Training for Shift Work: When is the Best Time to Work Out?

People’s schedules are all over the place now. Many people work non-traditional hours and, as a result, you likely have clients whose work schedule consists of shift work—either the “swing” shift (commonly 3 p.m. to 11 p.m.) or the night shift (commonly 11 p.m. to...

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People’s schedules are all over the place now. Many people work non-traditional hours and, as a result, you likely have clients whose work schedule consists of shift work—either the “swing” shift (commonly 3 p.m. to 11 p.m.) or the night shift (commonly 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. the next day).

What is the best time of day to work out for a client doing shift work? To make the correct determination, you and your client need to answer two critical questions:

  1. What is your client’s chronotype?
  2. How does exercise timing affect your client’s sleep?

What’s Your Chronotype?

Encouraging everyone to figure out if they are an early, normal or late chronotype is a great place to start answering the “best time to work out” question for shift workers.

  • Early chronotypes (“early risers”) typically are most comfortable waking up one to three hours before sunrise and have difficulty trying to stay up late.
  • Normal chronotypes typically prefer waking up within zero to two hours after sunrise.
  • Late chronotypes (“late risers”) are what we call “night owls” and prefer to stay up later and wake several hours after sunrise.

A late chronotype typically has the easiest time doing shift work; it is significantly more difficult for early chronotypes and can dramatically increase their risk for negative health effects, especially when working the night shift.

Sometimes the Early Bird Doesn’t Even Like Worms

A common yet terrible mistake we make in society is the attempt to force everyone to fit the mold of the “early chronotype.” We also inaccurately and mistakenly stereotype early risers as go-getters and late risers as lazy or unambitious. Optimally, everyone would be best served by setting a sleep-wake schedule that matches his or her chronotype. Thus, we need to collectively stop telling people to adopt a sleep-wake schedule that goes against their individual body preference. Many people are forced to adopt a schedule that is governed by outside factors, however, so we have to look at the next factor—exercise timing—to help figure out the best time for exercise, even for those who cannot follow a sleep schedule that matches their chronotype.

How Does Exercise Affect YOUR Sleep?

Here’s another common, one-size-fits-all piece of misinformation: It is best to avoid exercise at night or in the evening as it may keep you up. This is only true if it is true for you. If you have learned from experience that exercise cranks you up in the evening AND you’re doing a stimulating form of exercise like a dance class or high-intensity interval workout, then it may be best for you to exercise earlier in the day. If exercise instead helps you blow off steam and calm down afterward, then it is perfectly fine and even advisable to exercise in the evening.

Encourage your clients to listen the wisdom of their own bodies.

But What Do You Actually Recommend to Clients?

Clearly, this is not a simple and straightforward topic, but here’s how you can help your clients determine the best approach. First, you need to know if someone works the swing shift or night shift. Next, you need to know if exercise stimulates them (“Ex-Up” in table below) or calms them (“Ex-Down”). Lastly, you need to determine if the desire is to work out before or after going to work.

Key:

x Not Advisable

? Questionable – experiment to see if this works for the individual

* Advisable

Starting with the shift the individual works, look down the column for the appropriate chronotype and try the areas marked with a green dot. The client may also try the approaches marked with a yellow dot, if necessary. The ones marked with a red dot are unlikely to be a successful approach, but there are always people who don’t fit the mold. Try these as a last resort if nothing else has worked.

Swing Shift

Early Chronotype

Normal Chronotype

Late Chronotype

AFTER Work Workout

Ex-Up

X

x

X

Ex-Down

x

?

*

BEFORE Work Workout

Ex-Up

*

*

*

Ex-Down

?

*

*

Night Shift

Early Chronotype

Normal Chronotype

Late Chronotype

AFTER Work Workout

Ex-Up

?

?

?

Ex-Down

*

*

*

BEFORE Work Workout

Ex-Up

*

*

*

Ex-Down

X

*

*

Wrap-up

One-size-fits-all approaches will get it wrong more often than they get it right. Using this level of thoughtfulness and sophistication shows you care and that you are willing to look at all 24 hours of a client’s day to ensure his or her success with health and wellness.

Deliver the individualized programs people need to adopt long-term, healthy behaviors with ACE’s Personal Trainer Certification.

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