How to Stay In Shape Despite Working Weird Hours

The Nerd Fitness Rebellion is an eclectic group of nerds.

From teachers to computer engineers, rocket scientists to brain surgeons (not even kidding), we pretty much have a representative from every field and from background.

Now, a lot of these jobs require some crazy hours:

  • Nurses and doctors are often on-call for long stretches or working 12+ hour night shifts, and then have a few days off.
  • Night responders get to work just as everybody else is heading home for the day.
  • Supermarket employees or construction workers are up and done with work before others have had lunch.
  • Rebel Alliance members are on night shifts spying on the Empire, etc.

I receive a few emails a week from people who are working these weird hours and are struggling to find a way to stay in shape.  Whether you work slightly off hours or have a completely backwards schedule, this article is for you.

If you happen to work a more typical 9-5 or set your own hours, keep reading: I promise you’ll learn something today too!

Weird hours be damned, I’m gonna help get you healthy.

Diet is still the most important thing

Belief in Taco

Now, whether you work weird hours or normal hours, diet is still responsible for 80-90% of your success or failure when it comes to staying healthy.

80-90 PERCENT.

This is both a blessing and a curse.  It means you don’t need to freak out if you miss a workout after a long night shift, but it also means you gotta take care of yourself while you are working.

I’m still a big supporter of Paleo Diet principles to help people lose weight, but I realize this can be tough: the only thing available late night may be Taco Bell or whatever you can get out of a vending machine.

This means you need to become the master of preparation.

“But Steve I don’t have time to prepare food!” you say.  Yeah, I heard you.

What you’re REALLY saying is, “But Steve, preparing food ahead of time isn’t a priority for me.”

If you are working overnight shifts, you’re gonna need to bring in your own food.  Want to know how easy it is?

  • Purchase a bunch of chicken breast on Sunday Night (or whatever night you actually have off).  Cook them on a tray in the oven, ALL of them.  Put them in separate containers or bags in your fridge.
  • Purchase a bunch of $1 steam fresh bags of frozen veggies.  Stick them in the fridge at your workplace.
  • Need more calories/carbs in your diet? Buy some sweet potatoes. Microwave one and put it on your plate.

In about 3 minutes and minimal effort, you know have a well balanced meal.

“But that’s boring!”  Sheesh, I have to do EVERYTHING, huh? Welp, get creative, sucka!

  • Chop up the chicken and put it in a big salad with whatever you prefer (and keep in your fridge).
  • Make stir fry, put some in containers in your fridge, and then heat it up on your break.
  • Google “chicken paleo marinade” and mix up how you prepare chicken. Or steak. Or pork. Or salmon.

YES, this does require effort. YES, this does require preparation. YES, it does work. YES, you will find your rhythm with it.

Again, it comes down to two things: priorities and excuses:

Do you REALLY not have time?  Or are you using “I don’t have time” as a crutch to eat poorly and feel sorry for yourself?  I’m currently playing the world’s smallest violin for you. And it sounds terrible, because I haven’t played the violin since second grade.

Is your job REALLY stopping you from being healthy? Or is it a convenient excuse to use when you go to Taco Bell or the vending machine?

I’ve seen single mothers who work three jobs find a way to prepare a healthy meal and stay on the ball.  If they can do it, so can you.

Remember: nobody believes your excuses except for you.

Bad liquid calories

RedBull

Let’s talk about liquid calories, the good, the bad, the ugly.

Whether you’re at a desk or up stocking shelves or making your rounds, you probably deal with a few key things:

  • Exhaustion: Let’s be honest, when you work a night shift or early shift, you never get as much sleep as if you were sleeping during the night with normal hours.
  • Lack of “time.”  If you’re working long days/nights and trying to raise a family/have a social life, food preparation probably doesn’t figure into your schedule.  You need convenience, even if you have to pay a bit more for it.
  • Hunger: If you forgot to pack your “meal” or “meals,” your only option is to eat what you can find, which is unlikely to be healthy at that time of day.
  • Boredom: If you are making rounds or stuck at a desk during the middle of the night, there may be more periods of down time than if you were working during the day.

So you’re tired, hungry, bored, and struggle with time management. Where do you turn? Caffeine!  Now, I have no problem with Caffeine. I wake up every morning and drink a few cups of green tea while sitting at my desk to write.  We’ve even covered caffeine extensively on this site already. The short version? Don’t get caught in bad liquid calorie trap:

  • Empty liquid calories are the devil.  If you are drinking soda, energy drinks, or lattes for the caffeine, understand that you are also probably consuming hundreds of calories and 50+ grams of sugar.  And sugar is what makes you fat.  So read the labels or do the research before you drink six Monster drinks, a case of coke, or a Coffee Coolata.  
  • If you’re going to get caffeine, get it from a healthy source: Black coffee, green tea, and as a last resort, a no calorie or low-calorie energy drink.  Try to wean yourself off the gallons of caffeine and work your way over to black coffee/green tea as time goes on. Hopefully, once you start exercising, you’ll have more energy and need less caffeine to survive your shifts.

Avoid the drinks that don’t give you any nutritional value and are full of sugar.  See if you can get your caffeine from better sources. Speaking of better sources of calories…

Good liquid calories!

Smoothie

Low on time? Need a meal?  Make yourself a smoothie!  

Depending on what you put into it or where it comes from, a smoothie can be an incredibly healthy option for meals during the night or as you’re running out the door to your shift.

A few tips on making smoothies: Buy yourself a cheap blender (or, a ridiculously nice one). Have one at home, or in the break room at work.

Give this recipe a shot:

  • Organic frozen fruit (I usually go with the strawberries or berry medley from Trader Joe’s).  
  • A cup of unsweetened almond milk or unsweetened coconut milk.
  • A scoop of protein (I use Optimum Nutrition Vanilla, but I hear the Chocolate is delicious).
  • A few ice cubes if you want to ‘thicken it up’ a bit
  • (Optional) Organic frozen spinach.  Doesn’t change the taste, but gets you a serving of veggies.
  • (Optional) Tablespoon of raw almond butter.  More calories, more healthy fats.

I drink a smoothie similar to the one above for a meal almost on a daily basis (though I add in extra carbs and calories because I’m attempting to pack on extra weight).

Can’t bring a blender to work?  Stick a scoop of protein in a shaker bottle, and BAM – there’s 25 g of protein prepared in 60 seconds.  Add a bag of mixed veggies from the microwave and you’ve got yourself a really weird meal that is pretty damn easy to prepare and pretty damn good for you.

A word of caution: Smoothies from Smoothie King don’t count, as they have more sugar than two cans of Coke.  Neither do Naked Juices.  They might look healthy, but they’re not.  LOOK AT THE LABEL AND PAY ATTENTION TO THE SUGAR CONTENT!  

Empty Calories

Chips

Now, along with empty liquid calories, let’s talk about empty food calories.

When you are at your desk, are you eating snacks while answering the phone or while on your rounds through the hospital?  

Personally, I’m a big fan of No Snacking, as I find I tend to eat more calories than I need during the day, simply because I’m not paying attention (check out the research in that snacking article for more).

Bring some healthy snacks with you if you’re going to be snacking.  My personal favorite would be apple slices with almond butter.

If you struggle with overeating, look at your snacking at your night job.  Are you eating because you are bored?  Are you eating because you’re not paying attention?  Are you eating because you’ve trained your body to expect food every 5 seconds?

If it’s any of these things, try the “No eating AND _________” strategy.  No eating and surfing the internet. No eating and watching TV shows.  No eating AND _____.  If you’re going to eat, that’s the only thing you’re going to do.

At the end of the day, it comes down to one thing: ACTUALLY taking an active role in your health.  As they say, “Don’t sacrifice what you really want for what you want RIGHT NOW.”  That candy bar won’t make you feel better long-term. Neither will those chips. If you want to change your life, you need to stand up for yourself and decide that you are going to make better decisions.

Exercise: Strength Training Wins.

BeforeAfterJoe

Let’s move onto the other 10-20% of the equation: exercise!

It’s no surprise around these parts that I’m a HUGE proponent of strength training.  Guys like Joe (above) travel two weeks a month and yet still manage to have tremendous transformation because they are smart with their time.

From an efficiency standpoint, no other type of exercise gives you as much bang for your buck (aka: the most results with the least amount of time spent exercising).

You can get an incredible workout that exhausts all of your muscles and burns a crazy number of calories (not just during the workout, but in the hours afterward as your body tries to rebuild all of the muscle). Just reference any Nerd Fitness success story, all built with strength training and healthy eating.

So, if your time is limited, and your focus is staying healthy/losing weight, you need to be strength training.

When’s the best time to work out? When you will actually do it!  If you find yourself too exhausted after your 12 hour shift (and I don’t blame you), then get your workout done before you go to work, even if you only have twenty minutes!  Yeah, it might require you cutting your nap a bit shorter, but you’ll actually do it!

As far as the workout itself...

You don’t need to be going to a gym (though if you do, big lifts like squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, and pull ups are going to get you the best results – ask Staci), you can work out at home before your shift starts with a simple workout like the Beginner Bodyweight Circuit.  

We also have the Rebel Strength Guide which gives you more body weight routines and gym routines if you’re looking for specific instruction and exercise demonstrations.

If you are somebody that works a few days on (for long shifts) and a few days off, try this: a really intense strength building routine on your first day off from work and again on your last day. Two strength training days combined with walks and proper eating (on your work days) is more than enough to get you quality results.

Still no time? Spread out the workout

pull ups in australia

Don’t be afraid of simply exercising here and there, when you can.

Check out the Angry Birds Workout and split up your workout throughout your shift:

  • Do squats in the supply closet. Weirdo? YUP. Who cares?
  • Push ups and planks in your cubicle.
  • Pull ups on the bus stop overhang waiting to go to work? I’ve been there.
  • Dumbbell rows with your desk and briefcase/backpack.
  • Walking up the stairs on your break. Why not.

It all adds up, and every little bit is better than nothing.  The strength training benefits are key, but there’s one other key benefit to exercising throughout the day.

Just stay Active

SteveBusStop

Along with strength training, just staying active will help you think healthy.  

I actually have a timer (FocusBooster) on my laptop that goes off every 15 minutes to remind me to get up, walk around, stretch, do some push ups, etc.  Your phone can do the same thing! Technology, amazing.

Stand up at your desk if you can – mix up standing and sitting.

Go for a walk around the office. If you are a nurse or doctor you are probably already doing a considerable amount of walking to make your rounds, so keep it up.

The reason staying active is so important is two-fold:

  1. Every little bit counts.  That push up, those squats, that extra mile walked…they all add up!
  2. Your brain keeps thinking “I am active.”  Because it has to work more when you move! Remember, diet is 80% of your success or failure. When you exercise and constantly stay active, you are consistently reminding yourself that you are making healthier decisions, and these should carry over to your eating decisions too.  Exercising and eating poorly is kind of like paddling a row-boat with one oar – you’re just spinning in circles.  Work both together and dominate!
  3. Exercising can make you smarter and more alert at work.  Detailed incredibly well in the book Spark, studies have shown that exercising can increase brain activity and performance.  Healthier on the outside, smarter on the inside = NERD FITNESS WIN.

Take an active role in your health

stay active

Remember,  it comes down to one thing: taking an active role in your health.

1) Don’t use the job as an excuse, and instead remind yourself that you are in control.  You don’t need anybody’s permission to get healthy.

2) It adds up.  Every little change. Every meal you switch up. Every minute of exercise.

3) Plan out your day.  Spending 5 minutes identifying what you’ll eat and when you’ll work out makes you WAY more likely to actually follow through with it.

Leave a comment and share your story and struggles with the Rebellion. I’d love to hear from you:

Do you work a night shift or have funny hours?

Have you had success and want to share your tips and tricks?

Have a REALLY funky job and need more help (Deathstar operator, daytime student/nighttime superhero)?  Post below and I’ll see what I can do.

Let’s get weird with it.

-Steve

###

Photo source: cross-eyed owl, taco bell sign, red bull, smoothies, chips, catdog

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  • Alexa

    I work at a warehouse and I work 2nd shift (swing shift) 6:30pm to 2am plus the 30 to 45min commute I have to do there and back. At first I was eating a lot of fast food because it was fast and I was constantly on the go. I started cutting back a lot and I still see no change. I’m on my feet, walking, lifting boxes, and pushing carts full of freight my whole shift. So I’m pretty active already. I’m just not sure what else to do? I’ll give your meal plans a go though.

  • Workout Programs For Men

    Everyone is busy. There is always a way to get your workout in. If you are dedicated to this lifestyle you will get it done. Just my thoughts!

  • MsPeleHerself

    I work nights as a water treatment operator. Normally there is SOME physical activity, but it comes in spurts. The past couple of months, however, the plant has been down so I literally have nothing to do but read or mess around online (like I’m doing now). I do get up about every hour and walk around the plant or go up and down stairs, but it doesn’t feel like enough. I also work a week on/week off schedule which means 12 hr shifts. My work week is my zombie week. My week off, I run, lift and cycle. It’s like being bipolar where fitness is concerned. :(
    I DO manage to bring in food so I won’t snack on crap. Seaweed has become my new potato chip substitute! I may have to learn how to do yoga in the bathroom or something to feel more in control. Anyway….. great article. Thanks for the tips!

  • Michela

    I work as a paramedic on a rotating roster of 2 x 10 hr days and 2 x 14 nights which usually finish late (can’t just get up from CPR and walk away) with a minimum half hour commute. Meal breaks are supposed to be half hour long at branch, but with the work load increasing exponentially we are being told to eat at the hospital cafeterias (which are either greasy fried things and/or expensive) hours after our meal break window. We’re not supposed to carry food in the truck due to contamination and lack of refrigeration. My colleagues and I are struggling with BMI’s around 30, we know that going long times without food has negative connotations for our bodies, we have a constant sleep debt, struggle with balancing work with our responsibilities at home, and struggle to fit in excercise for 5 out of 8 days. This has been a topic of discussion and experimentation for the past 12months with little success. Any suggestions are welcome.

  • starax

    Not sure if this will help…but i do know some people who work in awkard conditions similar to this, and they get an understanding friend/family member to bring in food for them.

  • Juan Carlos Suarez

    Hello I am a full time student and that is Monday thru Friday 8-1 and then I work 2-midnight help!!!

  • AJNalder

    Hi. I’m a paramedic. Along with shift work I find it difficult when it comes to meals for work. My meal times are all over the place, if that’s if I even GET a meal when I’m at work. I find myself nibbling continuously throughout my shift, tuna, nuts and dried fruit. Any healthy, quick meal suggestions? I need to get some routine into my eating habits at work.

  • Brad Chaney

    Full time retail worker with a really inconsistent shifts and guaranteed 40 with two off days.any ideas . May the force be with you

  • Natasha

    A special needs daughter means I have extremely inconsistent days/nights. We can be up all night until 6am before sleeping for a couple hours. Then the next night she’ll sleep from 11-2am then be awake for 4-5 hours before sleeping again. We’ve never managed to find a rhyme or reason to it. Anyway, this leads to crazy, unpredictable hours and constant sleep deprivation.

    While I’ve decided that, screw it, I’m tired anyway I might as well go for the exercise and be tired for a good reason. Any help or suggestions would be appreciated!

  • Jeff Brown

    I’m an RN working nights and it seems that my boss, my patients, and my coworkers are all trying to destroy me. It is candy, cake, cookies, sweets, chocolates, processed junk all around me. I got to work last night and at the station I usually occupy there was 3/4 of a costco buttercream sheet cake. How am I supposed to resist that? I feel like I smelled it, got a cavity and developed diabetes. Then I proceeded to try to rid myself of the temptation by removing it to the break room, but I should have had someone else do it; I had a piece or 2 before I left the break room. But I’ve been thinking about NF a lot and so I didn’t go back.

    I should have brought a “lunch.”

  • Combaticron

    “we know that going long times without food has negative connotations for our bodies,”

    Not necessarily. Read up on intermittent fasting if you care to. That said, I would bring a cooler bag with pre-made meals (and don’t advertise it). How about doing some bodyweight exercise during your downtime?

    I see it’s been a few months since you posted. How’s it going?

  • Emma

    I’m a mostly graveyard shift security guard and spend a good chunk (usually at least half) of my shift just killing time alone watching the cameras which makes it very tempting to snack, and so far my best thing I’ve found is to pack berries or cherries to eat so I get that snacking activity while eating something that’s not terrible for me. Considering bringing a yoga mat in so I do a bit of sit-ups etc on the floor too but I’m self conscious that a coworker will check the camera and give me a hard time about it.

  • kawigirl

    I work 730-530 in an oral surgery office, run a graphics business, and have a toddler. WE get up at 530, get her and i ready and fed. leave by 630 to drive across town to her grandmothers and then to work by 730. I try to go to the gym at lunch. I am able to get 30 minutes, starting with a row machine, and then moving thru 7-9 weight machines. by the time i get home after i am off, its 6 at the earliest. have to unload from that day, load for the next day, husband and i to shower, and get dinner before baby goes to bed at 8. once she is in bed, i am designing or printing graphics until midnight, or i fall asleep while working. kind of at a loss. I cant go before work… i would have to go at 4am, drive all the way into town, drive all the wway back home, get ready again, get baby ready. that would be working 20 hours a day with 5 hrs of sleep. If i go after work, then i pretty much dont get to see my kid. I get 2 hrs with her at most as it is in the evenings. frustrated!!!

  • Justin

    I work at a gym on the overnight shift which is 9p-7a. I work 7 days straight and then get 7 days off. I’m usually taking z quil to get to sleep and I want to stop that as well as the constant coffee. I always end up taking a nap an hour or 30 minutes before work which usually puts me in a bad mood, but I do get over it and actually like my job.

  • Nicki

    Thanks for this post, I’m a nurse and frequently work overtime be ause of short staffing. My shifts range from 12 to 16 hours. I started meal prepping and dropped 3 lbs this week. I’m still struggling with the exercise portion because I value the sleep I get and time with my son so much. I figure averaging 10 miles of walking (I swear my pedometer is accurate) makes up for that. Hopefully my work hires more staff and my husband finishes school soon freeing up valuable time for strength training/cardio

  • Daniel Lawrence Edens

    I work 7p-7a 4 nights a week at a hospital and have class from 4p-7p two nights a week. If I go to be as soon as I get home at about 8 and get 7-8 hours of sleep I wake up at 3-4 and have to immediately run off to class and then off to work right after. At the end of my shift I am incredibly drained and can barely pick up my feet. I know that working out when I first wake up is the most beneficial and before this job (but still working nights) I would get up at about 3, and immediately go to the gym and after a couple of weeks felt great, but now to do that I would end up having to lose a few hours of sleep to be able to get up in time to workout before class. Roughly my current schedule is:

    Sunday-Monday 7p-7a
    Monday-Tuesday 4p-7a
    Tuesday-Wednesday Free
    Wednesday-Thursday 7p-7a
    Thursday-Friday 4p-7a
    Friday and Saturday Free

    The days like Monday and Thursday are the ones that have me scratching my head, I want to go to the gym every other day and walk a few extra miles each day but the times I have class I would have to lose sleep but that’s also negative, and I know if I miss too many days in a row working out then it’s going to be harder for me to get back again. What should I do?

  • Fatih

    I work 2 days in a row and off for 2 days. Work starts at 9 in the morning and finishes at 9 in the evening which is 12 hours of work shift. The 2 days im off, i go gym. I dont work out on the days i go work.
    I eat healthy all the time and my body seems in shape as well. But i do require little more muscle mass. So those two days i hit the gym, which muscle groups should work on and how often? Do you think 2 days working out and 2 days not is ok for getting little bit bigger?

  • Antony

    I find that eating and exercising at similar times really helps. I set up windows of exercising and eating throughout the day with large amounts of time without either. This really helps the transition between day and night shifts. For example I always work out sometime between 5am and 10am and eat the bulk of my food around my workout. My only other feed time is dinner. This means I’m not woken by hunger when sleeping during the day and also helps me to nap effectively when working days. It means my energy levels remain similar every day as well.