It's common knowledge that working out daily is a great way to boost your energy and stay in shape, but there may be another, less expected factor to the exercise equation: time of day. Does hitting the gym in the a.m. boost your metabolism? Does a p.m. jog around the neighborhood help you sleep better? Turns out, the answer isn't as straightforward as you may think.
Meet the expert: Jake Lauffenburger is a personal trainer at Work Out World, a New Jersey-based health and fitness club. Prior to training at Work Out World, he was a strength and conditioning coach for college basketball and soccer teams.
The Basic Breakdown:
According to Jake, the best time for you to work out depends on three things:
- Your diet
- How high your energy level is throughout the day
- What kind of person you are/your schedule
There is no universally perfect exercise plan, but being aware of these three components can help you get closer to your workout goals.
What You Eat and When You Eat It:
“If I have a belly full of breakfast, lunch, or dinner and I try to work out, I feel so slow and heavy and nauseous—even if I've waited a few hours,” says Caitlin Hardgrove, a Her Campus writer and recent James Madison University graduate.
While you might think the best solution to this is to alter your workout schedule to a time when you have an empty stomach, the opposite is actually true. According to an article from healthline.com, your body goes into “survival mode” when it's running on empty, which is only exacerbated by exercise. This causes fat to get stored and counteracts the effects of hitting the gym. When you have no food in your stomach, your body keeps the workout going by using muscle instead. Since a main goal of exercise is to build muscle and burn fat, exercising on an empty stomach is counterproductive.
You've heard the phrase, “never go to bed angry,” right? Well, try this mantra: never go to bed on a full stomach. If you eat bigger dinners, working out at night is probably your best option (after ample digestion time, of course). “If you go right to bed, you're keeping all that calorie intake in your system,” says Jake. Think of the balance between sleeping, eating, and calorie burning as a completely connected process. An article from the National Sleep Foundation suggests waiting between two and three hours after eating before going to bed. The discomfort caused by a full stomach makes it difficult to fall asleep and a full night of rest is necessary for our bodies to perform the necessary processes that keep us healthy (i.e., efficient at calorie-burning) and able to keep up with regular workouts. At the same time, it's necessary to complete any workouts a few hours before bed, since body temperature rises during exercise, causing alertness, and takes awhile to drop. To work with this process, try eating dinner around 5 or 6 p.m. and waiting an hour before hitting the gym. Spend 30 minutes to one hour working out, then spend a few hours at home watching TV or browsing Her Campus before heading to bed.
If you're more of the small dinner type, exercise in the morning and have a bigger breakfast instead. If you find yourself too full for any strenuous exercise, try eating earlier or starting out at a slower pace and working your way up. In Caitlin's case, the best option may be to eat smaller meals throughout the day, making sure you're never hungry but also never completely stuffed.
Morning People Vs. Night People:
“I try to work out in the morning whenever I can manage to get up that early,” says former Her Campus staff writer Julianne Grauel, a student at Carnegie Mellon University. “I feel more motivated early and my workouts tend to get lazier the longer I wait.”
This is the trickiest exercise variable to conquer. When you're tired, you may find yourself skimping on your usual routine or moving at a slower pace. In these cases, the overall benefit is much less. Instead, get going when you're most awake to keep those energy levels up. A study from About.com's medical pages (all of which are approved by the Medical Review Board) provides this food for thought:
- In the evening, from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., your body is at its highest temperature. This is usually the best time to get moving, BUT it doesn't mean everything
- Most people are able to work out longer in the afternoon
- The least injuries occur in the afternoon, mostly because of alertness and muscle awareness
- Still, morning exercisers prove to be more consistent and keep up with daily exercise more often than night exercisers
- That common belief that strenuous workouts before bed can keep you up? It isn't necessarily true. Both morning movers and nighttime gym-hitters have been shown to have improved sleep schedules
So what do all these conflicting statements mean? Just like figuring out the optimal time to study or do homework, exercise also depends on your personal preferences and habits. If you're trying to increase your running endurance, jump on the treadmill at 3 or 4 p.m. since our ability to work out longer is heightened in the afternoon. If you're prone to injury, lift some weights during your lunch break since alertness and muscle awareness are usually at their peak. If you have a tendency to make excuses for exercising, stick to a morning schedule to keep yourself going strong.
Keeping a Schedule:
“I've tried working out mid-day and notice that I usually find reasons to skip it because I don't want to shower again or would rather nap, or I am too rushed trying to fit it in between other things that I can't really focus and enjoy it,” says Her Campus staff writer Aylin Erman, a recent Harvard University graduate. “It's an easy rhythm [for me] to work out in the morning.”
Take a look at what other activities you do throughout the day. Do you have a two-hour window in the late morning or evening? Turn this into exercise time. Making your workout part of a schedule instead of going to the gym whenever you feel like it increases its importance and frequency. “When people keep a consistent workout time, they see better results because they have a system,” says Jake. “Those people that are sporadic in their sessions tend not to see as many results.”
Regardless of Time:
Whether you benefit from getting moving in the morning or at night, these tips are important for all exercisers:
- Make sure you have some kind of cardio and a type of strength training.
- If you're short on time, split your workout between morning and night. An hour of exercise is an hour of exercise.
- Consistency is key.
- Know what works for your own body.
The bottom line: The most important variable is YOU. If a study says to exercise in the morning and you hate getting out of bed before noon, following that advice will probably backfire. Most findings allude to the fact that choosing a time of day to exercise is more about knowing how to exercise at that time (how much to eat, how soon to sleep, etc.) than about the time itself. While the most important goal is to burn calories, knowing what actions to take to do this most efficiently can make a huge difference.
Jacob Lauffenburger: Personal Trainer, Work Out World
Aylin Erman: Her Campus Staff Writer, Harvard University Graduate
Caitlin Hardgrove: Her Campus Staff Writer, James Madison University Graduate
Julianne Grauel: Her Campus Staff Writer, Carnegie Melon University