Exercise and the 12-Hour Shift Dilemma

By Alice Burron on Thu, Sep 22, 2011

If you are a nurse working a 12-hour shift, day or night, you most likely struggle with finding the time to exercise.  Developing a fitness program is just as important for you, if not more so, since exercise will help off-set factors that nurses who work 12-hour shifts, particularly night-shifts, struggle with.  These factors, such as poor eating habits, interrupted circadian rhythms and hormones levels, and disrupted digestive systems, can lead to weight gain.

Finding a workout schedule that fits the typical 12-hour shift can be tricky.  Here are seven recommendations that will assist you when trying to accommodate both exercise and work.

1.  Do something.  One of the biggest health risks is doing nothing at all.  No matter what shift you work, lack of physical activity increases your disease risk, leads to a lower quality of life, and may shorten your life span.

2.  Try to include flexibility, cardiovascular and strength training.  Exercise most days of the week, and include strength training two to three of those days, and be sure to stretch before and after workouts.  In a perfect world, it would be ideal to exercise for 60 minutes daily, however 30 minutes can be very beneficial.  If even 30 minutes seems unrealistic, make a concerted effort to be active every day and even this activity will still help to keep you at a healthy weight, looking better and feeling better.

3.  Space it out.  Try to give yourself at least two hours, preferably three, between a vigorous workout and when you sleep.  A low-intensity exercise program such as stretching or yoga before bed, however, may actually help you wind down from a shift.

4.  Journal.  Tracking what you eat and when you exercise, as well as quality and quantity of sleep, can help you discern if an eating, sleeping or an exercise routine is to blame for different struggles such as weight gain or poor sleep.  I also recommend journaling how you feel at the same time throughout your day (or night as the case may be), several times a day or night until you find a routine that works for you.  Notice if low moods correlate with blood sugar lows associated with processed foods, natural sleep rhythm struggles or lack of exercise or activity.  Look for cause and effect relations within one or two hours of each other.  For example, if you struggle with poor sleep following a shift and exercised over three hours prior to sleeping, most likely your poor sleep is caused by another factor and not the exercise. 

5.  Treat your struggles like an experiment.  Experiment with one factor at a time and see if your struggle improves.  For example, if you notice you are sleepy at the same time during a shift, try eating something different during the prior meal.  If that doesn’t help, then do another experiment and try taking a short walk one hour before the sleepy time.  You’ll be amazed at how much you learn about yourself and how your body responds to different situations.

6.  Keep options open.  Being resourceful and clever is one of a nurse’s greatest attributes.  Find ways to sneak exercise in throughout a shift if all other options fail.  Some ideas include using a pedometer to track 10,000 steps during your shift instead of doing cardio training, or making breaks your workout time by walking the stairs or using an exercise band.  If exercise seems impossible with the demands of the 12-hour shift, refocus your efforts on what you eat instead.  If you eat healthy foods and focus on keeping your caloric intake in a range where you maintain a healthy weight, then you also benefit with increased energy and lower risk for disease.

7.  Don’t compromise.  Once you have your exercise time and routine figured out, guard it with your life.

8.  Reward yourself.  If you find a routine that works well, give yourself a reward.  Positive reinforcement will keep you motivated to continue that routine.

Think of the 12-hour shift as a positive challenge to stay fit and healthy.  Don’t forget to share your success with me!

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3 COMMENTS

Anonymous 3 years ago

Ideal to wait 2 hrs between exercise and sleep...how do we do that? I'm lucky to come home, drop into bed and get up in time to shower and get ready for work again. Definitely a challenge!


Anonymous 3 years ago

i agree with ani, I work 3 12's but including travel time it is about 15 hrs/day


Anonymous 3 years ago

I would call it a challenge, rather than an excuse......