There is a best time of day to exercise and it can lead to better results

Claire Zulkey, a 44-year-old freelance writer from the Chicago area, has a well-established morning routine: She takes her kids to school, turns the television into a favorite show, and moves in with a full-body workout. Once completed, Zulkey showers and gets to work.

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Meghan Cully, by contrast, works out a full day before hitting the gym on her way home. The 32-year-old graphic designer from Maryland is a self-described slow starter in the morning and finds it difficult to get around early in the day.

Everyone does their own exercise, but is one time of day better than the other?

Consider your fitness goals

A small study from Skidmore College looked at the benefits of morning versus evening exercise for both women and men. Paul J. Arciero, Ph.D., professor of the health and human physiological sciences department at Skidmore, was the principal investigator.

We asked the groups to follow the same multimodal routine, randomly dividing them into evening and morning groups, she says. We found that women and men respond differently to different types of exercise depending on the time of day, which came as a surprise to us.

The study revealed that for women who want to lower their blood pressure or reduce belly fat, morning exercise works best. Those women seeking upper body muscle gains, endurance, or general mood improvement should consider evening workouts.

For male participants, the findings were somewhat reversed: Evening exercise lowers blood pressure, heart disease risk and feelings of fatigue, while similar women burn more fat with morning exercise. To understand the reasons behind the findings, more research is needed.

What might be ideal, then, says Arciero, is to tailor your workouts to the time of day when you can get the most bang for your buck. If you’re a woman, then you might want to do your cardio workouts in the morning and your strength training in the evening, he says.

Early risers versus night owls

For many people, [the best time to exercise] will depend on their chronotype, says Jennifer J. Heisz, Ph.D., associate professor of kinesiology at McMaster University and author of Move the body, heal the mind.

Chronotype is your body’s natural inclination to sleep at a certain time, it’s what determines whether you’re a night owl or an early riser. For the 25 percent of the population who consider themselves night owls, getting enough sleep and getting enough exercise can be challenging, says Heisz.

Nighttime exercise can sometimes be a challenge to social norms, she explains. You could of course stay up until midnight and work out late into the night, but if you have to leave the house at 7 the next morning, you’re not getting enough sleep.

Sleep, which provides your body with the time it needs to recover and make gains from exercise, should always be a priority when it comes to exercise. Regardless of the research into the benefits of certain exercises at particular times of day, your results will be diminished if you don’t allow enough time to sleep.

How to move your workout time

Whether your goal is to change your routine to adhere to Arcieros’ results around your exercise schedule for the day, or simply to make exercising more convenient even if it goes against your chronotype, Heisz says it’s possible.

If you’d like to transition into a morning routine, for example, the good news is that both sun and exercise can reset your biological signals, she says. Put them together by exercising outside in the sun, and it’s a powerful effect.

For older adults, whose tendency is sometimes to wake up too early and not get back to sleep, evening exercise may be the desired turn. This could help you fall asleep later and stay asleep longer, Heisz says.

If you’re concerned that evening workouts are affecting your ability to fall asleep, shift your workouts to gentler forms of exercise, like yoga. Avoid strenuous exercise like running, which could raise your heart rate and make it harder to relax.

For evening exerciser Cully, the trick is to exercise on the way home from work, which is far enough away from bedtime that it doesn’t affect his sleep. If I went home earlier, I probably wouldn’t exercise, she admits. But then I have the whole evening to relax.

It doesn’t matter when you prefer to exercise, the most important thing, according to Arciero, is to include a multimodal approach. For his study, Arciero developed a program that does just that, called RISE resistance training, interval training of sprinting, stretching and resistance. We found that when you did each type of exercise once a week, compliance was higher, as was the benefit, he explains.

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