What is the best time of day to exercise? It depends on your goals

June 20, 2022 — For most of us, the “best” time of day to exercise is simple: When we can.

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Maybe this is before or after work. Or when the gym offers free daycare. Or when our favorite instructor teaches our favorite class.

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That’s why we call it “routine”. And if the results are the same, it’s hard to imagine changing them.

But what if the results are not the same?

They may not be, according to a new study by a research team at Skidmore College. The results of the 12-week exercise program were different for morning versus evening workouts.

The women who exercised in the morning lost more fat, while the women who exercised in the evening gained more upper-body strength and power. As for the men, the performance improvements were similar regardless of when they exercised. But those who did it in the evening had a significant drop in blood pressure, among other benefits.

The study is part of a growing body of research showing different results for different times of the day in different populations. as it turns out, when Exercise can ultimately make a big impact. And we’re not just talking about strength and fat loss, but also heart health, mood, and sleep quality.

Accidental discovery

The original goal of the Skidmore study was to test a unique fitness program with a group of healthy, fit and highly active adults in early to middle age.

The program includes four workouts per week, each with a different focus: strength, steady-paced endurance, high-intensity intervals, and flexibility (traditional stretching combined with yoga and Pilates).

But since the group was so large – 27 women and 20 men completed the 3-month program – they had to divide them into morning and evening exercise groups.

Lead author Paul Arciero, PhD, says researchers only saw the differences between morning and evening exercise after they looked at the results.

Arciero confirms that the participants in each group got leaner and stronger. But the women who exercised in the morning had a greater reduction in body fat percentage and body fat percentage compared to the evening group. Meanwhile, women in the evening group had significantly greater gains in upper-body strength, power, and muscular endurance than their morning counterparts.

Among men, the evening group had a significantly greater improvement in blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and the percentage of fat they burn for energy, along with a greater reduction in feelings of fatigue.

Strategic timing for powerful results

Some of these results are consistent with previous research. For example, a study published in 2021 showed that the ability to exert great effort and express strength and power peaks in the late afternoon, around the same time that core body temperature is at its highest.

On the other hand, you’ll probably do better in the morning when the activity requires a lot of skill and coordination or relies on strategic decision-making.

The results apply to both men and women.

Regardless of performance, exercise timing may provide powerful health benefits for men with type 2 diabetes, or at high risk for it.

A 2020 study showed that men who exercised between 3 and 6 p.m. saw significant improvements in blood sugar management and insulin sensitivity, compared to a group that trained between 8 and 10 a.m.

They also lost more fat over the 12-week program, even though they were doing the exact same exercises.

Train constantly, sleep well

Jennifer Hayes, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, says exercise can affect the quality of your sleep in several ways. Move the body, heal the mind: beat anxiety, depression, dementia, and improve focus, creativity, and sleep.

First, she says, “Exercise helps you fall asleep faster and sleep more deeply at night.” (The only exception is if you exercise so intensely or so close to bedtime that your heart rate is still elevated.)

Second, “exercise at a consistent time each day helps regulate the body’s circadian rhythms.” It doesn’t matter if your workout is in the morning, evening, or anywhere in between. As long as it’s predictable, it will help you fall asleep and wake up at the same times.

She says outdoor exercises are best. The sun is the most powerful regulator of the circadian clock and works in conjunction with physical activity.

Third, exercising at set times can help you combat jet lag or adjust to an earlier or later shift.

“Exercising at 7 a.m. or between 1 and 4 p.m. helps ‘go back’ the biological clock in time, making it easier to wake up earlier,” says Heisz. If you need to train your body to get up later in the morning, try exercising between 7 and 10 p.m.

All exercise is good, but the right timing can make it even better

“The best time to exercise is when you can fit in,” says Arcero. “You have to choose the time that best suits your lifestyle.”

But he notes that context matters.

“For someone who needs to achieve an improvement in their cardiovascular risk,” his study shows an advantage to working out later in the day, especially for men.

If you focus more on building upper body strength and power, you will likely get better results from training in the afternoon or evening.

And for fat loss, Skidmore’s study shows better results for women who did morning exercises.

And if you are still not sure? Try sleeping on it – preferably after you work out.

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