Is There a ‘Best’ Time of the Day to Exercise?
You have the meal plan, you have the exercises, and you’re ready to hit the gym. You want to be as effective as possible and optimise your time to meet your goals quickly. And now you’re wondering: is there a best time of the day to exercise?
And the answer is: it all depends! (Sorry.)
For most people, the best time of the day for exercise is the time that you can stick to. So, if you’re already working out consistently, and the only time you have available is an hour at the same time every day, and that’s it–pat yourself on the back and keep doing what you’re doing. Much of the scientific research dedicated to this topic has found that exercise at any time is beneficial–fat loss, cardiovascular and strength increases and mood improvements can occur with a regular exercise program, no matter the time of day.
But let’s say you have tons of flexibility in your schedule and the freedom to exercise whenever you choose. In this case, the most important metric for deciding when to exercise is what you hope to achieve.
So, what are your goals? Do you want to lose fat? Get stronger? Improve your mood and/or mental health?
In this article, we break down the relative pros of exercising in either the morning or later in the afternoon/early evening. As a disclaimer, remember that though many of these exercise recommendations are backed by experts on the subject, keep in mind that every person is different and what might work for the majority of people might not work for you! Lifestyle and behavioural changes often demand a lot of trial and error, so speak to your healthcare provider and your personal trainer, and don’t be afraid to experiment with different protocols.
The Pros of Exercising in the Morning
- More effective in fat loss
Morning cardio is often touted as an effective way to lose fat and control appetite throughout the day. One short-term study found that “moderate- to high-intensity aerobic” exercise in the morning may be more effective in “appetite control, calorie intake and weight loss in inactive overweight women.” Another study done with overweight, but otherwise healthy, men and women done over a span of ten months had similar results: the participants who exercised in the morning, as opposed to the evening, lost more weight.
Some experts, as well, recommend fasted exercise as a tool for losing fat and controlling appetite. The science is mixed, however, and there is little evidence to suggest that people who exercise fasted will lose more weight than those who have not been fed–in fact, it may be the opposite! So don’t be afraid to have a little bite to eat before going on your morning run.
- May be better for sleep quality
Getting some exercise–plus sunlight, if available–first thing in the morning may be effective in building a well-balanced and healthy circadian rhythm and improving sleep quality. That being said, all exercise, at any time except right before bedtime, will likely improve sleep quality.
Doing a workout right before sleep–especially if it’s high-intensity–can spike many of the hormones that are not conducive to ‘winding down’, such as cortisol, dopamine, and adrenaline. While some studies have challenged this commonly-held belief, most experts still do recommend finishing your workout at least two hours before bed if you want to have a restful, high-quality sleep.
- Easier to build the exercise habit and be consistent
For many people, as the day progresses, life gets in the way. Our plan of going to the gym in the evening becomes an after-work drink with co-workers, or a movie with our kids, or hours running errands. Sometimes we have a stressful and demanding day and we just feel ‘too tired’ to go to the gym or to go on that run.
One study followed participants who were post-bariatric surgery and found that the individuals who exercised in the morning were more consistent than those who exercised in the afternoon. They were also more likely to form the habit of exercising and to stick with it.
So, if you’re having a hard time staying consistent with your exercise, you might benefit from a little morning sweat session. Believe me, your body will adjust and soon you’ll have a hard time not working out in the morning! That being said, most experts recommend against sacrificing sleep for an early-morning workout. Try moving your bedtime an hour or two earlier in order to get in your morning exercise without compromising your sleep quality.
- Improved energy and focus throughout the day
There is a certain relief to knowing that you got your workout out of the way, and you don’t have to worry about it for another 24 hours. Working out in the morning may help set you up for success for the rest of the day: you’ll enjoy endorphins, improved focus, and a more stable mood.
The Pros of Exercising in the Afternoon
- You may live longer
Yep, exercising in the afternoon may help you live longer! One study found that participants who exercised in the afternoon were generally less likely to die an early death. Cool, right?
- You’re less likely to injure yourself
This makes intuitive sense. Waking up and immediately exercising, when your muscles are stiff from not barely moving for (hopefully) at least seven hours–can definitely lead to more injuries. Your core body temperature is also lower in the morning. Later in the day, you’re more likely to be ‘warmed up’ and ready to go. So, if you do exercise in the morning, remember to incorporate a warm-up routine! You can find one here.
- You’re stronger later in the day
Many people say that they feel stronger in the gym later in the day. And this makes sense–you’re fed, fueled, and fully awake. I prefer to strength train in the afternoon or early evening because I feel stronger–and there are studies to support this anecdotal evidence. You also may be able to gain more muscle and, according to another study, you may be more likely to work out for longer if you go later in the day.
- May be better for improving insulin sensitivity
Yep, science can be confusing! While some studies have shown that morning exercise is better for weight control, another has shown that working out later in the day may be better for glycemic regulation. This study, done on overweight to obese men aged 30-45, found that while both morning and evening exercisers showed improvements in cardiovascular fitness, “fasting blood glucose, insulin, cholesterol, triacylglycerol and LDL-cholesterol concentrations decreased only in participants allocated to evening exercise training”. Another study done on afternoon exercisers with Type II diabetes reached the same conclusion.
- Stress relief
This is a big one! Exercising at the end of a long and stressful workday can be just the ticket for improved mood, energy, and resilience. I personally prefer to work out in the afternoon because it sets me up for success for the rest of the evening: I feel calm, centred, and energized for my evening plans. Most people don’t wake up stressed and needing to burn energy (I hope, anyway), so an afternoon exercise session can release all the energy that you’ve pent up throughout the day, especially if you’ve been sitting at a computer or desk for most of it.
No matter the time of the day, exercise does wonders for your health; mood, strength, cardiovascular fitness, and body composition are all improved by exercise. So, there really is no best time of the day to exercise. If you think you’ve hit a plateau in your fitness journey, consider exercising at a different time of day. The new time will pose a fresh challenge to your fitness and help you to hit your goals faster–plus, you might just like it better! Again, I recommend speaking to your personal trainer or a healthcare professional before making any lifestyle changes. Good luck!
Wishing you all the best on your journey to optimum health!
Written by Theresa Faulder, Master’s in English, Certified Personal Trainer and Infofit fitness blog writer.