Are you an owl or a lark when it comes to exercise?
Most of us know whether we concentrate on mental tasks better in the morning or late afternoon. But did you know that your body clock can also dictate the best time of day for you to work out, depending on your lifestyle and fitness goals?
We’re going to take a look at how to find your best time for daily exercise and the unique features of working out at different times of the day.
Best time of day to exercise and circadian rhythms
Let’s go back to basics. It helps to understand the body’s circadian rhythms and how they have an influence on many aspects of your everyday life.
Circadian rhythms are the 24-hour cycles that help your body function efficiently. They are triggered by environmental factors such as exposure to light. You probably know about the sleep-wake circadian rhythm, where most (but not all!) people naturally feel sleepy at night as it gets dark and are energised when they wake in the morning.
These rhythms can also have a direct effect on the efficiency of your workout. And once you know how they work, you can use exercise and its timing to help you feel more energised, sleep better, lose weight or sharpen your focus. Let’s find out how.
How to find my best time for daily exercise?
Your best time for daily exercise will depend on your fitness goals. Fortunately, scientific research has found that you can tap into your natural body rhythms to achieve all different kinds of objectives. Let’s see how it’s done.
Best time of day to burn fat and lose weight
Experts recommend morning workouts if you want to burn fat and lose weight. This is because your levels of growth hormones and cortisol, which play a key role in metabolism, are higher first thing in the morning.
Research (1) has also found that 45 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise in the morning will reduce your desire for food, so that’s another great reason for an early workout!
But owls needn’t despair. A study carried out in 2018 (2) found that your body will burn 10 percent more calories in the late afternoon versus the early morning or late at night, making this time of day a perfect window for calorie-conscious late risers.
Best time of day for energy and performance
If you want to improve on your performance, try an afternoon workout. By this time of day, you will have enjoyed breakfast and a light lunch, causing your blood sugar levels to rise. This is known to help you perform better at high intensity.
An afternoon workout is also a great way to counter the dreaded energy slump that many of us experience after lunchtime. A study (3) found that exercising between 1pm and 4pm can move your body clock forward and give you the energy to get you through the afternoon.
Best time of day for stress relief and mental performance
We’ve known for a long time that exercise can reduce stress. This is because it stimulates your brain to release endorphins, neurotransmitters that make you feel good. It also helps regulate a number of different systems in the body, including the digestive, cardiovascular and immune systems.
This makes the morning a great time for workouts when you want to relieve stress and start the day with a clear head. Many people choose to hit the gym before they start work for exactly these reasons, leaving them mentally prepared for the day’s challenges.
Best time of day to exercise for a better night’s sleep
As well as energising you, your workout can help reset your body clock and help you achieve better quality sleep.
If you want to fall asleep at an earlier time, try exercising in the morning or early afternoon. This will release melatonin, the hormone responsible for making you feel sleepy, earlier on. If you exercise outdoors, then this will have the added benefit of sunlight exposure, which will help regulate your sleep-wake cycle.
But if you’re the evening type, then it’s worth knowing about research carried out to see how evening exercise impacts sleep cycles. A study (4) published in Chronobiology International found that after HIIT (high-intensity interval training) sessions carried out in the evening, people who naturally woke and went to bed earlier suffered poor quality sleep. The opposite was true for night owls.
How can I get the most out of my exercise routine?
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a morning or evening person, you will still be able to use your body clock to your advantage and hit your fitness goals. Here are some ideas to inspire you.
Activities for exercise larks
Lucky larks can take advantage of the benefits that come with working out in the morning and early afternoon. Getting out in the fresh air has the added advantage of exposing you to light and keeping your natural body rhythms on an even keel.
- Walking: Take a brisk morning walk while dawn breaks. It can be both an invigorating and peaceful start to the day.
- Hiking: Going on a long hike that starts in the morning is a great way to take advantage of daylight hours. Make sure you are suitably dressed to cater for any changes in the weather, quick dry wear being ideal for this activity.
- Skateboarding: For something different, keep active with skateboarding (or rollerskating) in the afternoon when your kids come home from school.
- Zumba: Harness your morning energy by taking part in a lively Zumba dance class. You’ll find that the upbeat music and aerobic exercise will set you up for the day, inspiring you with positive energy.
- Rock climbing: If you’re the adventurous type, try a vigorous outdoor pursuit such as rock climbing during daylight hours.
- Long distance running: If you’re planning on running a marathon, it makes sense to train with long distances in daylight hours.
Activities for exercise owls
If you’re a natural owl, there’s little point in forcing yourself to work out early in the day when you’re feeling groggy and unlikely to put in the effort. Instead, why not try some of these activities that lend themselves to the end of the day?
- Yoga: Gentle stretching as the day draws to a close is great for flexibility and will prime you for a good night’s sleep.
- Weightlifting: Towards the end of the day, your muscles will be well and truly warmed up, making it a perfect time to lift those weights.
- Tai chi: This traditional Chinese activity is perfect for an evening exercise session. Its graceful movements are accompanied by deep breathing, ideal for winding down at the end of the day.
- Sprinting: Fast running is another activity that lends itself to the end of the day when your muscles are warm and flexible, reducing the likelihood of injury.
- Cycling: A bike ride in the longer summer evenings is ideal for keeping in shape and enjoying the beauty of nature. As long as your bike is well maintained and your sports wear protects you from the elements, there will be no stopping you.
- Tennis: A game of doubles with friends is the ideal way to combine moderate exercise with evening socialising.
Tap into your body’s natural rhythms
Matching your exercise routine to your body clock and fitness goals is the key to success. A personalised regime that takes into account your strengths and weaknesses will mean that you are more likely to succeed and therefore enjoy exercising.
Whether you want to lose weight faster, get more energy, sharpen your mental performance or sleep better, there’s a way to do it by planning your exercise routine.
Simply tap into your body’s natural rhythms and see what a difference tuning in makes to your health and fitness!
- Hanlon, B; Larson, M; Bailey, B; LeCheminant, J, ‘Neural Response to Pictures of Food after Exercise in Normal-Weight and Obese Women,’ Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: October 2012 - Volume 44 - Issue 10 - p 1864-1870 doi: 10.1249.
- Zitting, K, Vujovic N, Yuan R, Isherwood Ch, Medina J, Wang, W, Buxton, O, Williams, J, Czeisler C, Duffy, J. ‘Human Resting Energy Expenditure Varies with Circadian Phase,’ Current Biology, 10.1016/j.cub.2018.10.005
- Youngstedt S, Elliott J, Kripke D. ‘Human circadian phase–response curves for exercise,’ The Journal of Physiology, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1113/JP276943.
- Vitale, J, Bonato, M, Galasso, L, La Torre, A, Merati, G, Montaruli, A, Roveda, E, Carandente, F. ‘Sleep quality and high intensity interval training at two different times of day: A crossover study on the influence of the chronotype in male collegiate soccer players,’ Chronobiology International, 2017, 10.1080/07420528.2016.1256301.