I work in an office of pretty healthy people. Some of my coworkers add flaxseed to their oatmeal, others take nutritional supplements and do organ cleanses, and we even have a few anti-smoking and pro-sunscreen crusaders. Of all my health-conscious colleagues, though, the people I’m most in awe of are the ones who manage to hit the gym before they arrive at work in the morning.
I go to the gym every day, but I simply cannot imagine getting up at dawn and slugging it out on the treadmill or the elliptical machine before I’ve even had a chance to grab breakfast and read the day’s headlines. But when I describe my own routine of working out on my lunch break or right after work, these people admire my resolve, because to them it seems much harder to fit in a workout during the day. Trainers and exercise physiologists are divided over the best time of day to work out—morning, afternoon, or evening—because each has its advantages and its disadvantages.
Rise and Climb
The arguments for exercising first thing in the morning are as much mental as they are physical. When you begin your day with a workout, you eliminate the distractions and excuses that can pop up throughout the day that prevent you from hitting the gym. By getting it over with early, you never have the chance to talk yourself out of it or get sidetracked by work projects or other commitments. Many people like working out early because it makes them feel energized for the rest of the day.
That energy can last a long time. Some experts argue that when we work out early, our metabolism gets revved up and then we spend the rest of the day burning more fat than we would if we worked out midday or in the evening. Morning exercise usually requires an empty stomach, since trying to work out after a big meal can cause cramps, heartburn, or sluggishness, but that also works in our favor. Before breakfast, our muscles are depleted of glycogen, their main fuel. Working out before filling up forces the body to use stored fat for energy, not the calories we’ve consumed most recently.
Morning workouts may require much more discipline, but the main problem is that we’re not likely to be at our physical or mental peak. Our brains are tired and groggy and our muscles are stiff and cold. It’s important to spend a few extra minutes warming up or stretching before early-morning workouts to lessen the chance of injury.
If the rush of people at my gym during lunchtime is any indication, I’m not the only one who enjoys working out more when I’m fully awake. Many fitness experts suggest that midday is the most effective time to exercise. Because of our circadian rhythms, our body temperature is highest in the afternoon and we’re at our most awake and alert. From early afternoon to early evening, our muscles are warmed up and at their peak strength. Even those who can motivate themselves to work out in the morning find that they have the energy to exercise harder and longer in the afternoon.
Midday does have a downside, mainly that people tend to feel like they’re under a time crunch, especially during lunchtime workouts. Because it can be hard to accomplish everything in such a short period of time, people end up abbreviating their fitness regimen. I know all too well that it’s hard to avoid cutting my run short when there’s a small mountain of work waiting for me back at the office.
Evening can be a peculiar time to work out, but it’s the best option for some people. Those whose day jobs don’t allow them to fit in a workout, who keep irregular schedules, or who work second- or third-shift jobs often find that the evening hours are the only ones they have free. Some people like that just fine, since they can spend the day looking forward to their workout. Exercising at night can also be a great way to blow off steam or relieve stress from the day. For people who belong to gyms, evening is when the majority of classes are offered, so for those with their hearts set on a particular yoga or spinning session, there may not be many alternatives.
One problem with working out at night is that you first have to make it through a whole day in which to potentially get sidetracked. The longer you put off exercising, the more likely it is that something else will come up, and it’s easy to get too tired by the end of the day to have the energy or motivation to accomplish an entire workout. For some people, exercising at night interferes with their sleep patterns. Although exercise in general is beneficial for healthy sleep, working out so close to bedtime can sometimes make it difficult to get to sleep and stay there. Also, even though not all research supports the theory that exercise raises metabolism for hours after a workout, metabolism is definitely at its lowest during sleep, and if it’s true that we can increase it through exercise, then going to sleep would negate this benefit.
Experts may disagree on when the best time of day to exercise is, but there’s one thing about which they’re unanimous—find out what’s the best time for you, and stick to it. It doesn’t matter when you exercise, only that you do.
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