It’s one of the most hotly debated and simultaneously inane topics in fitness: What time of day is the best time to workout? For most people existing in the normal sphere, the answer aligns with Columbia University’s ask-me-your-most-embarrassing-questions provocateur Go Ask Alice. In addition to having her to thank for filling in the gaps in my sex education (even grown-ups wonder about… things) , she is also good at spouting the party line by succinctly stating the current scientific consensus. Which in this case is – say it with me now – “The best time to exercise is the time that’s right for you.“
Good, now that we’ve got that out of the way we can agree that since a) I’m not normal and b) I schedule my day around my workout(s) rather than the other way around, there is some merit in discussing this further. Even if it is just to have you all comment, “I can’t believe you schedule your day around your workouts! Get a life, you nut!!”
So what is the best time of day to workout?
It depends on what you are doing. According to research published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, human beings are actually at their weakest first thing in the morning with muscular strength peaking in the late afternoon and early evening. Our muscles burn glycogen and glycogen stores are running low due to our overnight fasting. Also, apparently our muscles work better when our body temperature is higher which naturally peaks later in the day.
A disturbing little study cited in the same article studied male college students for 10 weeks. The group of 16 men did 45 minutes of weights followed by 45 minutes of cardio. Half the group did this workout at 10 am and the other half did it at 6 pm. What happened is either very disturbing or very indicative of the crazy lives of college males:
“The PM group had a 3.2% increase in lean mass, compared with a 0.6% gain in the AM group. Body fat dropped by 4% in the PM group, while it actually increased by nearly 5% in the AM group.”
If I were in that study I’d be ticked. 5% is a lot of body fat to gain in 10 weeks. Of course this type of study often has many variables that cannot be controlled for. To truly analyze the results we’d need to do a follow-up study examining the correlation of late-night frat party keggers/A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila marathons with missed a.m. workouts. I’m just saying.
On the other end of the exercise spectrum however, it appears that if cardio is your goal then the morning might be your best time to workout. Not only do morning exercisers report having greater energy throughout the day, it may also help you burn more fat and continue to burn more fat throughout the day due to a super-charged metabolism.
Another perk of a.m. cardio is that you are more likely to stick with it. Apparently will power is a limited resource and as you spend it over the course of the day on things like not eating your office mate’s face cake then you have less of it to motivate you to workout when you finally get out of said office.
Lark or Owl
One last factor to consider is that scientists have discovered something very exciting: People are different. And not just in which locker room they use. (Side note: the men’s locker rooms at my gym are red. The women’s are green. This has caused more than one massively embarrassing moment to many an inattentive gym goer, myself included. My theory is that maintenance has a wicked sense of humor.) Apparently there are two types of folks – larks, or naturally early risers, and owls, or naturally late sleepers. Despite all assertions to the contrary by your high school principal, your body gravitates towards one or the other. I’m an owl married to a lark. He’s the Bella to my Edward. I even have the pale cold skin to prove it! But I definitely look better in a dress. Not that that’s important to vampires. Although it is to my husband. Anyhow…
The other night I got to put my owl tendencies to the test when I joined Gym Buddies Allison, Paul, Vernie, Sarah, Sunshine and Turbo Jennie for Midnight Turbo – a concept that only the most insane fitness fanatics would be excited about. And excited we were! The night started with an hour-long drive in which Sunshine and I shared the fold-down backseat of Paul’s Highlander. I haven’t been that close to someone in the backseat of a car since a very awkward double date in college in which all parties have been paid to never mention again. We then did Turbo Kick and Hip Hop Hustle until the wee hours of the morning, ending with dinner/breakfast/nausea at the local 24-hour diner. Capping the whole night of fun was the drive home, spent in the back giggling insanely with Sunshine for no apparent reason.
You know what I discovered? Midnight workouts give me really strange dreams. And it was fun to change up my routine. Except for Mondays and some Thursdays, I workout in the morning because am workouts interfere the least with my children’s schedules. I like my a.m. sweat fests. I find I have more energy and patience throughout the day. I worry less about what I eat. Overall I think this owl girl is pretty converted to her lark schedule. And yet the nighttime workout was a blast as well. So maybe I’m closer to Go Ask Alice then I thought.
So, raise of hands – who’s a lark and who’s an owl? When is your ideal time to workout? When do you actually work out?