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Do you begin your work day when everyone else is hitting the hay and clock off as office workers file into cubicles? From health professionals to flight attendants, call centre employees and emergency service workers, an estimated 15 per cent of Aussie women work shifts and juggle topsy-turvy lives.

Shift workers who establish a regular exercise routine can benefit from improved sleep, better fitness and perhaps even alleviate some of the negative health consequences.

How exercise can benefit shift work

It is possible for shift workers to develop an exercise routine that allows for adequate sleep and some semblance of a social life. And the best bit is, hitting the gym regularly may reduce some of the negative health impacts of shift work.

“There’s not a lot of evidence but the theory is that some of the metabolic consequences of shift work could be alleviated by exercise,” says Dr Siobhan Banks from the Sleep Health Foundation.

“If you’re able to keep up an exercise program and keep active, those metabolic consequences we know coexist with sleep deprivation and shift work are likely to affect you less.”

Exercise before your shift

Ideally, exercise physiologist Esme Soan says it’s best to exercise before your shift.

“This makes exercise easier to commit to because you’re not too tired from work, and exercise actually fights stress and anxiety, improves your endurance, concentration and focus, and boosts your energy and mood. You may notice less fatigue while on the job and a better sleep when you get home to bed,” she says.

Moderate to high intensity strength or aerobic training activities that increase alertness, like resistance training, high-intensity interval training and group fitness classes are ideal choices. If you’re on an early shift, Soan says exercising after work in daylight hours may be a more practical option and recommends low to moderate intensity activities that will help you wind down before bed like swimming, cycling and yoga. 

Avoid exercise before bed

Importantly, Dr Banks says it’s best not to exercise right before you want to hit the sack. 

“If you exercise too close to sleep it has an arousing effect, so it will take you a while to wind down. If you finish a shift at 7am then exercise and think you’re going to be able to fall asleep at 9am, that will be difficult,” she says.

And even though it can be tempting to squeeze in a workout at 3am on your way home from work, be wary of prioritising exercise over sleep. 

“Make sure you sleep first rather than exercise. Some people might exercise and put off sleeping but getting good sleep, whether it’s during the day or night, is the most important thing. With 24-hour gyms, there’s nothing wrong with exercising at an unusual time as long as it fits with your body and your rhythms, and you’re not substituting exercise for sleep.”

From group fitness classes, to one-on-one time with a PT, find an exercise routine that works for you.