I am one of those smug people who get up early, down a cup of coffee, and immediately get active. I hit the gym, run the trails, cycle the path, splash the pool, or whatever tickles my fancy that day. Not necessarily because I think it is the ultimate and optimum time to work out, but rather because I like it. I like how it feels. I like how it sets up my day. I like the boost of energy I get from it.
I am also one of those spur-of-the-moment exercisers who will find himself in the middle of the afternoon staring at a blank page (where a blog article or workout plan is supposed to be) and instead of buckling down, suddenly gets up and goes for a walk, rides his bike to the pool, or puts on a yoga video before diving back into work.
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Am I doing myself more harm than good by doing those early morning sessions? Should I stop giving into my afternoon exercise whims and simply get my work done instead? Well, let’s take a closer look.
The Optimum Workout Time
The other day, I got into a brief discus-gument with a friend of mine (who is also a fitness coach) about when exactly is the best time of day to work out. And while I didn’t disagree with his very scientifically backed assessment, I am not one of those people who moves heaven and earth each time a study suggests that I am “doing it all wrong.” In fact, I believe I concluded our conver-greement with the statement, “I think I am doing just fine.”
Sure, science says that your body temperature peaks in the afternoon, which means that I might be able to do my hard workouts even harder later in the day. Sure that could theoretically result in me getting a bigger fitness boost from that workout, but you know what else gives me a bigger fitness boost? Getting the actual workout done.
And sure, my protein synthesis (the ability to use dietary proteins for muscle repair) also peaks later in the day, which means that I could maximize my body’s ability to recover from that workout, but I also find it easier to recover from workouts when I am not stressed out. Feeling rushed, pressured, or under the gun to get my workout done and get back to work or off to dinner is not my idea of a worthwhile cool-down.
That is just me. I am not trying to convince you all to become morning exercisers. On the contrary! If you are able to make afternoon/evening workouts work for you, then that is great. You actually have science on your side. But if you are like me, don’t sweat it.
Exercising in the Afternoon or Evening
As my friend reinforced during our dis-argument, if you are purely exercising to excel at a sport or if you really want to achieve the absolute highest possible intensities during your workout, then the optimal time to exercise is when your body temperature is at its highest and that is in the afternoon or early evening.
Our body temperature typically increases throughout the day and peaks in the late afternoon, so the theory is that our muscle strength and cardiovascular endurance also peaks in the late afternoon. There is also the added benefit that in the afternoon our reaction time is the fastest and our heart rate and blood pressure is at its highest. All of this combines to improve athletic performance and also potentially reduce the possibility of getting injured.
In addition, research suggests that working out in the evenings can increase your physical capacity, aerobic capacity, and strength output by between 8% – 30%. Sprint capabilities have also been measured as being higher in the afternoon by four to five percent.
You probably know that testosterone is an important hormone for muscle growth and strength, for both men and women. While performing resistance training in the afternoon, your body produces more testosterone than it does during the same workout in the morning. And, the stress hormone known as cortisol, which has been linked to the storage and accumulation of fat and also the wasting of muscle, peaks in the morning and then gradually decreases throughout the day.
I take all of this to mean that the next time I miss that early morning swim or hill sprint session, I won’t beat myself up because if I can make it up after my workday is complete, I may even train harder.
There are a couple of drawbacks with late-in-the-day workouts. Gyms and fitness centers generally get the most action between 5:00 and 8:00 pm and that can make it difficult to get the machine, weight bench, or class that you really want. Mid-mornings tend to see less traffic. There is usually a bump in gym-goers between 6:00 am and 8:00 am but these exercisers tend to be of the hit-it and run variety. Plus, in my own experience the folks who get out on the trails for their run or ride early in the morning tend to be of the friendlier variety as well. I am met with many “good mornings” at 7:00 am and many more steely gazes at 4:00 pm.
So, it seems like a slam dunk for the afternoon and evening exercisers. Should we just stop there? Not so fast!
If you get out there early, you can do things like increase your post-exercise oxygen deficit and calorie-burning rate for the rest of the day.
If you get out there early and jump-start your metabolism and increase your body’s core temperature early in the day, you can do things like increase your post-exercise oxygen deficit and calorie-burning rate for the rest of the day. The science on this is unclear and torn but many trainers and coaches swear that if you are trying to lose weight, a morning session is going to get you more bang for your crack-of-dawn buck.
Interestingly, because exercise can increase your heart rate and your body temperature, if you work out too late in the evening (after 8:00 pm) you have the potential to disrupt sleep. One study showed that working out at 7:00 am, when compared to 1:00 pm or 7:00 pm, could help you sleep better that night.
Psychologically speaking, you may be more likely to exercise in the morning, instead of after a hard day of work. At the end of the day, your mind and body are tired and that can lead to things like lowered willpower. At the end of the day, you are also more likely to have other duties to fulfill with family or friends. At that point it really doesn’t matter if you’re able to exercise with higher intensity and larger hormone boosts in the afternoon if you don’t get a chance to do it.
Finally, one study that measured the neural response to pictures of food after exercise found that 45 minutes of moderate morning exercise helped to suppress the volunteer’s appetites immediately after working out.
Research also showed that people can burn up to 20 percent more body fat exercising on an empty stomach, which is much easier to do in the morning than at any other time of the day. But as the Nutrition Diva pointed out in her article on the best time to exercise: “Exercising on an empty stomach may increase the amount of body fat you burn during exercise. But your body alternately makes and burns body fat all day long, transferring fuel in and out of its various accounts. So, you might burn a bit more fat while you’re exercising on an empty stomach but then burn a bit less fat later in the day. Over the long term, the amount of fat you have in your body depends mostly on how many calories you take in versus how many calories you burn.”
Exercising at Noon
When I worked in an office building that had a gym in the basement, this was a no-brainer for me. Sure, I still usually got up and did some sort of movement first thing in the morning (because that is how I roll) but I saved my heavy lifting for my noon workout. And for some people, lunchtime really is the best time to exercise, especially if you have some co-workers to keep you company and to keep you accountable.
I am sure I don’t need to say this but just in case, eat after you work out, not before. If you eat before, not only is it uncomfortable, but the blood that you want to go to your muscles is going to go to to your digestive tract instead. If you need some fuel for the workout, make it a light snack and eat it at least 30-45 minutes before you hit the office gym.
So Is There a ‘Best’ Time to Work Out?
Well, you don’t have to be a scientist to determine the best time for you to exercise. If the best time of day is not immediately apparent to you, simply try working out in the morning, then try noon, then late afternoon or early evening. Give each time a fair shake, though a week or two should be enough to give you an idea of which you enjoy the most and which makes you feel best during and afterward. It should also give you an idea of how that time works with or against your other life commitments.
In the end, one of the most important aspects of any fitness regime is consistency. And that goes for time of day as well.
The Consistency of Exercise
A research paper called The effect of training at a specific time of day suggests that the body could actually adapt to regular workout times. Let’s say you hit the weight room every day at 4:00 pm; well then eventually you might start to perform better at 4:00 pm than any other time of day.
Another study, called Temporal specificity in adaptations to high-intensity exercise training, says that sticking to a specific workout time can actually result in improvement in things like performance, oxygen consumption, and perceived exhaustion. In fact, the researchers concluded that “Greater improvements can be expected to occur at the time of day at which high-intensity training is regularly performed.”
The ultimate combination is an aerobic exercise session in the morning, lasting 30-60 minutes, followed by a more intense HIIT (high intensity interval training), resistance workout, or a very sport-specific session in the late afternoon or evening.
I’m an Exercise Newbie. What’s Right For Me?
If you are still at a point in your fit life where your exercise sessions are pretty hit or miss, scheduling it for pretty much the same time each day will definitely help turn it into a habit. Whether you decide on first thing in the morning, over your lunch hour, after work, or after dinner, it is most important to make it part of your routine. People who are just beginning the fitness journey and try to exercise randomly are much more likely to give up. Leave the random workouts to us experts. 😉
Two final tips before I sign off:
- If you choose to work out in the morning, take extra time to warm up those muscles that are likely cold and tight from being asleep for the last few hours.
- If you choose to work out in the afternoon, keep them consistent. It might help to treat them as unbreakable appointments on your calendar that will alert you if you try to schedule something at the same time.
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