Training and Diet Tips Shift Workers | Turn the Nightmare into a Dream

by Marianne  - June 29, 2013

This post has been requested of me for quite some time. I would imagine it has been a pretty common theme to hear me mention/complain about having been on night-shift and being too tired to train as well I I hoped.

Since I started this blog (and seriously training), I have been a night-shift worker. Before that, I worked a mix of long 13.5 hour days and late shifts (1pm-9pm) – so I know a thing or two about how to be committed to your fitness goals during these times.  I know all too well the additional challenge these types of schedules add to keeping fit, staying a healthy weight and learning to give yourself a break.  Let’s first look at the challenges I have experienced (some have been mine; some have been challenges I have seen my colleague face):

The Challenges

What do you eat?

When you are unprepared for 12 + hours in the workplace, you are faced with a dire set of choices for what to eat. Either you fast, or you give in to the numerous poor food options that are provided in the average work environment. For example, when I was on day-shift, my options were between fatty, processed canteen food and vending machines.  On nights, it is simply the vending machine or what ever has been given to the nursing staff by patients (usually chocolates, sweets, biscuits).  If you don’t plan ahead, or do not prioritise your food options before hand, then you are basically doomed to eat rubbish, or fast <– note: there is always a choice.

Too tired to think

This is a legit excuse for anyone who works more than one shift in a row.  If you get off work and you have 9-12 hours before you are back in again then, not only is it a nightmare to try to even think about food (because sometimes night-shift makes you nauseated in the morning and afternoon), but it is nearly impossible to motivate yourself to cook in advance, never mind going to the gym (especially if you have other commitments).  All you want to do is switch off your brain, your phone, your life and JUST SLEEP – FOR EVER!  When I have been extremely tired, I have cancelled many an appointment, postponed a workout (or blog post) and even avoided answering my phone –> I have simply been too deprived of proper sleep to really function.  I think once, I walk into the gym, lifted a weight for 2 reps, put it down and walked out again. Good intentions, but not the right time.

Stress to fit everything in

You have to leave by 7.30pm to make it to work with good time, yet you get held up answering emails, getting the kids to bed, clearing up after dinner or simply just having a shower and getting mentally prepare for another night of hell (if you are a nurse or doctor, or emergency services, you will know exactly what I mean).  You have to drop everything and get to work – you have good intentions of finishing things the next day (or training), but that particular night was way harder than you expected (aka the Full Moon).


The one-day-week

Ever work a bunch of shifts in a row and it seems like you never leave work? You are home for what seems like a split second and you are in work again. How on earth can anyone get fit, stay fit, lose weight or feel in control under these circumstances.


The watchful/nosey colleagues

They see you trying to be fit and healthy, yet they can’t help themselves from ridiculing you and tempting you with evils.  Who are these people? They are usually people who project their own inability to commit to being fit and healthy onto you. Once you consider that, you are free to just be a good example.



Since there are clearly a lot of challenges, you’d think there would be a lot of solutions, right? Well, I used to think so … but in the last year, I have whittled them down to just a few concepts/mindsets to adopt to help you cope better under the stress of shift-work.


Some Tips I have learned for Training around shifts

1) Do the best you can to fit your heaviest/most challenging training in between shifts. When I work, I usually make do with minimal workouts (the rare occasion I might be more energetic and I run with it, but generally, I just go lighter and make it quick).


2) I never train the day after my first night-shift – I am usually awake for 24+ hours by the time I get home … so, while that temptation to train is there (because I fear I’ll lose something if I don’t), I have now realised, it actually does me more good to go home to bed and just make better diet choices that day.


3) If I train between shifts, I normally do so in the morning (after that first morning) because I get an energy surge at dawn – about 10am. Call it working with natural hormonal rhythms or what ever, this is when I feel my most awake between shifts. Unless it is beautifully sunny and warm weather outside in the afternoon when I get up, I will have my energy then.

Pay attention to when *you* feel most energetic and run with it. If I train during this surge, I have learned that it is often an exaggerated surge and I still need to take things a bit easier than before.

4) Don’t over-do it on your days off. Extremes can never work long-term, so start making small changes and just learn to stick to them.  If you only adjust little things, it won’t seem like such a chore and you’ll have a better chance of doing a 20 min KB workout verses a 60min gym workout (believe me, I have tried). The only time I might do a longer workout is after my 2nd night or after my last night because I am full of energy knowing I am off 🙂

5) Remember that good sleep is just a valuable as everything else in the picture of fat loss and training performance. So, if you feel you NEED to go straight to bed, do it!


Now for the diet tips (do as I say, not as I do LOL)

1) The first night I go to work, I stop eating at 7pm and I fast right through until either 9am or 4pm the next day (I make this my longest fast).

2) On subsequent nights, I limit myself to a feeding window from 4pm-12mn and I don’t eat again until I get up from sleeping. This helps my self-control in work –> those wee small hours of the night bring all sorts of sugar cravings! So just say no to the time and let it go… drink plenty of tea and water and keep busy!

3) Bring food with you! If you are unprepared, you will react and reach for the easiest and crappiest choice. I have found myself making a Crisp Butty (this is chips in a sandwich) as my dinner when I haven’t thought ahead.  As I mentioned earlier, those times you feel too sick to eat anything, bring something with you, because the hunger monster comes out at midnight and it doesn’t let up until you eat something filling!

4) Bring 2 litres of water to work and drink it!

5) Expect to screw up more, but be more forgiving of yourself – find a balance.


Things not to do

1) Eat all day AND all night

2) Expect to “undo” anything by doing the opposite extreme

3) Eat extremely low calories and low value foods long-term and expect to lose fat the healthy way

4) Live on low fat yogurts, toast and cheese and expect to improve your body composition

5) Live on energy drinks! Yes, I have colleagues who want to lose weight and think this ok 😐

6) Live in a cycle of guilt-emotional eating and condemnation —> we have to close the door on mistakes and try harder NOW.


There you have my words of wisdom on a topic close to home for me.  Over the coming days, I am officially leaving me nursing job to pursue a full-time career doing what I absolutely love.  I’ll still be able to work casual shifts to help me save up for my big move across the pond to travel, but officially, this will be it with the shift work 🙂 –> I hope! 

I wanted to film a video to go with this article, but I might just add it at a later date, because guess what? I have to go to night-shift …. my last shift as a permanent employee of the NHS.   eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeek!




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  1. My spouse and I stumbled over here from a different web address
    and thought I might as well check things
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  2. thank you for this article. I think it works for me as I am pretty busy and also have a desk job which drains my energy, so that by the time I get home I am exhausted and also lack motivation.
    I like your list at the end of the article.
    Congratulations on your last shift and I am looking forward to what you come up with in the near future.


    1. Thanks, Mickela 🙂 Me too! It’s a weird feeling – on one hand, I know it’s the right thing to do and I really could’t live with myself if I didn’t try it, but on the other hand, I am so afraid of it being a big fat failure!
      However, i’d rather fail trying than never try. Too me, that’s a bigger failure.

      I’m glad you found the article helpful 🙂 I am soooo looking forward to not doing another night shift again!

      Still have to do the casual shifts for a while 🙁


  3. Congratulations Marianne on finishing your last official NHS night shift as a permanent employee! I’m an American of Irish ancestry who had to work hard to move to Europe so I understand how it is. Thanks also for your thoughtful article. My work starts shift work on Monday, and I’m doing the first late shift. I have two todderls who also keep my busy at home. But since May I’ve lost 4kg (!) by deciding to eat nourishing food, and cook at the weekends for 6 small meals a day which are usually a lean (vegetarian–that’s me) protein, steamed or baked veg, and a moderate portion of high-quality complex carb like sweet potato, brown rice or wholegrain pasta. One of those meals is a huge salad with lowfat cheese. Eating habits count for a lot. Yes, my diet(ary intake) is boring, but I focus on the positive that I am giving the tools to my body which has the power to regain health. It’s not boring at all to look and feel better all the time.

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