Exercise has a lot of benefits beyond burning calories. A good workout helps us manage stress, balance hormones, increase bone density and tone muscle. Most of us workout at a time that suits our schedule. But if you really want to get down to the nitty gritty of fitness, there is actually a best time to exercise, depending on what it is you do!
The Best Time to Exercise
When I was in college, I had a bunch of friends who were involved in athletics. Every single day, Monday through Friday, all of the athletic teams would meet at 6am for sports conditioning. While they were working out, I was catching Zs, opting for a later afternoon workout. Sure, I could have gotten up to go for a run early in the morning, but why? I felt I needed sleep, and our school's fitness center was open all day. I was happy with coming home from class to do my own little workout.
Funny how things change. The best time for me to exercise is actually considerably earlier than it used to be - but that's purely based on convenience, not physically or physiologically. I tend to fluctuate between 5am and 9am.
If we took convenience out of the mix, when is the best time for our body to exercise?
Is there a benefit to working out earlier in the morning versus later at night? Or vice versa?
Yes! There is. And it's pretty interesting.
Turns out our body can make workouts feel easier or harder. And our muscles might respond differently whether we exercise in the morning, afternoon or evening.
Of course, most of us workout at a time when it's practical for us (myself included). But if you have flexibility in your schedule and want to test some of the research behind these points, then maybe it's time for you to shift the time of day you work up a sweat.
The Benefits of Morning Workouts
Sleep seems to show significant improvements for people who exercise in the morning versus much later in the day. This makes sense as cortisol, our stress hormone, peaks durning the early morning hours and slowly tapers off toward the end of the day, allowing us to get a restful night of sleep.
Exercise naturally increases cortisol quite a bit. Working out too late in the day, from early evening to late at night, can make it difficult to unwind and relax in the evening. Our nervous system is all wound up and some people might find it hard to get some shuteye.
If you're already have a tough time getting to sleep, then exercising in the morning is probably the best time for you.
Another great benefit to morning exercise is blood sugar regulation - or insulin control. A study done on diabetics found that those who exercised in the morning versus evening were significantly less likely to have problems with hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar.
This is something to consider if you're living diabetes or are pre-diabetic. Again, this study showed compelling results. If you can control your blood sugar levels better throughout the day and the days to come by working out earlier in the morning - then do that!
Another appealing benefit to working out in the morning is that our muscular strength tends to be a little better. A study of 80 sedentary women showed that those who exercised at 6:00am versus 6:00pm had significantly greater muscle strength.
What does this say for you? If you're going into the gym to strength train, then it might be easier for you to do that in the earlier hours of the day.
Morning Exercise Benefits Recap:
- Improved Sleep
- Better Blood Sugar Regulation
- Greater Muscular Strength
The Benefits of Afternoon Workouts
Probably one of the nicest benefits of afternoon workouts is that our body temperature peaks at its highest temperature of the day, having an effect on our muscles and joints. Our bodies have essentially warmed up (but it's still a good idea to do a traditional warm up for a few minutes before working out).
When our body temperature is higher, our athletic performance tends to peak and we're less prone to injury. A part of this could be because our body uses the fuel in our body more efficiently at this time of day. Provided we didn't eat just before we came into the gym, our stomach should be empty enough for a comfortable workout, but our liver should have plenty of sugar available to keep us flying.
Read more if you want to know what you should eat before and after a workout.
Working out in the afternoon also gives enough time for our brain to start winding down before going to bed, so it won't affect a good night of sleep as much as an evening workout.
Afternoon Exercise Benefits Recap:
- Body is Naturally Warmed Up
- Athletic Performance Peaked
- Not Too Late to Sleep Well
Benefits of Evening Workouts
After reading the benefits of morning and afternoon workouts, you might just assume the best time to exercise is definitely not in the evening. Just wait! Good stuff can happen as the day comes to an end, too!
It's true that working out at night can disrupt your sleep, so try to schedule your workouts as early as what's practical for you. That said, if you're doing a cardio workout in the evening, you'll be happy to know that your aerobics endurance peaks, making it easier for you to run that extra mile or swim a few extra laps.
Take advantage of this! If you feel like you can go an extra five minutes, turn up the intensity and really try to get your heart rate up while you feel good. Endurance can be fleeting, especially toward the end of a workout. When you feel good - just keep going.
If you're workout is more technical in nature, take heart in knowing that reaction times peak with workouts that are later, too. This may not be as impressive if you're workout consists of a run on a treadmill or elliptical, but if you're planning a more involved Crossfit, TRX or HIIT workout, this could be hugely beneficial.
If you workout later in the evening, don't make the mistake of eating too much afterward. Not only will the food sit in your gut too long overnight, but it will also impact your sleep and the release of your body's human growth hormone that helps create muscle.
Evening Exercise Benefits Recap:
- Aerobic Endurance Peaks
- Reaction Times Peak
How Your Body Adapts
It turns out that regardless of when you decide to workout, consistency is the key. Consistency in the time of day that you workout creates adaptation, meaning that your body will reap all the benefits of exercise as long as you do it regularly and around the same time of day.
If you're starting a running program, for example, head out for your runs during the same timeframe day after day - regardless if it's morning, noon or night.
Similarly, if you're looking for muscle gains, your body will adapt to a strength training routine in the same fashion.
All in all, it takes bout 16 weeks for your body to truly adapt to both the time and the function of what you're doing, so stick with it. You'll see and feel a difference with consistency.
Bottom line: The best time to exercise is the most regular and consistent time for your body.
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