There is a best time of day to work out and it may lead to better results

Claire Zulkey, a 44-year-old freelance writer from the Chicago area, follows a well-established morning routine: she sees her kids off to school, watches her favorite TV show, and completes a full-body workout. After her workout, she showers and starts her workday. On the other hand, 32-year-old Meghan Cully, a graphic designer from Maryland, prefers to exercise after work, hitting the gym on her way home. Cully describes herself as a "slow starter" who struggles to get moving early in the morning.

Both women incorporate exercise into their daily routines, but is one time of day more beneficial than the other?

Assess Your Fitness Goals

A small study conducted at Skidmore College explored the benefits of morning versus evening exercise for both women and men. Paul J. Arciero, Ph.D., a professor in the health and human physiological sciences department at Skidmore, led the investigation.

“We had participants follow the same multi-modal routine, dividing them randomly into morning and evening exercise groups,” says Arciero. "To our surprise, we found that men and women respond differently to exercise depending on the time of day."

The study showed that morning exercise is most effective for women wanting to lower blood pressure or reduce belly fat. Conversely, women aiming to build upper body muscle, improve endurance, or boost their mood should consider evening workouts. For men, the findings were reversed: evening exercise helped lower blood pressure, reduce heart disease risk, and alleviate fatigue, while morning exercise was more effective in burning fat.

Arciero suggests that the best approach might be to adjust your workouts to times of the day that maximize your fitness goals. “If you’re a woman, you might want to perform cardio workouts in the morning and strength training in the evening,” he advises.

Early Birds vs. Night Owls

Jennifer J. Heisz, Ph.D., an associate professor of kinesiology at McMaster University and author of "Move the Body, Heal the Mind," notes that the ideal time to exercise often depends on your chronotype. Chronotype is your body’s natural tendency to sleep at certain times, determining whether you’re a night owl or an early bird. For the 25% of people who are night owls, balancing sleep and exercise can be challenging.

“Exercising at night can clash with societal norms,” says Heisz. “If you stay up until midnight to exercise but need to be up by 7AM, you won't get sufficient sleep.”

Sleep is crucial as it allows your body to recover and benefit from exercise. No matter how beneficial a particular workout time might be, inadequate sleep will diminish the results.

Shifting Your Workout Time

If you want to align your routine with Arciero’s findings or simply make exercise more convenient despite your chronotype, Heisz says it’s possible. “To shift to a morning routine, leveraging both the sun and exercise to reset your biological clock can be very effective,” she suggests. Exercising outside in the sunlight amplifies this effect.

For older adults who wake up too early and struggle to fall back asleep, evening exercises might help them stay asleep longer. Heisz recommends gentler forms of evening exercise, like yoga, to avoid elevating heart rates and making it harder to wind down for sleep.

Cully, the evening exerciser, finds that working out on her way home from work helps her stick to her routine without affecting her sleep. “If I went home first, I probably wouldn’t exercise,” she admits. “But this way, I have my whole evening to relax.”

Regardless of when you exercise, Arciero emphasizes the importance of including a variety of exercise types. For his study, he developed a program called RISE—resistance training, sprint interval training, stretching, and endurance—emphasizing that this mixed approach led to higher compliance and greater benefits.  

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