Working the Night Shift? Exercise Might Help You Adjust

night shift weight loss

“Any advice on beating a night shift’s effects on the body with exercise?” This is a question we recently received and it’s a great one.

The truth is, unless you’re a natural night owl, “shift work” will inevitably rough you up. It’s hard on your body. Few people ever fully adapt to a schedule that conflicts with their natural circadian rhythms. I’m a night owl and for years I worked 4:45 AM to 1 PM,  the opposite of my ideal time. I never got used to it.

If you’re struggling with an odd schedule, hopefully it’s a short-term gig. In the meantime, there are ways to help your body adjust to shift work, and exercise is definitely one of them.

Exercise Helps Everything

Exercise strengthens the body so that it can withstand demanding circumstances like working in the middle of the night. Regular workouts like the ones John Romaniello, New York’s premier trainer, teaches in Final Phase Fat Loss will give you a stronger immune system, improved alertness, and adequate energy, all of which are very important in the life of a shift worker.

It’s not easy to get quality sleep when your shift’s up and so is the sun, so here’s another reason exercise will help your body handle the graveyard shift: you’ll sleep better. If you exercise regularly (enough to wear yourself out), you have a better chance of conking out quickly and getting a solid night’s rest.

Just don’t exercise within a few hours of bedtime or you may be too wired to sleep. If you can, work out before your shift. That will improve your alertness, too, so you can guzzle one less cup of Joe!

Why you need to get quality ZZZs

Most adults require upwards of 7 or 8 hours of sleep every night but few get it. Losing an hour here and there does make a difference. The National Institutes of Health found that even modest daily reductions in sleep can build up to cause sleep debt, which we know can hack away at our health, happiness, and productivity.

The NIH has an informative article about the nature of sleep and how to prevent sleep disorders, which night workers often suffer from. And no, they say, you can’t buy back sleep hours on the weekend!

Don’t Let Your Diet Go Down the Toilet

“Working nights is unnatural, stressful, and makes you prone to weight gain,” says fitness blogger Jo on Cranky Fitness, adding a joke: “What’s the difference between a night nurse and an elephant? About ten pounds.”

Because many of you are working solo and can’t leave your post, it’s tough to keep a healthy diet. Even if you do get a break, what’s open for a healthy meal? You can’t exactly drive to your nearest Whole Foods at 2 a.m.

Instead of joining the Taco Bell “fourth meal” crowd in the wee hours of the night, it’s really important to pack a cooler filled with healthy foods. Dipping into these smart night shift meals and snacks every few hours will keep your metabolism and energy up. Fast food won’t.

If you would like to reverse the effect of bad nutrition you might want to take aggressive action and learn the newest in cutting edge fat loss nutrition. Mike Roussell has created a program for turning your body into a fat burning machine to get you to your ideal shape.

Red Bull is No Cure-all

Go easy on the caffeine, night workers. If you use it to fuel your way through your shift, you’re going to have a tough ridiculous time getting to sleep when you get home. This I know from experience. Not only that, but you’re likely to crash toward the end of your shift.

What works for me is having one caffeinated drink at the start or during my shift, then switching to decaf and using other tried-and-trusted tricks to stay awake: running around, crunching an apple, cranking the A/C… or Motorhead.

Reset Your Bedtime

While our unique circadian rhythms are a product of nature, they also take cues from outside factors. That means you can alter your sleep clock to an extent. Three ways:

  1. Trick your body into thinking it’s daytime/nighttime. Indoor light has a similar effect to sunlight, so keep the lights bright when it’s your awake time. When it’s time to go to bed, make sure your room is pitch black (or get a comfortable eye mask. Ever since I started sleeping with one, I fall asleep in seconds instead of hours).
  2. Be consistent in your sleep patterns and daily habits. In a fun article called The Truth Behind Night Owls and Morning People, Brie Cadman recommends going to bed at the same time every night (or morning). This will not only help you sleep better,” she says, “it can help shift your clock to an earlier (or later) bedtime.” Don’t resort to catching up on sleep on the weekends; it doesn’t work, and it will derail your whole effort to get on the night shift schedule.
  3. Avoid eating, drinking, or exercising before bed. All of these things will keep you wide awake. Caffeine and alcohol before bed can also cause you to wake up mid-slumber. Peel your eyes away from the TV and computer an hour before bed, too: the light emanating from the screens has been shown to have the same effect on your brain as natural light, sending cues that it’s time to wake up. (This interesting phenomenon is worth a read.)

Exercise and a healthy diet are especially important for shift workers. Treat your body right so you can withstand the challenge… until you find a job that corresponds with your body clock!

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Chelsea Bush

About Chelsea Bush

Chelsea Bush is a writer on the Ask Fitness Coach team and has covered fitness, health and wellness topics for several magazines. Her favorite ways to get fit: cycling, resistance training and keeping up with her boxer, Greta. Follow her fitness tweets at