How to Exercise When You Work in Manual Labor

How to balance your workouts with your work life

Contractors looking at plans on a building site

 Jessie Casson / Getty Images

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 become a gym rat 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 your energy, strengthen your muscles, and improve your mobility.

Why Training Your Core Matters

Your core muscles, which include the abdominals, obliques, lower back, hip flexors, and glute medius and minimus (smaller glute muscles located at the side of the hip) are responsible for assisting in almost every daily activity. While on the job, these muscles work overtime to contract and 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 at any time. The following exercises can help keep the muscles around the spine strong and more resilient to injury. 

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

Cardiovascular Exercise for Heart Health

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, which helps to reduce blood pressure, improve blood sugar, reduce LDL cholesterol, improves sleep, and reducing feelings of stress. 

The Importance of Resistance Training

Strengthening the major muscles 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. That’s why Fishman says 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, you need to 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 bike riding, 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. 

Where you choose to exercise will depend on a variety of factors including, time, finances, and access to a gym or fitness facility. If the funds are not available to pay for a gym membership or getting to a facility is a challenge, you can get just as good of a workout at home. 

If you’re working out 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, the final component to include is 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. Examples of some dynamic stretches include:

  • Hip Swings
  • Gate Opener
  • Standing Trunk Rotations
  • Arm Circles

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

Experiment With Different Times of the Day

Fitness is definitely not a one-size-fits-all activity. When you work out should be based on the time of day 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, while others may need the adrenaline boost later in the day.

Finding the best 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 dial in your eating and 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 improve your 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 each night for optimal health depends on a lot of factors including, the varying degrees of difficulty of your work, how strenuous the tasks are, and your lifestyle. While you may not be able to pinpoint the exact amount of sleep you need each night, you can evaluate your sleep patterns based on the recommended range which suggests that adults ages 18-64 need seven to nine hours each night. This includes the minimum and maximum amount of hours of sleep required for optimal health.

A Note From Verywell

When it comes to balancing exercise with a physically demanding job, the main goal is to 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. And 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. 

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Article Sources

Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Dynamic Stretching: 6 Do’s and Don’ts. Cleveland Clinic. 2015.

  • Fishman, Ilya. Email interview. June 29, 2019. 

  • Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. n.d.

  • Sleep: The foundation for healthy habits. The Mayo Clinic. 2018.

  • The real-world benefits of strengthening your core. Harvard Health Publications. n.d.