The running joke is that the best time of day to work out is whatever time of day you’ll actually do it. While it’s true that exercising at any time of day is better than not exercising at all, research has found that some parts of the day are better than others to get in your daily workout.
Workout time is usually set based on personal preference or scheduling convenience. However, the FITT Principle dictates that workout frequency, intensity, time, and type should be considered in developing an effective fitness plan.
All humans have what is known as a circadian rhythm which regulates our hormones and affects bodily functions like hunger, body temperature, breathing capacity, energy levels and stores, and the sleep/wake cycle.
Timing your workouts to suit your personal circadian rhythm can result in improved energy metabolism, increased coordination, and better sleep. If you’re not a morning person, for example, trying to work out before sunrise can make you weaker, more sluggish, and slower to react than if you began the workout later.
That being said, there are some rules of thumb about morning workouts versus evening workouts that generally apply to all of us.
Proponents of morning workouts often cite fewer distractions and increased productivity throughout the day. For example, a study of healthy adolescents found that running 30 minutes in the morning three times a week improved mood and concentration during the day, raised sleep quality, and decreased daytime sleepiness.
Cortisol is a human hormone that plays a significant role in maintaining healthy habits. Most of us have higher cortisol levels in the morning, making morning workouts easier to turn into a regular habit.
Research at Brigham Young University also suggests that morning exercise can reduce appetite throughout the day. That could be a major selling point for morning workouts among those exercising partly for weight maintenance or loss.
Perhaps the biggest complaint about morning exercise is that it cuts into sleep time. There is a term “sleep debt” that describes the difference between how much sleep you need versus how much you get. Those with a significant sleep debt usually experience an increase in catabolic hormones (which break down muscle) and a decrease in anabolic hormones (the kind that builds muscle). This can lessen muscle adaptation and reduce the ability of your muscles to recover after exercise.
Another issue is that many people working out in the morning don’t consume food beforehand. Eating before working out is essential to avoid depleting energy stores while exercising. For this reason, experts often recommend consuming a simple meal before working out, such as a small serving of yogurt or a hard-boiled egg.
Finally, if your workouts are high-intensity or mentally demanding, experts typically suggest that you wait to begin until you’ve been up for at least an hour. This allows time for a simple meal and tends to result in better focus and coordination during the workout session.
The most significant benefit of working out in the evening is that most of us have more time available, leading to better concentration, longer workouts, and a stronger likelihood of finishing the plan for that day’s session. By boosting endorphins, evening exercise can also help you de-stress from the workday.
Low-intensity exercise in the evening hours is known to improve sleep quality, particularly in older adults. High-intensity exercise at night has been thought to increase appetite (when you should be eating less) and interfere with sleep, but recent research has shown that most adults do not struggle with either of those side effects.
Evening exercise can also help maximize exercise performance. Some studies show that afternoon and evening workouts increase anaerobic output, including peak power and jump performance. This is thought to result from an increased ability to concentrate, higher fuel reserves due to having eaten throughout the day, and more time to warm up before starting the workout.
If your workouts are intense, schedule them for early in the evening to avoid the potential of delaying sleep and disturbing sleep quality. Otherwise, the cons of working out at night depend primarily on how well you function in the evenings (both mentally and physically) and your bedtime.
Simply put – if you are naturally a nighttime person, forcing yourself to work out in the morning will probably not be as efficient, effective, or enjoyable as doing it at night. The exception is if that’s the only time you have available since any workout is better than no workout at all.
Which is Best—Morning or Night?
All other things being equal, the question of whether morning or night workouts are better depends on your specific goals.
If your focus is on developing better exercise habits, improving your productivity during the day, or achieving fewer distractions, morning workouts are probably best for you. However, if you aim to increase exercise performance, you’ll likely find more satisfaction in evening workouts.
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