More than 15 million Americans work unconventional work schedules, such as evening shift, night shift, rotating shifts or other unique arrangements. For the on-call doctor, a scheduled spin class can be instantly knocked off the agenda by an emergency at the hospital. For the evening worker who clocks out at 6 a.m. after a 10-hour shift, hitting the sack might take priority over hitting the punching bag. And the server who’s on her feet waiting tables in a busy restaurant may not have much energy for exercise after closing time.
Despite the obvious hurdles, exercise is especially important for the health of those who work erratic schedules. "Exercise is more than just burning calories—it's a break from your daily routine, a chance to recharge and take your mind off your stressors," says Hannah Fleischman, owner of H & Arrow Fitness. "Plus, studies prove it boosts your immune system, speeds up your metabolism and helps prevent disease. It's also known to help participants cope with stress more effectively by lowering levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that makes your body store extra calories as fat."
Finding room for healthy living in a hectic work life might not be easy, but by introducing a few creative schedule tweaks and smart strategies, it is possible—and entirely worthwhile.
Keep a "safety box" of filling foods on hand.When you don’t work a standard nine-to-five schedule, you're most likely not eating at traditional meal times, which makes it a challenge to find healthier choices. Ken Immer, president of Culinary Health Solutions, suggests creating a stash of healthy, protein-packed foods that effectively reduce hunger and eliminate convenience snacking.
"Keep a 'safety box' of some filling foods in your car, at your desk or at another location where you can often feel trapped without any good choices," Immer recommends. "The box can contain foods like beef jerky, nuts, nut butter, apples or high-fiber bars. The key is to have single-serving amounts that you can grab as needed."
Prep meals on your days off.Preparation is the key to avoiding the temptation of takeout, convenience foods and break room treats. Alysha Coughler, coach and registered dietician at Build My Body Beautiful, suggests using your day off as a food prepping session.
"Cook healthy food in large batches and then pack a week's worth of lunches, dinners and snacks," recommends Coughler. "This plan not only saves time, but also prevents unscheduled trips to the vending machine or all-night drive-thru window if you work nights when healthy meals are harder to find."
For health coach Jill Ginsberg, Sunday is meal prep day. "All it takes is about 30 minutes of work to set yourself up for some serious healthy eating success for the rest of the week," she says. Ginsberg's four staples are to make a pot of whole grains, roast a pan of veggies, make one sauce or dressing, and create a mini "salad bar" in her fridge by marinating some kale or just using a bag of pre-washed lettuce, along with cherry tomatoes, shredded carrots, sliced peppers and cucumbers.
"After taking the time to gather those four things, you'll have a bunch of meals—including salads, burritos and grain bowls—at the ready," says Ginsberg. "Simply add the protein of your choice, like salmon, chicken or tofu, or dice up some avocado and toss in some beans."
Fuel up for your day, the right way.Personal trainer Tricia Brouk understands the challenges of a demanding schedule, but also stresses the importance of fueling with the right foods. When she gets up at 4:30 a.m. to work with three back-to-back clients, she needs to have enough energy to stay focused, but doesn't want to consume the entire morning’s worth of calories before 9:00.
"At that time of day, it’s important to eat something that can be digested easily, but that packs the biggest energy and nutrition punch," says Brouk. One of her morning staples is a small bowl of steel-cut oatmeal with five raw almonds, which gets her through those first three clients without weighing her down. And because that first breakfast is only 120 calories, she can consume another small meal later in the morning. "Not only does this stoke the metabolic fire to burn more calories, but it also keeps me from overeating at lunch."
Say yes to smoothies.For time-crunched shift workers, drinking a daily smoothie is one of the quickest, easiest ways to squeeze in the recommended servings of fruits and veggies. To make the process even faster, Ginsberg likes to prepare smoothie freezer packs in advance. She fills labeled baggies with the fruit and veggie ingredients for each smoothie and keeps the bags in the freezer.
"When you’re ready to make your smoothie, simply add your liquid to the base of the blender followed by the contents of the smoothie pack," Ginsberg says. "Blend until smooth, and you have a smoothie in seconds. Don’t forget to also add extras like seeds, nut butters, protein powder or spices."
Cut back on caffeine.It can be tempting to reach for the coffee or soda for a quick pick-me-up during sleep-deprived shifts, but that strategy could backfire, says Dr. Aaron Braun from SignatureCare Emergency Center.
"It’s easy to use caffeine as a crutch when working a strange schedule, but stopping intake a few hours before your shift ends will allow your body to wind down and relax properly when you get home," says Dr. Braun. "Caffeine can stay in the body for up to three to five hours, so timing your intake is a good way to have a healthy work-life balance."
Make traditionally "non-portable" foods more accessible.Soups and salads traditionally call for a sit-down meal, but when you're on call or on the clock, eating can be more of a vertical affair. That doesn't mean you can't still enjoy your favorite meals—you just have to find creative ways to repackage them.
Immer is a big fan of mason jar salads as an easy solution for grabbing greens on the go. He makes several ahead of time so he can grab one as he leaves the house. "Just a quick shake, and they're dressed and ready to eat wherever you might be."
For portable soups, Immer suggests using a large vacuum bottle to keep the contents hot for up to 12 hours. "It can be simple like miso soup, or just a bone broth to sip on during the day as a more filling beverage to keep hunger at bay."
When eating outside of a normal schedule, you can also enlist the help of friends or family to store leftovers from mealtime in to-go containers, since cooking a full dinner at midnight might wake up the rest of the house.
Embrace bodyweight exercises.When you can't get to the gym—or even to a hotel weight room—make the most of bodyweight exercises that you can do anywhere, sans equipment. "You can get a killer workout in just minutes by mixing together simple exercises like jumping jacks, burpees, mountain climbers, squats, sit ups and pushups," says Ginsberg. "When you get bored with those exercises, shuffle things up by adding a new one." Ginsberg prefers to write her routine on a mini whiteboard and hang it somewhere highly visible: "The more you see it, the more likely you are to do it!"
NASM-certified personal trainer Allan Misner is a big fan of the 20-second workout. He picks a few bodyweight exercises and does a set of 10 whenever he has a spare minute. "Over the course of a work shift, you could get a full-body workout, 20 seconds at a time."
Misner also recommends Tabata-style workouts, which involve doing an exercise at full pace for 20 seconds and then resting for 10 seconds, for eight rounds total. "Beyond the cardiovascular benefits of this high-intensity interval training style, you'll get your full workout done in just four minutes," he says.
When Brouk is on set for 14-hour days and can't get to the gym, she still sets aside 20 minutes to do this quick bodyweight routine three times through: 25 squats, 25 pushups (full or modified on knees), 25 bicycles and a forearm plank. "This mini-workout not only starts your metabolic engine, but also puts you in the right frame of mind to do an excellent job at work."
Get a healthy dose of realism.Even with the best of intentions, the medical worker who leaves the hospital at 6 a.m. may be hard-pressed to summon the energy for a pre-sunrise workout. Genevieve Malone, trainer and founder of The Inertia Project, has many clients who struggle to squeeze in exercise around unconventional work schedules. Above all, she encourages them to be honest with themselves.
"My lawyer client liked the idea of working out in the morning, but was always exhausted when she woke up, so her workouts suffered," Malone says. "We had an honest talk, and decided it was better to focus on doing the workouts after work. When she let go of her 'ideal vision' of those morning workouts, she was actually able to complete more workouts and see better results."
Incorporate exercise in creative ways.Unconventional schedules call for unconventional workouts. Exercise doesn't have to involve treadmills or dumbbells. Many of Malone's clients find creative ways to incorporate physical movement into their jam-packed workdays.
"One of my clients bikes to work because it takes the same amount of time as driving," she says. "Another babysits her niece and uses playtime with her as a fun way to work out. She even carries her on her back for added weight during squats and stair steps."
If your job involves extended sitting, such as at a late-night call center, there are plenty of exercises you can do at or around your desk while on the clock. Yoga instructor Alexis Novak offers these creative ideas:
- Oblique chair tilts: Sit on the edge of a chair, plant your feet firmly, sit up straight and engage your core. Tilt the body to the right and left by reaching your fingertips toward the ground.
- Wall sits: Find a wall, walk your feet about three feet forward, press your back firmly up against it and glide down until your knees are in line with your hips and your thighs are parallel with the ground. Engaging your core and glutes, hold and breathe for one minute with a 30-second break, and then repeat for four reps.
- Downward facing dog "runs": Take a downward facing dog pose. Alternate right and left heel lifts, hopping from side to side like an inverted run. Keep this cardio burst up for 45 seconds, then take a 15-second break. Repeat for three reps.
- Desktop heel lifts: Walk your hips up to the side of a desk. Elevate the heels as high as you can. Lower them to hover above the ground, re-elevate and repeat for 60 seconds. Adjust the feet to a little wider than hip distance and repeat. For the final set, brings the heels together and point the toes out, then repeat the raises.
Trade social media for movement.How many times a day do you scroll through your Facebook, Instagram or Twitter feed? If all of those minutes were spent exercising instead of e-socializing, they could add up to a significant calorie burn.
"Each time you find yourself scrolling through your social media accounts, do a set of squats or calf raises instead," recommends Jill Franklin, trainer and owner of Aerial Physique. Another option would be to do a little bartering: For every five minutes of Facebook, for example, commit to an equivalent amount of exercise.
Make meal prep part of your workout.You don't have to be at the gym, or even out on the sidewalk, to reap the benefits of movement. Fleischman encourages her clients to consider preparing meals as part of their workout.
"Think about the physical activity you do for cooking," she says. "Walking around the grocery store pushing your cart, loading and unloading your groceries, washing, cutting and cleaning the ingredients—and then the actual steps it takes to cook your meal and wash your dishes." Even if you pick up some healthy takeout, you're missing out on burning all those calories you would have spent cooking.
Make the first day back non-negotiable.If you know you'll have several days off in a row due to unavoidable work obligations, choose the day you'll resume the workouts and make that a 100 percent no-skip day, recommends Malone. "Having that day set beforehand prevents the familiar tug of 'I'll do it tomorrow' and then never getting back into the swing of things," she says.
From healthcare to hospitality to tech support, there are plenty of jobs that fall outside the traditional nine-to-five timetable. If your workday defies conventional schedules, you don't have to resign yourself to a life devoid of exercise or nutrition. By sneaking in some clever health hacks, you can maintain your physique without compromising your paycheck or your passion.