practice. Read a book, catch up on your favorite show or take a warm bath before going to bed. Allow yourself to unwind from your shift. That’s nice advice, I generally have a small breakfast and fall into bed. I hate getting woken up by a grumbling stomach!
- Keep your sleeping environment…sleep ready. Sleep in a dark room. Use black out curtains/blinds or wear a sleep mask. Wear earplugs or run a fan to block out daytime noises and make sleep easier. Maintain your sleep schedule. If at all possible, keep a consistent sleep schedule. Stick to the same sleep hours every day — even on your days off.
- Change the work schedule. A more normal sleep pattern results when your shift sequence is day-evening-night rather than day-night-evening. Take naps. I’m a huge fan of naps, if you can, try and grab one before your evening shift to help you feel refreshed and more alert at work. Rouse yourself well before your shift starts, though, in case you feel groggy when you first wake up.
- Sleeping pills. If you experience severe insomnia, ask your doctor about a short-acting sleeping pill. (I’m not a fan of this one but sometimes you need to do what you need to do to survive).
Nutrition. You may find it difficult to make healthy food choices because what’s most readily available in the middle? For those who are not prepared, vending machines and 24-hour fast-food restaurants are a huge temptation. Unhealthy eating isn’t necessarily a given, though. Here are some tips to keep you on your game:
- Brown bag it. I know it can be tough to always pack your lunch, but you cannot control what you put in your body if you are eating McDonalds at 2 am. Bringing food from home will make you less tempted to raid the vending machines. Pack a healthy lunch that fits with your meal plan. At Strength Powered Fitness you can also get nutrition plans to help you maintain or lose weight, regardless of your schedule. Eat smaller portions.
- Aim for smaller portions, such as a couple of quick, healthy snacks, during your shift rather than eating a big meal. Shift work can interfere with your body’s regular digestive routine. Especially eating at night, you might need a small snack to get you through the 3-5 am lag but don’t eat a big meal with lots of calories.
- Avoid late-night caffeine. Have caffeinated drinks before your shift or early during your shift. Avoid too much caffeine or caffeine late in your shift — it can make it hard for you to fall asleep after you get home.
Fitness. Shift work doesn’t mean you can’t exercise. Scheduling regular exercise is important — it may help improve your sleep, your energy level and your mood. It’s totally possible and you can fit it into your day — or night. Here are some tips to get the job done:
- Work out before work. Physical activity can make you more alert on your job. It also keeps your heart in tip-top shape. Even in between my nights I try to fit in a quick home boot camp workout, after I wake up of course!
- Work out on your days off. Stick to your workout schedule and keep your goals intact! There is no reason on your days off not to fit in your longer workouts. Strength Powered Fitness has many different classes to get you moving! Find a buddy.
- Find a friend and exercise together. Meet some people in your area that you can work out with. It’ll make exercising more fun and will also help keep you motivated.
Social Life. Shift work makes it tough to maintain a social life because you are working when most people are socializing. Here are some tips to help you maintain your relationships:
- Phone home. Take the time to call home and talk with your kids and spouse, whoever is important to you, whether it’s just before bedtime or just after the sun rises.
- Keep in touch. Let your family and friends know your work schedule. Make time for get-togethers on your days off. Its easy start missing out on social events when you are working and your friends aren’t. You have to make an effort to go out and socialize with people other than who you work with.
- Get creative. A breakfast date is a nice end-of-the-day treat for you (if you can keep your eyes open) and a nice start-of-the-day treat for someone else. Get together on your long change between days and nights and have some fun. The ability to adjust to shift work is different for every person.
- You may be happy working alternate hours or you may find it extremely frustrating. It takes some work to keep your fitness at the level of your choosing, keep it up, maintain a schedule and your dedication will pay off.