“Early bird catches the worm”, they say. But does it hold true in the realm of physical fitness? Let’s find out!
First thing first, why is regular exercise so important for you?
Regular physical activity has a myriad of proven health benefits. From burning body fat, building muscle mass and strengthening bones to enhancing memory, improving cardiovascular health and beefing up the immune system. It also reduces stress, enhances sleep, boosts confidence and helps you live longer (do I have your attention yet? Good!)
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, a healthy adult needs at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) of moderate aerobic activity per week (like brisk walking) or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) to 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (think swimming, running, hiking. etc.), or “an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity”.
Now, is there really a better time of day to exercise?
“The best time is the time that will help you be compliant and consistent with your workouts,” says Dave Smith, a professional weight-loss coach and founder of Make Your Body Work. “For most people, that means getting exercise out of the way as early in the day as possible. Putting it off until later in the day creates too many opportunities for other ‘priorities’ to replace the time that a person intended for exercise,” Smith explains.
“It also depends on a person’s circadian rhythms (whether they’re lark or night owl) which creates variations in physiological markers like heart rate, blood pressure and core temperature, each of which impact exercise performance,” says Fabio Comana, exercise physiologist and faculty instructor at San Diego State University and the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
“Research suggests that people who exercise early in the day are more likely to adhere to their fitness routine because their willpower is stronger then and the pressure of the day hasn’t yet accumulated,” notes Comana. “For me personally, this rings very true – I am less likely to devote the time I need or desire if I plan to exercise later,” adds the president of Genesis Wellness Group.
Moreover, exercising in the morning has been linked to greater productivity, lower blood pressure and better sleep. “It also speeds up a person’s metabolism, which can improve calorie-burning throughout the day”, says Smith.
In addition, morning exercise also sets the stage for other healthier choices throughout the day. “For example, people who exercise in the morning are more likely to make healthy food choices. This is because subconsciously, they want to build upon the healthy way they started their day,” explains the health coach.
However, “mornings also present with greater joint stiffness and expanded or swollen discs, both of which can compromise movement,” Comana points out.
Also, some of us are wired to feel more energetic later in the day. For those people, working out in the morning would be a bad idea as they likely won’t enjoy the process. “And most people don’t do what they don’t enjoy,” says Smith. “Getting results from exercise is almost entirely about compliance, so people need to do it when they can enjoy it most,” he adds.
Studies highlight that a late afternoon or evening sweat sesh is associated with lower stress levels, greater reaction times, better endurance and improved anaerobic performance (eg: sprinting, resistance training)
However, exercising in the evening may keep core temperatures elevated for longer periods and delay the transition, during sleep, to the restorative deep sleep phase (known as deep NREM sleep), notes Comana.
Bottom line: It all comes down to being consistent and setting up a routine that aligns with your long-term fitness goals.
How can you make your workout more effective?
Now that you’ve figured what time of day works best for you, check out these four simple strategies to get the most out of your fitness routine:
- Don’t push your body too hard. “Don’t try to kill yourself in the limited time you have committed to exercising each week,” says Comana. You should have a realistic approach and understand that exercise alone is probably not going to produce desired results as it accounts for a small portion of your daily calorie burn. You need to take into consideration other factors like NEAT, diet, sleep quality, medication, etc.
- Shift the focus. Pay more attention to the quality of movement (form, technique, etc. to avoid injury) instead of quantity of movement (squeezing a few extra reps to burn a few more calories), suggests Comana.
- Keep the Progressive Overload Principle in mind. The Progressive Overload Principle states that in order for a muscle to grow stronger, the body must be forced to adapt to a tension that is above and beyond what it has previously experienced. “If you’re doing what you’ve always done, your body is never going to change. You have to challenge your body in order to change your body,” Smith explains.
- Learn to enjoy. “Exercise for many is not something they necessarily want to do, but rather something they feel obligated to do. It’s a means to an end,” Comana points out. “Learn to enjoy exercise to the point where you opt to participate voluntarily rather than out of some obligation,” he says. “If you dread going to the gym, find a fitness class, a sport, or some other activity that allows you to have fun while you move your body,” suggests Smith.
In addition, work with a credible professional who can effectively screen for movement dysfunctions and coach good form, says Comana.
Ease into the habit
And if you’re a beginner, start by focusing on building consistency first. Once you’ve accomplished that, then gradually fine-tune variables like the frequency, intensity and duration of your workout, suggests the fitness expert.
Meanwhile, Smith advises beginners to initially aim for the “2% movement” goal. “It means that they should aim to intentionally move their bodies for 2% of their day, which works out to being about half an hour,” he points out. “People generally know that they’re supposed to exercise for 30 minutes per day, but that sounds like a lot. When you re-frame that goal as 2% and make it all about movement, not exercise, it becomes much more doable,” explains the weight-loss coach.