What is the Best Time of Day for Exercise?

Morning, Lunchtime, Afternoon and Evening Exercise – the Pros and Cons

I have always been envious of the types who can wake up early and jump to their exercise routine. Sure, there are benefits (for all times of day). For me, it takes time and a strong cup of tea before I am ready to face the world…

This page looks at the best time of day to exercise from several angles.

There are pros and cons for each period of the day. Tied into this is the type of exercise you are doing, and your fitness goals.

As you will see in the wrap-up at the end. Consistency is the key to any type of fitness. The benefits of ‘forcing yourself’ to work out at a time of day that does not suit your lifestyle or natural rhythms can be quickly undone if you lose motivation.

Types of Fitness Activities Covered

Three different areas are covered here for each of the 4 times of day (morning, lunchtime, afternoon / early evening and then later evenings).

These are:

  • Fat Burning: For those aiming for weight loss (or weight control).
  • Cardio: Some overlap with fat burning, though this is more for those aiming for overall fitness, cardiovascular health and improving fitness levels.
  • Strength Training: Lifting and body-weight exercise for those looking to build mass.

You might have a mixed routine. In this case, looking at the pros / cons for each of these activities will give you an overall picture.

Practical Considerations

Most of us work, and whatever the science says, changing times is not always easy. There are also questions on classes at gyms. These often fill only in the mornings and evenings – with a slower schedule in between.

Sleep also comes into it. A good sleep pattern is essential to overall health and fitness. I have covered this more in the ‘night’ section below. For now, just a mention that both early and late exercise can disrupt this – and that a bad sleep schedule will quickly undo any benefits.

Eating is also covered. If you want peak performance (especially for HIIT, running or strength training), then you need to time your workouts with your energy peaks.

Morning workouts pros and cons

Best Time of Day for Exercise #1 – Mornings

Exercise in the morning is known to have the advantage of ‘setting you up for the day’. It improves mood, motivation and overall energy levels.

With your last mean often dinner, you’ll have fasted for up to 12 hours before working out. That is a plus for burning fat. At the same time, you might not have the energy levels to perform at your best. Breakfast is an option, though you don’t want a full stomach!

Fat Burning: Mornings are a good time of day to burn off stored fat. The (relative) lack of glycerol, which is how your body stores energy from carbs, means you get to burning fat faster.

Intensive Cardio: For those with less fat looking to up their cardio fitness levels, mornings are not so beneficial. The lack of glycerol means that you risk hitting a wall sooner – before you get to the peak of intensity.

Strength Training: Again, mornings are not ideal, especially without a light breakfast. You’ll often be unable to push harder for those gains.

Personal rhythms play an important role here. Are you someone who wakes up full of energy? Or maybe you (like me!) start slow and build up during the day.

One final consideration before you set your alarm for 5:30am! If that shortens your sleep significantly, then you might need to think again (or go to bed earlier). A full 7 to 8 hours is considered essential to overall fitness. If you compromise on that one, the benefits will be quickly undone.

Lunch break workouts

Best Time of Day for Exercise: Lunchtime

This is not possible for many people, with work and family commitments. To clarify, I am covering working out before you eat lunch here. If you can get away for an hour for a lunch time workout, you could be setting yourself up for the day.

Fat Burning: With a healthy breakfast under your belt, you will have more energy compared to early in the morning. While there are no big advantages compared to early evenings, workout out here can help you with appetite reduction later in the day.

Aerobic Exercise: Gyms don’t get packed at lunchtime, and classes might be thinner on the ground than at other peaks (mornings and evenings). Key here is to workout before you eat. If you are pushing your limits (HIIT or CrossFit for example), then a light mid-morning snack might help maintain energy levels. Make sure you focus on healthy post-workout recovery foods for your lunch after you finish.

Strength Training: Once again energy levels are key. If you lift on your lunch break, make sure you have plenty of protein and low-GI carbs for breakfast.

Not all of us are constrained by a 1-hour lunchbreak. If you are free in the early afternoon, then you can get all these benefits after eating. Remember to leave 1.5 to 2 hours, and to tailor the food you take to your fitness goals.

Evening Exercise

Best Time of Day for Exercise: Late Afternoon / Early Evening

This is peak time for gym classes, runners and just about every sport and fitness activity you can think of. There are two reasons for this. First, work: most of us get away between 5 and 6 and eating dinner would mean needing to wait until later evening to exercise. Exercising first, then going home for tea is the routine that works with our other commitments.

Secondly, you’ll have time for more exercise. Mornings are often squeezed in before work (or school run) commitments, and by the time you have changed and showered, an hour’s lunchbreak is not long!

Fat Burning: Time is on your side in the evenings. You’ll be able to work out longer and burn calories and eventually fat. Depending on your eating habits during the day, you’ll have stored glycerol. This might give you energy, though it needs to be used up before you get to the fat. In other words, if you use the extra time to work out longer, you’ll have no problems.

Cardio Activities: With most people having peaks in energy levels in the early evening, this is a great time to push yourself a little harder! Gym classes tend to peak at this time, and if my local park is anything to go by – running clubs meet too. Use those stored carbs to push yourself hard, and you’ll have a sweet night’s sleep, making the next day easier.

Strength Training: Like cardio, those carbs you store throughout the day make a significant difference. For many lifters, this period is when they are able to push hard, extending gains. It is an ideal time of day for another reason too. Afterwards, you can stock up on protein and healthy greens. Leaving them to do their building work while you relax in the evening.

Most people choose the early evenings for practical reasons, though this is a great time of day to work out for energy reasons too. If you tend to be on a low ebb by the evening time, then you should consider the earlier slots. Otherwise, go with the crowd and work out after work.

Working out at night

Best Time of Day for Exercise: Later Evenings

Some night owls enjoy the quiet period when everyone else is watching TV for their workouts. Sleep is a huge consideration here. Exercising can reduce the amount of melatonin, a chemical that helps to regulate sleep.

In short, you can easily disrupt your sleep schedule if you work out too late.

Energy-wise, you should have plenty of glycerol by this time – that is not the key factor. If you are lucky enough to sleep like a baby, then late evening will not be a problem. If not, then you need to factor in the need for that solid 7 to 8 hours of shut-eye.

Wrapping Up: Best Time to Exercise for You

To really benefit from fitness activity, you need to be regular. If you ‘force’ yourself to work out when you are not in the mood, then it is always going to be a struggle to maintain motivation.

There is a lot of science behind working out at different times of day. Sure, you should factor this in when making a decision. The most important consideration is what works for you practically. Find the best time for your schedule, adjust your eating and sleeping (keeping those 8 hours!) to work with it – and you’ll soon see the benefits.

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