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

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

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  • Steven Perez Perez

    So my average day I wake up at 8:00p.m. get ready go to work I get home at 8:00 a.m. so thts a average of 12 hours and I wanna run on ground because you lose a bunch of calories quick but I need some sort of fuel to help me with tht run any recommendations. Also since I started this job I have which was 3 1/2 years ago tht was when I stopped running. N I’m a overnight stocker for retail sucks :X

  • Bob

    I do 12 hour night shifts with computer work. I have to be at my desk all the time. I’m just wondering if I it’s possible to do a full body strength routine which normally takes 45-60mins total but split up the sets over the course of the 12 hours shift as one set usually takes a minute with good form (I also can bring proper weights to work after hours as no one will be there to raise an eyebrow). I just wonder if this kind of training is as effective as the compressed version as I will still be progressively overloading every week, utilise better form and longer time under tension, and it will be good to do something every hour as osh ergonomics recommends but just be spreading it out over several hours.

  • Bob

    I’m thinking 3 intense sets on a body part which should take 5 mins with little rest time between. Then next hour another body part three sets.

  • Alizae Navarro

    I’m currently on a 12 days straight run. I am a doctor. I wake up at 0515 and get off anywhere from 6-7 pm. thats like 13 hours or so. I’ll do this for 7 days. followed by 10 hour days for the next five. i’m on day four in a row. I average 5000 steps a day, which doesn;t seem like much but man am i in pain. So even if i work out those first few days. by dt 8 or 9 i feel like i’m dying. I can’t control my schedule. My residency program does. I’ll get two days off after those 12 days in a row. At which point what i will do is sleep and cry and do the 12 days in a row all over again.

  • Whitney

    Hello! I work as an Emergency Room Doctor and work days, nights, weekends, holidays and sometimes even all back to back. Its always sad to me how we don’t take care of the health of our own workers. Its nice to see someone address how difficult it is when working all different times.

    However, I would say I would disagree with the diet being 90%. I would probably say my biggest issue is sleep. If i just worked a 24 hour shift, I can sleep but you’d be surprised how my body will only let me sleep 4-5 hours and then I can’t sleep more and have to do it again the next day. Even with sleep hygiene, I still struggle. It doesn’t help that I have a very random schedule.

    To anyone out there looking for amazing “i need to stay awake so i eat” snack my new favorite is carrots. You can eat tons guilt free and they are crunchy to keep you awake.

  • Nathan Figg

    Step 1 – Admit my excuses are my own. Fine, my thoughts, attitude and action are what will allow me to or keep me from my goals
    Step 2 – Ask for help rather than admit defeat. I work a crappy set of hours Tu-Th 2pm – 10pm and then Fri-Sat / Sat-Sun 10pm -6am. I also have the mindset (held over from being in school I guess) that you wake up and then go do your main thing (school or work). Everything else comes afterwards and that the before time is for sleeping. You can see where this causes problems right?

    How do i stick to a diet plan/meal schedule with such cockamamie hours? I tend to eat my main meal at mid shift. Through the week this isn’t any problem. Wake up at noon, lunch/dinner comes at 6pm. This will hold me over for the next 4 at work and leaves me 2 hours at home before the day rolls over and I have a fresh calorie budget to work off of. The problem comes on my weekend shifts. I usually sleep most of Friday day/afternoon to make the night shift transition. I still tend to eat my big meal at mid shift which in this case would be 2 am. THAT LEAVES ME 22 F$%KING HOURS to stretch out however many calories I have left for that day’s budget.

    (sigh) Sorry about that. Please help.