The Ultimate Guide To Staying Fit And Healthy Whilst Working Night Shifts

The Ultimate Guide To Staying Fit And Healthy Whilst Working Night Shifts

Night shifts are already hard enough to deal with, don’t make it worse for yourself!

Ivan Gavranic Ivan Gavranic · 01 Nov 2021

Mindset Intermediate
22 Mins

Share

There is no easy way to say this so we are going to just come right out and say it.

Working night shifts over an extended period of time is one of the worst things you can do for your health from a lifestyle perspective. At this stage the research is quite conclusive, even placing shift work as a category 2 carcinogen, meaning it “probably” increases the risk of developing cancer while also being correlated to metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, weight gain and a shorter lifespan.

Fundamentally, when you’re working night shifts you are doing the opposite of what your body wants to be doing during those hours, creating a massive circadian misalignment. We have written about circadian rhythms here, but in a nutshell, we want to be working, eating, training and being social during the daylight hours,  and sleeping during the night. When this gets flipped, it causes havoc on our bodies.

If you’re reading this there is a high probability that you already know all that and based on your life circumstances and/or job description, working nights is just something you have to do. 

We are all about maximising the variables within our control and not obsessing about the variables that are not within our control. Just because you work night shifts, this doesn’t mean you cannot achieve incredible results and in fact, many of our clients such as Minil manage to balance their crazy work schedules while still getting the most out of their health and fitness goals.

Due to there being a number of different roster combinations, we are not going to discuss each and every single one of them as.
  • Everyone is an individual.
  • Everyone responds differently to shift work.
  • This article would be far too long and boring.
Instead, in true RNT fashion we are going to “teach you how to fish” by sharing sound principles that can be applied to a variety of situations so you can be armed to tackle any rotation that comes your way. 

Let’s dive in!

Planning & Preparation

Knowing as much information about the duration and length of your night shifts ahead of time is only going to be a massive benefit. Not only will this allow you to have more control over your schedule, but you will be able to mitigate a lot of the negative consequences that come with night shift work.

Know Your Rights

In the UK, it is required by law that your employer gives you at least 7 days notice for when you are scheduled to go on night shift. This may differ in other countries, but in most circumstances you do have the obligation to negotiate terms on how much notice is given to you prior to starting your shift. 

Unfortunately, many do not prioritise their health meaning they just take whatever hours they can get without question. We understand that for many, choosing what hours you work is not possible but you still have the right to have that conversation with your employer.

Granted, there are going to be times where you may have to cover for a coworker at the last minute or some emergency situation has come up (this is usually in the contract) but these should be the exception, not the rule.

Covering every possible shit work situation is far beyond the scope of this article meaning we are going to go through specific principles and strategies that can help you govern the best approach for your own unique circumstances.

For any roster that has you working between 3-7 nights in a row, we recommend implementing the following strategy.

Shifting Your Sleep Time Prior To Starting:

If you are scheduled to start a night shift rotation on Monday from 7:00pm- 5:00am, you can start to manipulate your sleep onset time 3 days prior in preparation.

Let’s say your normal bedtime is 10:00pm. Starting from Friday evening (3 days before) try incrementally increasing this time up until Sunday night so your schedule looks similar to the following:

Friday- 11:30pm
Saturday- 1:00am
Sunday- 3:00am

It’s not uncommon to still wake up at your normal time so if that is the case, just get up and go about your day as you normally would. The sleep debt you accumulate will be high but this will help shift your clock over the coming days.

You will naturally need to nap more during these days (still hitting 7-8 hours over the course of a 24 hour period) but by the time Monday evening comes around, you should be able to get through the night in a much more productive fashion while also being able to fall asleep as soon as you get home which is just as important.

Become A Professional Sleeper

The number one factor that you must consider when working on shifts is ALWAYS going to be sleep. Whether you’re dieting hard, trying to build as much muscle as possible or just living the lean lifestyle, sleep must take priority above all else. 

The first thing you want to be thinking about as soon as your shift is done is getting home as soon (and as safely) as possible, having a warm shower and making a beeline for that bed. 

If you’re travelling by car or public transport, the goal is to expose yourself to as little blue light as possible as this is one of the strongest signals for telling your brain that it’s daytime. This is where investing in some blue light blocking glasses can be a game changer but if they are not in your budget or you just don’t feel comfortable looking like a character from X-Men, some dark tinted sunglasses should be OK too. Put these on as soon as you can and do not take them off until you get home.

The same sleep hygiene rules apply for anyone who is looking to optimise their sleep with a few additional caveats that can be of great help.

Here are eight factors you should be considering to get the most out of your sleep.

1. Make your bedroom pitch black

This may mean investing in proper black out curtains but considering how tough it can be to remove all light from your bedroom during the daylight hours, it is well worth it.

Remove all electronics, turn your phone off (or at least on flight mode) and cover up anything that could be emitting a blue light. I personally put black tape over the air conditioner in my bedroom while also using my fitbit as my “watch” if I need to tell the time.

2. Make sure your bedroom is cool. 

Anywhere between 18-21 degrees celsius seems to be the sweet spot so if you have an air conditioner or a fan, definitely utilise them. 

The white noise is an added bonus here.

3. Invest in a comfortable eye mask and earplugs.

These should be essential for night shift workers, especially if you live with other people who work normal hours. 

4. Communicate

This is extremely important but often overlooked. Tell the people you are living with to respect your sleeping time and make them aware of your night shifts as well. Everyone knows how bad they feel after a poor night's sleep so it will not be difficult to convince them.

5. Don’t Set An Alarm

Let your body sleep as much as it can. More often than not, you’re not going to get the full 6-8 hours you may normally get in one hit which is fine. Just do the best you can and don’t get frustrated or anxious if you don’t sleep as much as you would like, your body will want a nap later on.

6. Napping

Ideally, if you can get a 20-30 minute nap 2-3 hours prior to your shift starting then you will have higher energy levels for the majority of your shift. This should naturally happen due to the sleep debt you are going to be carrying around throughout your rotation but it can be hindered if you overstimulate yourself through excessive caffeine intake.

If your job allows you to have any breaks throughout the night, use that time to try to get a nap in. Even just shutting your eyes for 10-15 minutes can help energise for the latter half of your shift.

7. Caffeine

If you’re going to use caffeine, having 60-100mg 1 hour prior to your shift can help get you through the evening while not dramatically impacting your ability to fall asleep later on. Don’t make the mistake of having caffeine at midnight or a couple of hours before your shift.

8. Supplementation

We want all the help we can get when it comes to falling asleep and the following supplements can definitely help with this. Aim to consume them 30 minutes prior to wanting to get to sleep.
  • 3g of Glycine
  • 300mg Magnesium Citrate
  • 1g of Vitamin C Ascorbate
  • 2g of Taurine
  • Valerian Root (400-900mg)
Not only will they help with sleep, but the higher magnesium, vitamin C and taurine may also help reduce the oxidative stress that comes with night shift work.

Training

One of the toughest aspects to manage appropriately during an intense bout of shift work is not only scheduling your workouts, but being able to perform at an intensity that is going to allow you to keep making progress.

Granted, expecting incredible progress during these times might be setting yourself up for disappointment but this doesn’t mean we have to go in there and just “go through the motions” with everything. With a few scheduling tactics and using the power of our circadian rhythms, there are still factors within our control that we can capitalise on.

Optimising Off Days:

If you normally train with weights 3-4 times a week, the chances of you being able to schedule 1-2 of these workouts during your time off for the week is highly likely. Make the most of these days as even though you may not be feeling the best, they are going to allow you to get the most out of your workouts while allowing you to recover as well.

We would recommend scheduling your hardest or most demanding workouts on these days if possible. For most, this would mean lower body days or any training day that utilises heavy full body, compound exercises such as deadlifts, RDL’s, leg presses, squats, bench presses and overhead presses.

This can work well if you have interspersed “off” days throughout the week but if your roster has you working for “x” amount of days and then you have a certain amount of days off in row, you may be better off leaving one day for lower body, the other for upper body. 

Train Before Your Night Shift, Not After.

Exercise can send an extremely strong signal when it comes to telling our minds and bodies to “be alert”. Alongside food and light exposure, it is one of the best tools we have at our disposal when it comes to impacting our circadian rhythms. 

If you know you have a week of nights coming up, getting your training session in 1-2 hours before going into work will not only help perk you up, but it will also help mitigate many of the cardiovascular complications that come with working night shifts, as this 2020 study found. 

On top of that, going into your shift in a positive mood with better cognitive capacity is only going to help you perform. One of the biggest concerns with night shift work is the propensity for making errors due to the high levels of fatigue which can be vital, especially when looking after patients, operating heavy machinery or having to make critical decisions. Any non-pharmaceutical boost we can utilise is only going to help!

Not only will this lessen the negative impact on your natural circadian rhythm, it also means that you can go straight home after your nightshift and get to sleep as soon as possible which we know is the most important factor we should be considering during these times.

Nutrition

From an overall health perspective, more and more research is starting to emerge discussing the importance of eating in line with our natural circadian rhythms, especially in relation to the daylight hours. All of the metabolic markers that are involved with managing our blood glucose, extracting nutrients from our food and optimising our metabolisms are upregulated during the day when we are awake and very dormant at night when we are sleeping (or should be). In fact, the BMJ (British Medical Journal) actually recommends not eating anything at all between the hours of 12:00am- 6:00am.

If we want to do everything we can for our health while also continuing to move forward with our body composition goals, it’s a good idea to do our best to replicate this same pattern (eating during daylight hours, fasting during darker hours) when having to work night shifts.

This is where intermittent fasting and being strategic with your meal timing can be extremely useful. Here are some good principles to follow when embarking on a night shift schedule.
  • Condense your meals down to three. 
  • Have two very small meals throughout the day primarily made up of protein, vegetables and fats.
  • Have one very large meal 1 hour prior to your shift that contains a lot of protein (50-60% of your daily intake), a good amount of fibre and carbohydrates coming from starches, vegetables and fruit along with a moderate amount of fat to really help slow the digestion of the meal. 

Example 1:

Let’s use an individual meeting the following numbers.

Calories- 2000
Protein- 160g
Fat- 70g
Carbohydrates- 180g

While also following a roster of night shifts where they work from 8:00pm- 5:00am, trying to be in bed by 5:30am-6:00am.

The eating schedule would look like this:

1:00pm- 400 calories. (30g of protein, 20g fat, 25 carbohydrates)
4:00pm- 400 calories (30g protein, 20g fat, 25 carbohydrates)
7:00pm- 1200 calories (100g of protein, 30g fat, 130g carbohydrates)

The larger meal may make some people feel a little sluggish initially but due to the sheer amount of protein, fibre and calories, this will definitely help tie them over until the next day while giving them sustained energy throughout their shift without having to stop and eat. This can be a game changer for those individuals who always need to be “on” during those hours while mitigating the desire to reach for snacks which is where many people go wrong.

Example 2:

If the above doesn’t sound very appealing, another option would be to include a small meal within your night shift. Because of the metabolic mismatch discussed earlier, one of the worst things you can do would be to consume foods that are high in both carbohydrates and fats which ironically, are the foods many crave during night shift work.

We want to be reaching for high protein snacks with virtually nothing else meaning the following would be good options.
  • Protein shake: 20-30g mixed with water.
  • Protein bar.
  • 150-200g 0% fat greek yoghurt/cottage cheese.
  • Ready made stir fry’s made up of soy mince/tofu and vegetables with your favourite low calorie sauce/dressing.
  • Cooked and peeled boiled eggs. Grab 2-4 at a time for a healthy meal on the go.
Using the below numbers.

Calories- 1400
Protein- 120g
Fat- 60g
Carbohydrates- 95g

And working from 10:00pm- 7:00am.

The eating schedule would look like this:

3:00pm- 300 calories. (30g of protein, 20g fat, 30 carbohydrates)
6:00pm- 300 calories (30g protein, 20g fat, 30 carbohydrates)
9:00pm- 600 calories (30g of protein, 20g fat, 30g carbohydrates)
3:00am- 150 calories (30g of protein, trace fats, trace carbohydrates)

Coming Off Night Shift

If you know you’re going to be done with night shifts for a while, the number one priority here is going to be restoring your natural circadian rhythm as soon as possible. This will be far easier than getting accustomed to nights and you should feel back to normal much quicker too, especially if you implement the following:

Sun/ Light Exposure

Expose yourself to at least 30-60 minutes of direct sunlight as soon as you wake up the following morning after your last shift. If possible, get as much of your body exposed too meaning shorts and shirt with no sunglasses would be the ideal.

If there is very little sun outside or it’s the winter, using something like a dawn simulator can be the next best option. 

Exercise

Just like we used exercise to set your clock to be more alert in the evenings before your shift, use it to align your body clock with the daylight hours by getting in a session not too long after waking up.

The earlier in the day, the better!

Nutrition

Resume your normal eating pattern again and try to have your last meal 3-4 hours prior to going to sleep. 

Bedtime

This may be a little hard on the first night but do your best to replicate your normal bedtime by practicing good sleep hygiene along with adding in some potential supplements to help.

The best supplement to reset your circadian rhythm is going to be melatonin (0.3-1g half an hour before bed) but if that is not legal in your country, the stack we mentioned above may also help:

Set your alarm to get up at your usual time the next morning and resume business as usual.

Considerations

If you know you are going to be back on nights within a few days, you may be better off simply sticking with your night time schedule until you know you’re completely done with night shifts for at least a fortnight.

Research shows that constantly going back and forth within short time periods is more stressful on the body in comparison to just doing nights alone. A good way to imagine this would be travelling for 12 hours across the world, only to come back two days later. We all have experienced jet lag and how it takes a good few days to get accustomed to the new location and the same mechanisms are at play when embarking on shift work.

Putting It Altogether

We all know that the very nature of participating in shift work comes with potential health consequences and if you’re in a situation where this cannot be changed, you still have the power to make the most of a “not so ideal” situation and keep moving towards your goals.

With a basic understanding of our circadian rhythms, we can devise strategies to mitigate the damage and allow you to come out of the other side relatively unscathed.

To summarise, below are key main takeaways that you can implement for your next rotation of night shifts.

Planning & Preparation:
  • Know your schedule in advance.
  • Know your rights as an employee working night shifts.
  • Gradually shift your sleep/wake time prior to your shift.
Become a sleep professional:
  • By far the most important variable here.
  • Make your bedroom the most sleep friendly place in the world.
  • Communicate with your housemates/partner.
  • Get as much as you can.
  • Utilise naps where appropriate.
Nutrition:
  • Eat in line with the biological day, fast in line with the biological night to the best of your ability.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • If eating throughout the night, protein only snacks are your best option.
  • Utilise caffeine intelligently.
  • Diet sodas can be very helpful throughout your shift. Go for the uncaffeinated versions.
  • Look into supplementation options.
Activity/Training:
  • Accept that your performance may suffer during this week.
  • Schedule your harder days on “off days”
  • Look at training before your shift, not after.

Conclusion

There you have it, a blueprint for managing your night shifts and not letting them get the better of you. Remember, everything we have discussed may improve your performance, health and overall wellbeing considering the situation but if you are serious about your long term health we would advise on eventually removing yourself from all night shift work if possible.

We understand that the financial side of things appeals to many but from an overall life quality perspective, you may be doing yourself a huge disservice in the long run so please keep that in mind.
Ivan GavranicIvan Gavranic

Ivan Gavranic is RNT’s Head of Applied Research, where his focus is on translating scientific research into real world practical applications for our members. As one of our leading coaches based in Australia, Ivan has lived and breathed transformation for over ten years, staying now at sub 6% body fat year round, he continues to focus on attaining calisthenic and gymnastic skills you only see in the movies!

Read Story

The Great Reset Report

Download our free report detailing why now is the best time in a generation to reset your mind, body and lifestyle.

Download now

What’s your problem?

Take our free 5 minute test now to discover the one thing getting in your way of the body you want.

Take The Test

Transform Your Body, Transform Your Life

Get the book and apply our unique and proven five-phase methodology to feel, look and perform at your best.

Get the Book