Exercising at night vs. exercising in the morning

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Some people have finished their workouts before the rest of us have even rolled out of bed, and others need a full day of “warm-up” before they kick it up a notch for their evening workout. Does the time of your workout really matter? Is there a “best” time of day to exercise?

Scientifically speaking … no, not really.

And also, it depends.

A lot of research has been done on the topic, and there is science to support both sides of the “time of workout” debate. Ultimately, the calories burned and benefits gained from a good workout are about the same at 5 a.m. as they are at 8 p.m., and both camps agree that a good workout any time of day always trumps no workout at all.

But time of day does matter, because a “good” workout has a lot to do with how you feel when you exercise, and that varies from person to person. Working out when your body is at its peak will improve performance, motivation, consistency and maintenance.

Translation: If you’re not a morning person, don’t schedule a 5 a.m. workout because, odds are, the snooze button will get a better workout than you.

Here are some insights and tips to help you find your best workout time.

Early morning workout

Research shows that people who exercise first thing in the morning are more consistent. There’s something to be said for “getting it over with.” Busy schedules, errands, fatigue, work or other things that “come up” throughout the day are more likely to bump your workout off the calendar if you wait until later, especially if you don’t exactly to exercise (you know who you are). That doesn’t mean you have to set your alarm for 4 a.m. — just plan for an extra 30 to 60 minutes before you start your regular morning routine.

People who exercise in the morning are also more likely to start the day off with a healthy breakfast and lots of water, and they usually continue making healthy choices throughout the day.

Also, some studies indicate that morning workouts help improve sleep and mood, increase brain function and memory recall, and reduce stress and blood pressure levels throughout the day. Your body may also burn more fat because you have less food in your system in the morning.

Morning workout tips:

  • Because your body temperature is lower in the morning, be sure to allow time for a good warm-up before your workout (and make sure you hydrate!)
  • Sleep in your comfy exercise clothes so you’re ready to go when you wake up!

Afternoon workout

For some, a workout is more relaxing after a productive day: You’ve already checked some boxes off the to-do list, your muscles and joints are warmed up, you’re fully awake.

Your core body temperature is higher in the afternoon. Reaction time is quicker, and blood pressure is lower, leading to a better performance and less chance of injury during higher intensity workouts like swimming, running or biking.

Afternoon workouts may also help with insomnia, especially in middle-age and beyond, when out-of-sync circadian rhythms can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Some research has shown that afternoon workouts can help reset the body’s clock and actually improve sleep.

Afternoon is also a great time to burn off any stress leftover from the day, which can lead to overeating (or eating the wrong foods) and, in some cases, weight gain. You may also have an easier time than the early birds in finding workout buddies.

Afternoon workout tips:

  •  Pick a specific class or activity and a consistent time every day to help reset your body clock and stick to your routine.

Evening workout

So you’re not a morning person and your schedule is full all day long — an evening workout it is!

With warm muscles and a few meals under your belt, your body is at peak strength in the evening hours so you can work out harder and for longer. With the majority of the day’s responsibilities behind you, you might even decide to extend your workout. And because evening exercise curbs food cravings, you may have an easier time making healthy choices and eating smaller portions for dinner.

If you’re the early-to-bed, early-to-rise type, a high intensity evening workout might make it harder to fall asleep; but some research indicates resistance exercises (any time of day) may actually help people with insomnia, especially those with osteoporosis, sarcopenia, anxiety or depression. Find a fitness class or a DVD that focuses on resistance/strength training and give it a try!

Evening workout tips:

  • Your body needs 2 to 3 hours to digest and absorb the nutrients from your dinner, so consider eating a small snack (carbohydrate, protein and very little fat) before your workout, and have dinner afterwards. Or eat an early dinner.

Late night workout

Your days are jam-packed and late night is the best time to fit in your workout. Go for it! It’s better than no workout at all.

If you’re prone to insomnia, you might want to choose a lower intensity late night workout, but a 2013 poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that 83 percent of people sleep better if they exercise, no matter what time of day.

Keep in mind that your melatonin levels (which make you sleepy) are highest around 10 p.m., so be safe and make sure you’re not too tired to practice good form.

And remember: Exercise is critical to good health, but so is sleep. Make sure your late night workouts aren’t cutting into your sleep schedule. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7 to 9 hours for adults age 26 to 64, and 7 to 8 hours for 65 years and older.

Late night workout tips:

  • Plan to finish your workout about 2 hours before bedtime so your body can wind down (and make sure you leave time for at least 7 hours of sleep).
  • If you have trouble falling asleep after late night exercise, choose yoga, Pilates or a brisk walk instead of higher intensity activities.

Ten-minute workouts, three times a day

Short on time? Research from the American College of Sports Medicine shows that splitting your 30-minute workout into three 10-minute intervals throughout the day delivers the same benefits. So if gearing up mentally for a long workout is an obstacle for you, break it up! Take a brisk walk for 10 minutes in the morning, at lunch and again in the evening — mission accomplished.

Be consistent. Be committed. Be well.

Bottom line: The “best” time to exercise is whenever are most likely to do it.

And remember that consistency is key. Research from the University of Texas, Denton showed that people who worked out around the same time each day — regardless of time of day— performed better, experienced less fatigue and were more likely to stick with it.

So now that you know your “best” time to exercise, put it on your calendar — write it in pen — and reap the rewards.

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