“I’m so sorry, I just can’t work out today,” a client says mournfully into my voicemail. “I got too little sleep this week and got sick.”
As a fitness trainer, I’ve worked with every kind of person with every kind of work schedule. I’ve found that the clients who get sick most often are the ones who aren’t protecting their health with regular sleep habits. For my shift nurses, it’s not as easy as saying, “Get more sleep.” I’ve had RN clients who go for 12 hours on, then two days off, then five days in a row of evening shifts.
Nurses on this schedule rarely get a full eight hours of sleep at a stretch. When the rest of the family is getting up at morning light, my clients will likely awaken as well. Some who work evening shifts have even resorted to sleeping in two shifts—for example, sleeping from 2 a.m. to 6 or 7 a.m., then doing errands and chores until they’re worn out by about 1 or 2 p.m., taking a quick nap, then picking up the kids at school and getting ready for work.
I tell them that leading a life like this is a recipe for disaster. You prop yourself up until you can’t function anymore, collapse into slumber and wake in a hurry to get moving. Your immune system steadily weakens because you’re not getting proper rest and recovery. And on top of that, you’re walking into a work environment full of SICK PEOPLE!
Below, I’ve outlined the sleep recommendations I suggest to my clients who are nurses or other shift workers. The ones who have adopted this advice have noticed considerable improvement in their energy and overall health.
- Eat the day’s final meal as soon as possible on arrival home after your shift (e.g., by 1 a.m. if you’re off at midnight).
- Start winding down as soon as possible, keep lights low and start getting into the mood for downtime.
- Go to bed (even if you’re still a little wound up, practice setting a specific bed time) within one to two hours after you eat (e.g., 3 a.m.).
- Because proper sleep is generally estimated to occur in 90-minute cycles that repeat throughout the normal “night’s” sleep, schedule your sleep segment length around these 90-minute cycles to maximize your sleep effectiveness.
- Try to get at least six solid hours of sleep (four sleep cycles). Ideally, you’ll get seven and a half hours (five sleep cycles) to nine hours (six sleep cycles). As you know, these cycles are a progression from light to deep to REM sleep.
- If you can’t get six hours in, then schedule at least four and a half hours and wake up after that. The point is, keep yourself inside the regular sleep cycles so you feel more rested when you wake and aren’t interrupting either deep sleep (which can leave you groggy) or REM sleep (which can leave you irritable and unfocused). So, if you go to bed at 3 a.m., you should wake up at 7:30 a.m., 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m. or noon.
- When you wake up, have your “break the fast” meal and get started on the things you have to do, including packing your “lunch” for work. Schedule a meal three hours later and a snack just before nap time.
- Schedule a nap before you head to work, but keep that to either a power nap (no REM cycle) of 30 minutes if you’ve had at least six hours of sleep, or one sleep cycle (90 minutes) if you’ve had less.
Editor’s Note: This article’s title has been changed from “night” nurse to “evening” nurse thanks to one of our readers who alerted us that the terminology was incorrect. We DO read your comments, and thank you!