How do Nurses Manage 12 Hour Shifts

Nurses work long hours and have very demanding jobs, making it hard to manage a healthy exercise and eating plan. We preach healthy eating and exercise habits to our patients, but do we practice what we preach? What’s the best way to stay fit on 12 hour shifts?

So Nursing seems like the perfect fit for you. You can make a difference. You thrive in a fast-paced environment. You’re not squeamish, and you love caring for people. There’s just one problem—you’re not sure if you’re up for the 12-hour shift schedules many nurses work.

There are definitely challenges to this kind of schedule. You’ve seen the tired eye-bags and the comically large coffee cups. But you’ve also heard how great it can be—how much you can travel, volunteer and spend time with family on your days off.

If you’re trying to decide whether 12-hour shifts are a deal-breaker, look no further. We talked to those who’ve done it before, and they explained the ups, downs and tips for making the most of it.

But first, you might have some questions about how 12-hour shifts even work for a weekly schedule. A look at the anatomy of a typical week with this kind of schedule might provide some helpful context.

Best Way to Stay Fit on 12 Hour Shift

  1. Decide what time of the day you want to exercise.

Some people have enough energy to work out on the days they work, and others may need to workout on their days off. Decide if you are a morning workout person or an evening workout person. When I trained for half-marathons I found early morning runs were the best for me. I even ran before a 12 hour shift sometimes! Now that I’m a full-time grad student, work, and have clinicals 3-4 days a week, I’m more into the evening workouts. Either way, whatever works for you stick with it!

  1. Find something you enjoy doing and be consistent.

Exercise doesn’t have to be hardcore like the CrossFit or Insanity workout routines, but be sure to work up a sweat. Take your dog out on a long walk, participate in a Zumba class, or go outside and play with your kids. Make exercise fun and you won’t even realize you’re doing something healthy! As long as you are active 3-4 days a week you’ll reap the benefits of regular exercise.

  1. Stay well hydrated throughout your day.

If you’re anything like me you’ve probably had a few shifts where you don’t have time to drink, let alone pee during your shift. Make a few quick runs to the break room throughout the day to get a drink whenever you can. I’ve found that I do well with drinking a bottle of water before my shift begins, one at lunch, and one in the afternoon. That’s nowhere close to what I drink on my days off, but I don’t end my shift feeling completely dehydrated. Aim to get your weight in kilograms in ounces of water (e.g., A 60kg woman should drink 60 ounces of water daily).

  1. Pack your lunch and resist the goodies at the nurse’s station.

I’ve come to realize the food I bring from home is way healthier (and cheaper!) than the food offered in the cafeteria most days. In addition, if you stash something to snack on in your pocket like peanut butter crackers you’re less likely to grab that cookie Mrs. Smith’s family brought in for the staff that day. Believe me—eating every treat someone brings to the nurse’s station can add serious weight if you’re not careful.

  1. Get plenty of sleep to recharge and de-stress.

I know it’s hard to get a full 8 hours of sleep when you work 12+ on the days you work, but aim for at least 7 hours. Studies have linked lack of sleep to weight gain because of the ghrelin/leptin hormone imbalance. Ghrelin is the hormone that tells you when to eat and leptin is the hormone that tells you when to stop eating. When you’re sleep deprived your body produces more ghrelin and you may be more prone to grabbing a sweet treat for a quick energy boost, which eventually leads to weight gain.

  1. Get Yourself Organized

It may come as no surprise that working 3,12-hour shifts in a row doesn’t leave much time for well, anything.

You’re not only away from your family and friends for a solid three days, which can feel socially isolating, but you can’t get any of your jobs done quickly.

Why? The shops are closed, the call centers you need to contact to fix your issues close at 6 pm and you don’t finish till 7 pm and your friends don’t work your crazy schedule.

Instead of getting caught up or sad about this stuff, make time to do the important things before you start.

Here is where I would begin:

  • Run your errands.
    Take in your dry cleaning, visit the bank (if you need the teller and it can’t be sorted out online), pay the bills (again if you have an issue you need to discuss) etc. Don’t put this stuff off because there is unlikely a 24-hour option for these services.
  • Straighten up around the house.
    Get out the vacuum and fill the mop bucket. Spend some time doing the housework to give yourself (and your family) a clean space to come home to. These mundane jobs usually get put on the back burner while you’re working, so lighten the load for later and do a bit now. It’s funny what a clean house can do to your headspace.
  • Minimalize your stuff.
    I recently watched an amazing documentary about minimalizing your life, your clothes, furniture and nick-nacks… When working 12-hour shifts, don’t clutter your brain with stuff you don’t use or need. It may be time for a clean out and man it can be SO refreshing!
  • Hitting the grocery store and getting organized socially
    We dive into in much more detail later in this post.


The disadvantages of working 12-hour shift schedules

Every job has its disadvantages, but as a nurse, they can range from inconvenient to just plain dangerous if you don’t manage them well. As you consider these points, take an honest inventory of your ability to navigate them.


Depending on whether you work day shift, night shift, or a rotating schedule, you may be more or less fatigued but fatigued none the less. Your feet will get sore, your body will ache, and by the end of the shift you’re probably not going to be up for much mental strain. If you’re working overnight shifts, you may also have trouble getting your sleep schedule adjusted—and the cumulative effects can be rough.

Long-term health risks

When you are working for 12 hours there is often little time before, during and after your shifts to eat healthy meals or exercise properly. This combined with fatigue and other adverse factors can result in some serious health risks including depression, anxiety and insomnia.

Nurses working these shifts should make a conscious effort to carve out time for self-care—perfectly healthy choices might not always be feasible on a shift day, so do your best to counterbalance it on off days.

Impact on your social life

Even if you love the schedule, having your days off fall in the middle of the week while most people are working traditional schedules means sometimes you’ll have limited windows of time to spend with others. Additionally, working at 24/7 healthcare facilities means you’re going to be scheduled for holidays and other times of the year where you may traditionally get to see family and friends—so you may have to make some compromises.

Increased potential for errors

While fewer handoffs may reduce errors related to miscommunication, working longer shifts can also increase errors related to fatigue. A study by Health Affairs found that nurses were three times more likely to make a mistake when working 12.5-hour shifts or longer.

Erickson admits, “I really feel like care isn’t as good in hour 11 as it was in hour three.” While there are things hospitals can do to reduce these errors, mistakes are inevitable. This uncertainty can be one of the most difficult aspects of nursing.

Small changes in your lifestyle can make a world of difference when you consistently incorporate them. These are just a few ways to keep fit while working 12 hour shifts. Take care of yourself so you can lead by example.


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