3 Unhealthy Habits of Police and Fire Shift Work (and How to Break Them)

Here are three of the most unhealthy habits for shift workers and how you can start making healthy changes today.

“I don’t have any time.”

“I’m too tired after work to workout.”

“I can never get on a consistent schedule.”

We’ve all heard these excuses for not going to the gym. At some point, as members of law enforcement or firefighters, we might have even used one or two ourselves (okay, probably all of them).

Actually, let’s do a quick exercise and don’t give me any excuses. There are only two exercises in this whole workout, so just follow me step by step here.

Warm Up

Clear your mind.

First Exercise

Answer the question: How many times have you been to the gym this month and when was the last time you went?

Second Exercise

Admit you have a problem.


Prepare for a change.

Now I know it’s hard. Trust me, I know. That feeling that you get as your shift comes to an end and you feel like you got hit with a ton of bricks, when the only reps you intend on doing are a superset of snores and pillow drools – I know that feeling. And I know the gym is actually the last thing on your mind. But you’re okay with this, and you brush off exercising because you know you’ll get around to it soon enough.

But it’s not okay, and if you don’t admit that you’re in this cycle, then you’ll never make a conscious effort to get out of it. Nobody is above the law when it comes to breaking bad habits – not even you officer.

How to Break the Cycle of Bad Habits

The key to getting out of this unhealthy cycle is to slowly break some of these bad habits that come with the nature of the job. Below I’ve outlined three of the most common unhealthy habits for police officers and firefighters and how you can start making healthy changes today.

Bad Habit #1: Insufficient Sleep

Long shifts and restless nights can adversely affect your decision-making processes, resulting in impulsive behaviors that could be dangerous on the job. It can also lead to depression, lower testosterone, weight gain, forgetfulness, and heart disease.

This is by far the hardest thing to fix, and to be honest you can go your whole career and never know what a good night’s sleep is. My dad worked the midnight shift for 25 years and he still hasn’t adjusted to a normal sleep schedule. Here are some tips you can try:

Be consistent. No matter how obscure the time of day that you go to sleep, be consistent with it. You cannot go to bed after a midnight shift one day, then the next day sleep right before you go in. As unorthodox as your schedule may be, if you’re consistent, then your body will eventually adjust.

Flip it. If you’re working the midnight shift then you have to try your best to reverse your schedule. So for a normal 12:00pm-8:00am shift I would suggest waking up at 10:30pm to go to work and not sleeping until 4:00pm (at the latest) upon returning from work.

Smart napping. Naps can be a great way to recharge, but you have to be smart about them so you can stay on schedule with your natural sleep-wake rhythm. A nap is not three or four hours long. That’s called a bad nights sleep. Avoid that at all costs. I’ve found twenty to thirty minute naps throughout the day are the best.

Blackout curtains and noise. If you have to sleep during the day, then be sure to invest in blackout curtains to block out any sunlight. Since it’s daytime and people are going about their day, dogs are barking and neighbors are being loud. it can pose a real threat to your rest. Try masking the sounds with a fan, using earplugs, or listening to the smooth sounds of the oceans waves crashing at the shoreline with one of those machines. But do whatever you need to do to avoid all noise and light during the day.

Bad Habit #2: Too Much of the Wrong Food

Second helpings of meals are commonplace in the firehouse. Actually, I’ve never heard someone say the words, “Nobody can have more then one helping.” And if you’re not eating in, then you are most likely ordering out. This not only limits your healthy choices, but also makes that little part of your brain that separates what is right from wrong give in to temptation. Here are some tips for changing your eating habits:

Pack your meals. By bringing your food for the day you will know exactly what’s going into your mouth, control the portion size, be able to track everything, avoid temptation, and save money.

One dish, then sink. For the days that you are not packing your meals, eat one plate of food and that’s it.

Zero snack policy. Unless it’s healthy, i.e. unsalted almonds, fruit, etc., avoid munching on a handful of snacks (even if they’re whole wheat pretzels).

Food log. You can download an app like MyFitnessPal and actually keep track of all the calories that you’re eating during the day. You can’t manage what you don’t measure so start plugging in the meals.

Bad Habit #3: Not Turning Up

The most important thing with logging workouts is just that – actually going to the gym and getting in a workout. Remember the exercise we did earlier in this article? Let’s revisit it: if you can get your butt into the gym three times a week, you’re moving when you go, and you’re doing that consistently, then I have to take a moment to applaud your persistence. I seriously respect your efforts and my only advice to you is to keep at it. If not, and you are one of these people paying for a gym membership and never going, then let’s revisit some of the basics:

Log monthly, not weekly. A trick I’ve found to be successful, especially with a revolving schedule, is to aim for a number of workouts for the month not the week. Instead of saying, “I’m going to go to the gym three times a week,” aim for twelve times a month. This way you don’t get down on yourself for not hitting your goal, since you can make up for it the following week.

Schedule. Just like your sleep schedule, be consistent with the time of the day you are working out. If going to the gym as soon as your shift ends works best, then perfect – stick with it and do not change that for anything.

Full Body. The fewer workouts that you’re able to log during the month, the more muscles you should be working during each training session. Do not go to the gym once a week and only do arms, please. Make it count.

Changing a habit is not easy. You will be met with resistance from your colleagues, your peers, your family, and even yourself. Start small, focus on one habit at a time, write it down, make it public (tell people), make it realistic, make it quantifiable, track it, identify all obstacles, ask for help, positive self-talk, outline strategies to overcome the urge, and most importantly reward yourself.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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