The choices you make while designing an exercise plan can sometimes feel like a Choose Your Own Fitness Adventure book, and no choice more so than the decision about what time to exercise.
You’re going about a busy day when you decide you should exercise tomorrow. Gradually, it occurs to you there are two paths you could take.
If you go down one path, you’ll burst out of bed to an early alarm, tussle with tiredness and forge ahead to the gym before work.
If you go down the other, you’ll vanquish a fatiguing workday, skillfully navigate around the call of post-work chores and charge through an evening workout.
This could be the difference between rock hard abs and being a couch potato. Which way will you choose?
Knowing the pros and cons of morning and evening exercise can help you add it sustainably into your lifestyle, burn more calories and make healthier choices all day long.
So what’s the best time to exercise? Many experts say it’s morning — and there are a lot of reasons why. But almost paradoxically, they also said most people are more likely to begin exercising in the evenings for a simple reason: Waking up is hard.
“No one likes to start an exercise routine. Throw that in with waking up to exercise in the morning — it’s a double whammy,” said Mitchel Samels of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine, a Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas and UT Southwestern Medical Center program.
The dichotomy is exemplified by the fitness experts themselves: They all know the reasons to exercise in the morning, but many of them said they exercise in the afternoon or evenings.
The early morning path
Exercise is best when it’s consistent. And studies show that those who partake in morning exercise are more likely to make it a routine, Samels said.
Another reason to set your alarm: Morning workouts can increase your metabolic rate for the hour or two after exercising and even up to 10 or 24 hours later, Samels said. That means in periods of rest after exercise, in what’s known as afterburn, your body will burn calories at a slightly higher rate than normal.
But don’t reach for the cake just yet: That metabolism increase will be proportional to the intensity of the exercise, Samels said, so for “your traditional aerobic endurance exercise — walking or some light jogging — that increased metabolic rate isn’t going to be very significant.”
Morning exercising also promotes more fat-burning because before exercise, your body is in a low metabolic state and “not really burning anything,” said Amanda Peterson, exercise physiologist at the Baylor Tom Landry Fitness Center.
Nobody’s saying getting up is easy, but Samels does say it will get easier, with your body adjusting the more it becomes a routine. Morning exercise can also work on your circadian rhythms — bodily rhythms over a 24-hour period — so with time (about two to four weeks), you’ll wake up feeling less groggy, Samels said.
Another perk: The gym’s usually less crowded in the a.m.
Exercising in the morning means it’s out of the way and the rest of the day is ahead of you. That’s good for productivity, but also from a food perspective: The meals you’re eating afterward are more likely to be used for recovery by your body instead of being stored as fat, Samels said.
That 6 a.m. Zumba may also put you in a healthier mind-set, meaning you reach for the kale salad instead of the burger at lunch. Studies suggest starting the morning with exercise leads to better choices throughout the day, Samels said.
No matter the time of day, exercise is connected to mental acuity, improved mood, alertness and better memory recall, said Kristin Pham, a personal trainer at the Finley Ewing Cardiovascular and Fitness Center at Texas Health Dallas. If done in the morning, those benefits will apply to your workday, she said, and studies suggest it’ll result in more productivity at work.
Some people even report that morning exercise increases their energy level, Samels said.
What about evenings?
Morning workouts aren’t all good, though: Muscles may take longer to warm up because of a lower morning body temperature, Pham said, which could potentially hurt performance and power. Most of Pham’s clients come during the evening.
For many people, it’s just easier to find time in the evening. And it might lead to a better workout, Pham said, if hurrying to get to work is cutting your morning workout short or shorting you a good night’s sleep.
Baylor’s Peterson exercises in the evenings, though she prefers to do so in the morning. She says evening exercise gives her the whole day to hydrate and get good meals in, and the morning is too much of the time crunch. Exercise can also help alleviate a stressful day, she said.
No matter what time you do it, it’s easy to make excuses to not exercise. But with evening exercise, you have the whole day to decide not to go to the gym — and it’s easier to let post-work chores or co-workers headed to happy hour distract you.
“If you’re exhausted after a long day and go home and sit on the couch, even if you sit on the couch for like five minutes, it’s hard to get up,” Pham said. “I love to exercise and I’m the same way.” That’s why, if you’re planning for evening exercise, Pham recommends bringing workout clothes with you to work.
Thinking about an upcoming workout can also make that afternoon coffee look mighty appealing — and caffeine consumption late in the day can make it harder to fall asleep, as can exercising too close to bedtime.
The best hours
Samels suggested that some types of exercise are ideally suited for different times of the day. More vigorous types, such as sprint sessions and strength training, are best suited for later in the day because they’ll require eating a more substantial meal first, Samels said. Your muscles are also more warmed up in the evenings, which means you’ll probably perform better, Pham said.
Studies also suggest more sport-specific skills, like running agility drills, are better to practice in the evening, Pham said, though there isn’t clear evidence on the subject.
With things that are less vigorous, like jogging and walking, exercisers can “get away with less food” and thus be more successful exercising early.
The bottom line
Whether at the beginning or the end of the day, exercising is better than not. Pham advises people to do what works for them: “For some people, morning workouts just don’t work. Some people, evening workouts just don’t work.”
No matter what you decide to do, make it routine, Pham said. Regardless of the time, “I see the most improvement from the people that are consistent.”
It’s a point echoed by Peterson. “In the end, as long as you’re doing it, the point is to get it in, no matter what time of day.”
Then there’s Dr. Robert Dimeff, who specializes in sports medicine and is a professor of orthopedic surgery, family and community medicine at UT Southwestern. He says there’s no great time to exercise. All that matters is how focused you are on the exercise itself, Dimeff said.
“I’ve exercised at every time of the day,” Dimeff said. “The critical thing is doing it.”
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