How to Exercise When You Work in Manual Labor

How to balance your workouts with your work life

Male worker loading cardboard boxes on forklift at distribution warehouse

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When the end of the day rolls around, the last thing a lot of people want to do is head to the gym. With the stress of the day, both physically and mentally, still occupying your mind and body, it can be challenging to shift your attention to working out, especially if you’ve spent the day working a physically demanding job. 

Two of the biggest obstacles facing anyone with a physically demanding job are time and energy. If you’re juggling a full day or work, family, and home obligations, squeezing in one more thing might seem out of the question. The good news? Some exercise is better than no exercise.

You don't have to exercise every day to benefit from working out. Even carving out two to three days a week for some type of physical activity outside of work can help boost energy, strengthen muscles, and improve mobility.

Strengthen Your Core

Your core muscles include the abdominals, obliques, lower back, hip flexors, and gluteus medius and minimus (smaller glute muscles located at the side of the hip). While on the job, these muscles assist with movements that involve bending, reaching, pulling, pushing and twisting. They also play a critical role in keeping your lower back free from injury, which is essential in a physically demanding job. 

Since this type of work often requires standing while doing a lot of twisting and lifting heavy loads, a strong midsection is necessary. Training your core does not require any equipment, so you can do it anywhere and anytime. These exercises can help keep the muscles around the spine strong and more resistant to injury.

If time and money permit, participate in a yoga or Pilates class. These workouts can help relieve some of the tightness in the hips and lower back that often happens as a result of carrying heavy loads. 

Strengthen Your Heart

Constant wear and tear on your body can cause aches and pains that interfere with your performance on the job. It also influences your decision to exercise at the end of a grueling day. That’s why finding the time and energy to balance fitness with a job that is tiring and demanding requires a realistic approach to working out. 

The guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommend that adults get a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week or 75-minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Additionally, the guidelines recommend including two or more days of muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups.

Cardiovascular or aerobic exercise such as running, swimming, cycling, or using cardio equipment at the gym can supplement your fitness routine, but it doesn’t need to be the main focus. If you’re covering a lot of ground at work, such as getting plenty of steps in, performing hours of cardio is not a good use of your time. 

Focus on getting in a few days of aerobic exercise in the form of sports or other physical activity that gets your heart pumping. This helps to reduce blood pressure, improve blood sugar, reduce LDL cholesterol, improve sleep, and reduce feelings of stress.

Strengthen Your Muscles

Strengthening the major muscle groups and smaller stabilizing muscles that help prevent injury should be your main focus when it comes to resistance training. “Manual labor jobs come with a certain amount of repetitive stress, and exercise often gets overlooked as a solution,” explains fitness trainer Ilya Fishman, owner of Notion Fitness. Many of these jobs cause a significant amount of stress on the muscles, bones, and joints.

“Strength or resistance exercise can counteract the stresses of a manual labor job,” says Fishman. The stronger and healthier your body is, the longer you will be able to complete tasks that require repetitive stress. The best way to prepare for that stress is to make your body stronger.

When it comes to structuring a workout schedule for strength training, balance the demands of your day with the physical requirements of performing strenuous physical activity. If you’re aiming for two to three days a week of exercise, consider using your off days from work to hit the gym.

For example, if you have the weekends off, designate Saturday as your core-strengthening and dynamic stretching day. You can even include a cardiovascular workout such as jogging, mountain biking, or participating in a recreational sport such as basketball, golf, or softball on the weekend. Then, reserve Sunday for one of your strength training workouts.

Perform full-body workouts that focus on major muscles groups such as the legs, glutes, back, chest, shoulders, arms, and core, two to three days a week on non-consecutive days. Depending on the physical requirements of your job, you may want to focus on moderate weight and repetitions rather than a higher weight and lower repetitions. Aim to complete two sets of 10 to 12 repetitions for each exercise. Helpful moves include:

Where you choose to exercise will depend on a variety of factors including, time, finances, and access to a gym or fitness facility. If getting to or paying for a gym is a challenge, you can get just as good of a workout at home. 

Consider investing in a set of resistance bands, dumbbells, or kettlebells. You can modify many resistance training exercises by using one of these portable fitness tools or simply using your body weight as resistance. Exercises like squats, push-ups, triceps dips, planks, and lunges can all be done in your living room at any time. 

Make Time to Stretch

To round out your overall fitness routine, don't forget stretching. There are two types of stretching: dynamic and static. Dynamic stretching is typically done at the beginning of a workout, since it helps increase blood flow, loosens up muscles and joints, and warms up the body for physical activity. Static stretching is often part of a cool-down at the end of your workout since your body is warm. Dynamic stretches include:

  • Hip swings
  • Gate openers
  • Standing trunk rotations
  • Arm circles

In addition to stretching before and after a workout, carving out 15 minutes, two to three days a week, for low-back stretches can make a significant difference in your daily activity by reducing low-back pain. Try:

When to Work Out

Fitness is definitely not a one-size-fits-all activity. When you work out should be based on the time of day that your body feels the best and you’re mentally ready to tackle a workout. For some people, this could be early in the morning before heading to work. Others may need the adrenaline boost later in the day.

Finding the time that works for you will require some experimenting. That said, make sure to stick with a schedule for at least a week before deciding it is not going to work. This will give you enough time to let your body adjust to a different routine. 

The Importance of Sleep

Getting enough sleep each night is essential for all of us. Not only does a restful night of quality shut-eye recharge your batteries, but it can also improve concentration, productivity, and immune function. If you’re giving it your all for eight to 10 hours a day at work and finding time to squeeze a workout in, then getting adequate rest at night is a priority. 

How much sleep you need for optimal health depends on a lot of factors including how strenuous your work tasks are and your lifestyle. Most adults ages 18-64 need seven to nine hours of sleep each night. This includes the minimum and maximum amount of hours of sleep required for optimal health.

A Word From Verywell

To balance exercise with a physically demanding job, modify your training so that it’s compatible with your working life. Finding physical activities that you enjoy and look forward to doing before or after work is critical to your success in maintaining a fitness routine. As always, if you feel pain or discomfort while working out, stop what you’re doing. If the pain continues, see your doctor or healthcare provider. 

9 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sara Lindberg
Sara Lindberg, M.Ed., is a freelance writer focusing on health, fitness, nutrition, parenting, and mental health.