The Best Time to Work Out Probably Isn't What You Think

Alyssa Atkinson

No, it's not 5 AM.

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When I joined my school's cross-country team in middle school, I was forced to wake up early to get to our 8 AM summer practices on time.

I quickly developed a hatred for running early in the morning. I always felt tired, half asleep, my stomach hurt no matter what I ate, and it took away a lot of joy from running.

Then, when I got to high school, there was an evening summer practice option my freshman year. I looked forward to sleeping in, having my whole day ahead of me, and being fully awake and well fueled by the time practice rolled around.

Unfortunately, within a year or two, they phased out the evening practice option all together, and I was once again stuck with the 8 AM practice time. It was difficult to show up each and every morning, but I did it anyway, because I knew my teammates were counting on me.

After I decided to run in college, I had to find a way to prepare myself for early morning workouts that occured a couple times each week, including a weekly 6 AM swim session. It wasn't fun, but I put my head down and grinded silently through the work. As a result, my race times continued to improve.

Now, this might make you think that the best time of day to work out is super early in the morning, but that is actually not necessarily the case. So, let's dive into the pros and cons of exercising at various times of day, which can ultimately help you choose the best time to work out.

The Morning

While the early morning workout may be my personal least favorite, it does offer a number of enticing benefits.

First off, when you exercise early in the morning, you get it out of the way so that you don't have to think about it. It also gives you those mood boosting endorphis right off the bat.

Next, it can help boost your overall daily productivity, and decrease your mental stress. In fact,

"A morning sweat may also lead to better mental health and productivity throughout the day, since exercise is great for reducing stress."

Finally, your body and mind are fresh from a good night's rest at this time, and you haven't been tired out by any school or work. A study published in 2019 in the Journal of Physiology found that:

"exercising at 7 a.m. may shift your body clock earlier, meaning you’ll feel more alert in the morning and get tired earlier in the evening, potentially priming you to get enough frest to wake up and do the same thing the next day."

Now that I have graduated college and worked from home full-time for over a year, I appreciate morning workouts a lot more. I still don't typically get up and go run first thing in the morning, but I often do within a few hours. I love how it helps me start my day off on a positive note, and I like to get it done and out of the way before I tackle my work.

The Afternoon

The afternoon is a tough time for most people to work out for one main reason. If you work a standard 9 - 5 schedule, it's really hard to squeeze a workout in mid-day. It is much easier to get up early and exercise before work, or simply wait until afterwards.

Still, there are some benefits to afternoon workouts that you might want to consider, even if only for the weekends when an afternoon workout might be more feasible.

First off, you will likely perform better as a result of having more food in your system. Time states:

"afternoon workouts may give your performance a boost, since you’ll have eaten a meal or two by the time you get going."

The second big advantage of an afternoon workout is that it can help you avoid that dreadful slump. In fact,

"The Journal of Physiology study found that exercising between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. can shift forward your body clock in the same way as an early morning workout. Even taking a quick walk may help you perk up and refocus."

So, while an afternoon workout may be more difficult to carve out time for, it also provides some energy and productivity boosting benefits to be aware of.

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The Evening

The final possible workout option is the evening. While this one has always been my absolute least favorite time to train and perform daily exercise, the late evening was actually when I ran a lot of my personal best race times in college.

Now, many people worry that a workout in the evening could cause a disruption of sleep. However, if you are strategic with when you exercise, you can likely avoid this. Time states that:

“Evidence suggests that, as long as you’re not exercising, showering and then [immediately] jumping in bed to go to sleep, it doesn’t interfere with your sleep pattern at all.”

Some studies have even found a correlation between weight loss/maintenance and evening workouts, including a 2019 paper published in the journal Experimental Physiology which found that evening workouts can decrease ghrelin (a hunger-stimulating hormone) levels over time.

Final Thoughts

It is impossible to pinpoint a time to exercise that is the best for every single person, because everyone has a unique schedule and body. The best time to work out for you might not be the best time for me.

Many of my college teammates loved working out early, because they responded well to the training and enjoyed getting it out of the way. However, no matter what I tried, I never felt good on the 6 AM runs and swims, so I preferred the afternoon workouts.

There are pros and cons to exercising in the morning, afternoon, and evening. By testing out various workout times, you can ultimately find your best time to work out. In the end, the best time to exercise is when it fits into your schedule, you feel energized and ready to go, you can take your time, and you find joy in doing it.

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Ohio U XC/Track alum. I love to run. I blog about food, health, fitness, lifestyle, etc. Personal Blog - nomeatfastfeet.com | Electrical and Computer Engineering Grad.

Raleigh, NC
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