There are some people who swear by early morning workouts. If they are not working up a sweat by sunrise, they feel like it throws off their whole day. Others are just happy to find any 20 or 30-minute window to squeeze in some exercise between their job, family responsibilities and household tasks. But is there research that points to a specific optimal time of day to maximize the benefits of a workout?
The answer is yes - but it depends on your workout goal. Dr. Angela Seabright, care management physician for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, recently spoke to A Healthier Michigan podcast about optimizing your exercise routine depending on the results a person is focused on.
Morning and afternoon workouts
One part of this answer hinges on the circadian rhythm, Seabright said. This is our body’s internal clock, which essentially runs in the background of our lives and controls biological functions like wakefulness and sleep. It turns out, exercising in the mornings supports our circadian rhythm because it promotes wakefulness.
“Some studies show that morning exercise can promote more fat burn and weight loss. … You're truly in sync with your natural clock, which means you're probably going to go to bed earlier and you're just going to have that healthy sleep-wake cycle,” Seabright said. “On the flip side, afternoon workouts actually show that you might have more endurance and that's thanks to our body's natural rhythm.”
This is because our body’s core temperature is higher later in the day, which when paired with a workout will give your muscles the feel of more energy and power. “You may be able to lift a little bit more, you may be able to run an extra lap. They've actually done studies on athletes that show greater athletic performance in the afternoon,” she said.
Personal preference matters
There’s another piece to this morning vs. afternoon question, and that’s how each person is wired. Individual preference can be a big driver for a successful workout. So if you’re an early bird, a 6 a.m. alarm as a morning workout reminder probably won’t bother you. If you’re a night owl, you might be hitting your workout zen as the sun goes down.
“It also depends on your age and underlying health conditions,” Seabright said. “You've got to think maybe someone with diabetes who's on insulin, they probably wouldn't want to exercise on an empty stomach first thing in the morning due to risks of hypoglycemia or low blood sugar. I think the takeaway is that it's highly individualized.”
Seabright said learning to listen to your body is important when it comes to finding the best workout time for you. She encourages people to think about how they feel during and after exercise. “If it doesn’t feel right, then you might want to adjust and tweak it a little bit.”
Tips for finding your best workout times:
- For evening workouts, try to avoid high-intensity activity within one hour of your bedtime. This will give your body adequate time to cool down and prepare for sleep.
- Sometimes restorative exercises like yoga or tai chi might work better closer to bedtime.
- If you notice you are having trouble falling asleep after a late-day workout, dial back the intensity next time to make sleep easier to achieve.
- Workouts do not have to be in one continuous session. Try smaller bursts of time: a morning brisk walk, an afternoon bike ride, some strength training after dinner. The smaller bursts can have just as much benefit as one continuous exercise, Seabright said.
- Stick to exercise forms that you enjoy. Don’t feel like you have to jump into the latest workout craze if you don’t like it. Creating a workout routine you look forward to - and will stick to - is what’s important.
Listen to the podcast, Is There an Optimal Time to Work Out? to hear the entire conversation. A Healthier Michigan Podcast is brought to you by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.
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