Many questions related to health and fitness we wish we had a strict answer for. However, when it comes to the topics of diet and exercise, the answer is usually “it depends”. For example, a hot topic in the field of health and exercise science right now is whether there is a “best” time to exercise, and you’ve likely seen this come up in the news recently. Results from some studies suggest a certain time over others, depending on the outcome of interest in that particular study. But, spoiler alert—the answer we will give you is “the best time to exercise is the time you’ll actually do it.”
A similar question is, “what is the best piece of exercise equipment to buy?” and the answer again would be, “the one you’ll use the most.” Different pieces of equipment all have their own advantages and disadvantages, but there is no advantage if you don’t use it. The same can be said for the best time of day to exercise.
People may have a time they prefer, feel the best, have the most time, etc. However, the best time to exercise is the time that is most convenient to you, and that helps to promote consistent exercise habits. Here are few ideas to consider when determining when it may be best for you to exercise.
The benefit for many to commit to a morning workout is there is less competition for other scheduled time. If you struggle with exercise consistency, establishing a morning routine could help, as it gets the exercise done early in the day and could help make it part of your regular routine. Work may not have started yet, social activities are often later in the day, fewer family conflicts (like dinner) exists, kid’s practice, etc., so it’s a good way to start the day off and feel productive. Findings from one study reported that those who did morning workouts were more likely to have increased physical activity the rest of the day (Hanlon, 2012). This can be a great advantage to promote sustained physical activity and reduce sedentary time. Results from other studies suggest late evening workouts may impair sleep quality as well as the ability to fall asleep (Fairbrother, 2014). Further, morning workouts can have beneficial effects on mental health. Some may prefer to workout on an empty stomach—if you find you often get a stomachache or cramps during workouts, it could be caused by meal timing. However, findings from research on skipping meals or exercising in a fasted state are mixed, and working out fasted can lead to “bonking” or feelings of low energy during a workout, so consider this when deciding whether to exercise before or after eating.
A midday workout can be a great way to avoid the afternoon slump. It’s likely you’ve had a meal or two by now, and getting in some exercise, even a light walk, can help with digestion by stimulating gut motility. Physical activity after lunch can also help with glucose control in people with Type 2 diabetes by enhancing glucose absorption. Our circadian rhythms may also make midday exercise a great choice, as body temperature and reaction time peak in the afternoon, which could boost athletic performance. In contrast, this can be one of the hardest times to schedule exercise because of other obligations and the time it takes to change in and out of workout clothes. As mentioned above, this might be the perfect opportunity for light physical activity, like a 10-minute walk, that doesn’t require a change of clothes.
While some research suggests evening workouts may reduce sleep quality, it depends on the type of workout, as well as the proximity to bedtime. For example, some forms of exercise may actually be relaxing and promote good sleep quality, such as light stretching and yoga practices. Evening exercise may also be a matter of convenience, as it might be easier to hit the gym on your way home from work, or take a walk, or do some high intensity interval training after the kids go to bed. Further, evening exercise can be a great way to relieve stress that builds up over the course of the day. Keep in mind, however, that a high intensity workout should not be performed immediately before trying to fall asleep, since it can raise your body temperature just as core body temperature is starting to naturally decline overnight.
A few finals thoughts for you on what are YOUR best practices for exercise: Be sure to choose an activity you enjoy. Much like the equipment or time of day, if you don’t like what you’re doing for exercise, you won’t do it. Exercise shouldn’t be something you dread, as this is not a sustainable practice and will not build up to a consistent habit. Maybe exercise is a chance to catch up with family or friends, a book on tape, or to take some time to yourself and take a class you’ve been wanting to try. As for finding the “right” time, take a few weeks trying workouts at different times of day and see what works best for you. Maybe you want to be a morning person, but you can actually commit the most to evening workouts. With exercise the greatest benefits come when you establish a consistent, lifelong habit, no matter the time of day you choose.
Kimberly Burke is the director of the Adult Fitness Program at Colorado State University, an outreach program through the Department of Health and Exercise Science. Adult Fitness offers exercise opportunities for employees of CSU as well as community members, while providing hands-on learning experiences for health promotion students.
Josiane L. Broussard, Ph.D., is a clinical and translational scientist interested in sleep & circadian rhythms and metabolic health. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health and Exercise Science at Colorado State University where she directs the Sleep and Metabolism Laboratory. She has been researching sleep for the last 20 years since her first job out of college in a sleep lab in Boston.
Fairbrother, K., Cartner, B., Alley, J. R., Curry, C. D., Dickinson, D. L., Morris, D. M., & Collier, S. R. (2014). Effects of exercise timing on sleep architecture and nocturnal blood pressure in prehypertensives. Vascular health and risk management, 10, 691–698. https://doi.org/10.2147/VHRM.S73688
Hanlon B, Larson MJ, Bailey BW, LeCheminant JD. Neural response to pictures of food after exercise in normal-weight and obese women. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012 Oct;44(10):1864-70. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31825cade5. PMID: 22617393.