woman on yoga mat

If you’re going to work out, you probably want to get the most out of it. So it’s natural to wonder when is the best time of day to exercise. TIME Magazine even released an article titled, “This Is the Best Time of Day to Work Out, According to Science.”

But in my opinion, it’s not about science. It’s about real life. It’s about fitting exercise into whatever time is available in your schedule.

The Debate

Ever since I started working out seriously in high school, I have always been a firm believer in working out in the morning. I just thought it was the best way to start the day.

Eventually, I read some articles that said it’s good to workout early. There were all sorts of benefits like burning calories off your body and not just what you’ve eaten during the day. So I kept doing what I was doing.

In later years, it turned into a big debate focused on the best way to burn calories. Some said morning workouts were great for burning body fat, while afternoon workouts did nothing more than burn off some of the food you just had for breakfast and lunch. To decide what I should do, I started to think logically.

Counting Calories

So take this for example:

Let’s say Jack works out for an hour starting at 6 AM and burns 600 calories. Then goes to work, eats a few meals, etc, and consumes 2,100 calories. So Jack’s net caloric intake (2100-600) would be 1,500 calories.

Then there’s Jill who slept in, barely made it to work on time, but ate her meals for a total of 2,000 calories consumed. But in the evening she was feeling energetic, so she went for a nice jog and burnt off 500 calories. So in the end, Jill’s net caloric intake (2000-500) was 1,500 calories.

Somehow, both Jack and Jill had the same net caloric intake, even though Jack worked out first thing in the morning and Jill exercised in the evening.

Think of it like this: Jack burnt calories then ate some food to refuel. Jill ate to get fueled, then she did her workout. Whichever way you do it, it works out the same.

It’s Not Just Calories

But these days, studies are more advanced, and there is a lot more to choosing a time to exercise than simple talk about caloric intake.

Today’s topics include hormone levels and body chemistry. From the NY Times early 2009:

“In various studies, scientists have found that subjects tend to do slightly better on measures of physical performance — including endurance, strength output, reaction time and aerobic capacity — between 4 and 7 p.m. The explanations are numerous: the body’s temperature and hormone levels peak in late afternoon, making muscles more flexible and producing the best ratio of testosterone (the muscle-building hormone) to cortisol (the hormone that does the reverse).”

It sounds awesome, but how much of a difference will it make in your results? If I had to guess, probably not even a noticeable difference! (I don’t know of any studies actually displaying worthwhile results based on changing exercise time, let alone for elite athletes.)

Another NY Times article from late 2009 gets back on this topic, and it makes some interesting arguments, but doesn’t do a whole lot to sway me one way or the other. It’s just another article saying there may be benefits to exercising in the late afternoon or evening, but it’s still not a perfect solution for everyone.

However, I know there are certain benefits to working out in the morning…

Reasons to Exercise in the Morning

Three reasons the morning is the best time of day for your workout:

1. It’s the best chance that you’ll actually do it.

First, it makes sure that you do work out. It’s much easier to get your workout out of the way than to schedule it into a busy day where plans can change by the minute. And once you get used to waking up, it will be simple to form your daily routine around these morning workouts.

2. It will wake you up and clear your head.

Second, it will wake you up and clear your mind, so you start the day fresh. There’s a good chance you’ll be more productive with 1 hour of exercise and 8 hours of work than if you just work for 9 hours instead. (That’s because exercise gets your blood flowing, which gets oxygen to your brain, and you can think more clearly as a result!)

3. The logistics work.

Third, logistics. The majority of bicycle races, marathons, and triathlons start fairly early in the morning. It would make sense for you to train in the morning as well.

Think if you always exercise in the late afternoon and never in the morning. Then you have to start a bike race or marathon at 9AM, or heck, a triathlon at 7AM! What will your body think?! Will you know how much to warm up? What can you eat at that hour of the day? Will you even be able to get out of bed?

And don’t forget about daylight if you plan to be cycling outdoors. At this time of year, you could ride in daylight at 7AM, but you’ll be in the dark at 5PM!

Then there are little things like your workouts being compatible with your meal plan. I like how the food in your stomach is more standard in the morning – i.e. an empty stomach. It’s easier to plan your diet for the day when you don’t have a critical workout or event in the middle of the day (fewer meals beforehand means fewer chances to screw them up.)

So you can see that morning workouts are a great idea. They’re easy to schedule, they get you ready for the day, and you will be more prepared for your events.

Other Considerations

No time in the morning? Try evening workouts.

Evening workouts making it hard to fall asleep? Try a lunch hour workout.

Consistency is key.

In the end, the best time to workout is whatever time you can fit a workout into your schedule.

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