Morning or Night? How to Find The Best Time of Day to Work Out
The #1 way to determine what time of day your workout will be most effective.
By Eric Arnold•
Whether you rise before dawn to crush your fitness goals or fit in a sweat session in the afternoon or evening, the best time to work out depends on a lot of factors. And science has a say as well, it turns out.
A recent study, published in the journal Cell Metabolism, examined the effects of morning and nighttime exercise in mice that ran on tiny treadmills (no touchscreen, we're told). When the mice hit the treadmill in the mornings, their bodies relied on fat rather than blood sugar to fuel their runs. By contrast, the mice running at night tapped their blood sugar, not their fat. No one yet knows, however, if the same holds true in humans.
While researchers explore this, one thing isn't in doubt: Any time you can exercise is a good time to do it. So we asked Peloton instructor Andy Speer to share some expert advice on how to help you find the best workout time for you: morning, midday, or night.
When's the Best Time to Exercise?
The simple truth is that the best time to exercise is anytime you can make it happen. Depending on what your schedule dictates or allows, you should try to save some time for physical activity. Your body will reap the benefits no matter what time of day it is.
While there really is no wrong time to exercise, there are advantages to be had at different times of the day, depending on your schedule and workout goals. Below, we’ll review the benefits associated with morning workouts vs. afternoon or evening exercise so you can confidently choose the best time for your own body, fitness goals, and schedule.
Benefits of Morning Workouts
If you prefer morning workouts, you’re not alone! Many people opt to exercise first thing in the morning. There are numerous benefits to choosing an am workout time, including that it can help you:
Inject your day with energy. Starting your day with movement will give you a boost of energy and help you shift into a ready position for the day ahead, both mentally and physically. “Training in the morning pumps blood to your brain, releases endorphins, and excites your nervous system,” explains Andy. “All are great side effects to spur creativity, build confidence, and increase your energy throughout the day.” Particularly right after a workout, “you have an immediate feeling of achievement,” he adds. “When you knock out a challenging workout, your mental state is set to take on the day's challenges.”
By starting your day pumping oxygen to your heart and lungs, you’re setting yourself up to increase your metabolism for the day as well as balance your hormones so you can stay energized for longer.
Build good workout habits. One study concluded that it takes around 66 days to form a habit. And it’s best to build habits when your mind is fresh and uninhibited from the stressors that come along as the day progresses. In addition, cortisol concentration is higher in the morning, and cortisol levels have been identified as a significant mediator in the development of healthy habits. Training your body and mind to wake up in the morning and complete your workout could be the key to consistency that helps you form an unbreakable and life-changing habit of putting your health and fitness first.
Sleep better. This benefit might feel counterintuitive, especially when you first wake up and may struggle to jump into your workout activity. But, by training your body to expect a workout first thing in the morning, you’re more likely to develop the types of healthy sleeping patterns your body should be relying on. Specifically, research shows that exercise can help to regulate melatonin production, improving sleep quality. By embracing your body’s natural circadian rhythm of rising and moving with the sun, your body will be more primed to rest when the lights have gone out—and your sleep quality should improve as a result.
How to Find Morning Workout Motivation
There are benefits to starting the day with a workout, even if you sometimes need to hit snooze a couple times before you're ready. But how do you motivate yourself in the morning? Andy suggests creating the habit with small, gradual changes. “Forcing yourself to wake up early will eventually lead you to get to sleep earlier. It may take a few days, but it will happen,” he says. “Start with easy morning workouts, routines you are familiar with and that are not too intense, and change one major variable at a time. Once you feel better about getting up and working out early, then add intensity and variety.”
Benefits of Afternoon Workouts
There are also advantages to exercising in the afternoon, including that it can help you:
Push through a mid-day slump. We’ve all experienced the dreaded post-lunch crash, and an afternoon workout is the perfect way to combat the slump and feel a hundred times better as a result. The rush of workout-induced endorphins can beat any sluggishness you may feel, improve your mood, provide energy, and support cognitive function so you can finish your day strong.
Perform better because your body’s already warmed up. While you’ll still want to do a quick warmup, the beauty of an afternoon workout is that your body has already been up and moving, so you’ll be more limber. No tight morning muscles here! And, if you’re planning an afternoon workout, you can be more strategic as you’re moving around in the morning—focusing on warming up the muscles you’re planning to work later. You can do calf raises while waiting at the printer, arm stretches after sending an email, or perhaps even a few jumping jacks every time you stand up from your desk.
Enjoy a more intense workout. There’s something about a midday workout that can push you to be extremely productive with the time that you have, and can end up boosting your workout intensity in a really big way. A review of studies found that muscle strength, muscle power, and sprinting abilities all peaked in the afternoon, topping morning performance by anywhere from 3 to 20 percent. Plus, if you know you only have 60 minutes—or often, less time—to complete your workout, you’re going to push yourself to make the most of that time. Then, you’ll have the rest of the day to recover, so the odds are higher you’ll push yourself to go the extra mile.
How to Fit in a Midday Workout
While some people prefer a more leisurely lunch hour, others find a midday workout helps reset their brains and gets them ready to power through the mid-afternoon doldrums. The trick, of course, is clearing your schedule and having enough energy.
That's why Andy recommends you make sure to be well-fueled and hydrated, because it can be easy to forget to eat or drink during the workday. But it's also important to make sure you aren't exhausted well before you clock out, so don't push too hard too often. “Plan your highest-effort days once or twice per week; the other days focus on quality and technique,” Andy explains. “Weights and moderate cardio tend to be less draining than HIIT classes.”
Be sure to warm up, too, even if it's just for 5 minutes, especially if you've been sitting all morning. You need to get your mind ready too.
“Treat your workout time like a meeting,” Andy says. “Block the time out the same way. Also, don't judge yourself negatively if work thoughts flow in and out of your mind. Let the magic of the workout positively affect your thoughts. Don't fight it!”
Benefits of Night Workouts
Evening workouts contain their fair share of benefits, as well. The advantages of working out at night include that it:
Is great for lower-cardio workouts, like yoga. If you need a healthy way to help your body and mind wind down for the day, an evening workout is the perfect opportunity. You can count it as one last chance to connect with your body before it’s time to officially rest. Many people find that evening is the perfect time for a lower-impact workout like Pilates or a nice, long yoga flow. Another perk is that many studies have linked yoga’s benefits to improved sleep.
Helps you reset after work. Whether you opt for a high or a low-impact workout, choosing to do your exercise session in the evening is the perfect way to leave behind whatever happened during the day and to let go of whatever stress you’ve been carrying before you hit the pillow. No matter how busy or demanding your day was, you can leave it all behind you by getting your heart rate up and connecting with your body before the day ends.
Offers a convenient time to work out. If you exercise in the evening, you probably won’t have obligations to meet post-workout, and you won’t be rushing from task to task as you might’ve been doing during the day. So, the next thing on your agenda should be winding down for sleep. You can even make your workout a part of your pre-sleep routine if you opt for something like yoga, or you can get some cardio sets done during the commercial breaks of your favorite show. This is your time, and it’s extremely gratifying to know that your workout is done and dusted before you end your day.
Should You Work Out at Night?
If evening workouts are when you are most motivated (or when you can make the time), ensure that you're stretching sufficiently after every workout to avoid morning stiffness, and also be conscious of the recovery time between your workouts. “Doing an intense evening workout followed by an intense morning workout may not be ideal for recovery,” says Andy. “If you have to, extend the warmup in the morning session. Keep the intensity high, but shorten the actual workout.”
Then, of course, there's the challenge of winding down; night exercise can lead to difficulties falling asleep because it can suppress melatonin levels. “Working out is waking up your nervous system,” says Andy. “It turns on your sympathetic system (fight or flight), [so] your body is still waiting to do the next sprint or pushup.”
To avoid tossing and turning, “Take 15 minutes to stretch, breath or do an easy yoga flow,” Andy says. “The point is to turn on your parasympathetic nervous system to rest and recover. Finishing a hard workout, showering, and going right to sleep without cooling down is not ideal.”
All in All, Just Get It Done
No matter what, focusing on your body’s preferences and scheduling your training based on when you have the most energy and time is essential. And when you’re crunched for time, Andy has a simple strategy to maximize the time and energy you do have.
“Do the most important element either first or when you feel the best. If you are more likely to skip running at night, then put it in the morning and lift at night, or vice versa. Bottom line, make your training work within your routine.”
The beauty of working out consistently is that you don’t have to do it at the same time every day. Even highly extensive research concludes that while the body’s response to exercise does vary according to the time of day and alignment of circadian clocks, the optimal exercise time to elicit a desired metabolic outcome is not fully defined. There’s no perfect formula or time slot you need to force yourself into aligning with. You can even switch it up and get your workouts done during your lunch breaks on weekdays and then do longer, more thorough morning workouts on the weekend.
The most important thing is that you’re getting your fitness goals accomplished, no matter what time of day they’re happening. If you want even more flexibility with your workout routine, check out the Peloton App to access live and on-demand classes at any time of day.