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20 Jul

What is the Best Time of Day to Exercise?

fitnesstimeMany people, myself included, prefer streamlining fitness to obsessing over its minutiae. Although I’m no fan of their footwear, Nike’s “Just Do It” really does capture my view of what exercise should be. Find what you like doing and what works for you, and simply go do it. But not everyone is that way. Tons of people truly enjoy the nitty gritty details. They like the research, the nutrient timing, the supplementation. They’re the ones discussing the respective differences between sumo deadlifts, regular deadlifts, and Romanian deadlifts. They’re the ones who want to wring out every last drop of performance.

I get that. I used to be like that, too, but now I take more of an academic interest. That’s not to say I don’t pay attention to what I’m doing, because while I like to think I’m just going with the flow and doing what I enjoy, I also like knowing that what I’m doing is effective. Basically, I don’t like wasting time. Plus, many readers fall into the latter category of those who want the details.

Today, I’m going to look at the effect (if there is one) of workout timing. Should you lift in the morning upon waking, or at night? Are the effects of morning exercise different than the effects of afternoon exercise? Does working out right before bed disrupt sleep or improve it? Let’s explore these and other questions as we decide which is the best time of day to work out – if such a thing definitively exists at all.

I’ll go down the line and examine the effect of diurnal variation on various aspects of exercise. Let’s dig in.

Performance

If you’re interested in performance, some evidence seems to point toward the afternoon and early evening as the best time to exercise. In one recent study, ten and eleven year old boys performed better in the afternoon than in the morning. Grip strength improved 5.9%, squat jump performance increased 3.5%, the “5 jump” test improved 5%, and performance increased 5.5% (peak) and 6% (mean) during the Wingate test (which measures peak anaerobic output) from morning to afternoon. They also tested the boys in mid afternoon (2:00 PM) and early evening (6:00 PM), but found no difference in performance. This study found a similar result in morning and afternoon PE students using the Wingate test, but the authors suggest that longer warmups during morning sessions could mitigate the performance deficit. So, morning workouts require longer warmups? I can buy that.

Sprinting? Try afternoons for maximal power, but don’t think you’ll have any extra stamina. This study found that maximal power was highest during the first three sprints (of ten total) in the afternoon when compared to morning sprints. Fatiguability was no greater, though.

Another cycling study found that afternoon power output was greater than morning power output in trained cyclists. Fatigue was not affected by time of day, however.

Another study compared the knee extensor strength (via the mighty half squat!) of two groups of trainees. The first group had spent 10 weeks training in the morning, while the second group had spent 10 weeks training in the evening. Both groups improved over baseline, but the evening trainees enjoyed greater strength gains.

I wouldn’t assume that all exercise is better in the afternoon, however. The authors of this study suggest that submaximal exercise – like jogging, walking, hiking, or anything that relies on stamina and little else, really – is not negatively impacted by diurnal variation, which makes sense in light of the previous studies showing that while maximal power decreases in the morning, stamina does not.

Takeaway: Raw power and performance in weight lifting, cycling, and sprinting is highest in the afternoon and evening. Stamina does not increase or decrease, however, and the changes in performance may be mitigated by more extensive warmups. If you’re a high level athlete or really interested in how you perform, afternoons and evenings are best. If you’re just trying to get and/or stay fit, strong, and healthy, morning workouts are just fine.

Hormonal Effects

How does timing change how a workout affects your hormonal profile?

One study found that lifting heavy things in the evening, as opposed to the morning, resulted in a more anabolic (strength and size-building) testosterone/cortisol ratio. Baseline cortisol values were lower in the evening (which is normal) and higher in the morning (also normal; cortisol is necessary for morning wakefulness), which probably explains why evening training worked better. If you’re starting with already elevated cortisol, some intense training is only going to spike it even more. If you’re starting with moderate cortisol, intense training won’t have as negative an effect and your testosterone levels will likely be sufficient to counteract the rising cortisol.

Not all research is so clear-cut, though. In a study on muscular hypertrophy (growth), both morning and afternoon weight-training worked equally well at growing muscles and increasing maximal strength. There was a slight, but statistically insignificant advantage to training at night.

Takeaway: Don’t hop directly under the bar in your pajamas with bleary eyes. Take the time to wake up and relax before working out. That might mean pushing your morning CrossFit class to an afternoon session, or at least a late morning one. We know that cortisol is normally elevated in the mornings, and exercise increases cortisol, so be aware of how the two interact.

Health

How does diurnal variation affect the general health benefits of exercise? Obviously, if you can perform better and reap bigger strength gains in the afternoon, you’ll probably gain more lean mass and lose more fat, but what does the research show?

There are mixed results. Post-menopausal women were split up into two groups in a recent walking study. One would walk in the morning, while the other would walk in the evening. At the end of the study, evening walkers had lower fat mass despite eating larger breakfasts. Both groups improved their aerobic fitness, but the evening walkers did better overall.

Recently, much has been made of the neuroprotective effects of exercise. In other words, the pursuit of brawn appears to lead to brain, too. A recent study found that the neuroprotective effects of aerobic exercise were modulated by its timing. Rats ran for 20 minutes on a rat wheel, either early in the morning or in the afternoon, after which their HAT/HDAC ratios were measured. HAT are histone acetyltransferases, and HDAC are histone deacetylases. The HAT/HDAC ratio indicates how much acetylation is occuring. Higher ratios indicate more histone acetylation and greater neuroprotection, while lower ratios indicate less neuroprotection. So, high is good, low is bad. Both exercise protocols increased the ratio, but the afternoon session increased it more than the early morning session.

But the time of day doesn’t always matter. Check out this study, in which morning and afternoon treadmill sessions were tested for their respective effects on blood fluidity post exercise: blood fluidity improved across the board, regardless of when the exercise was performed. Another study found that resistance training (3 sets of 7 reps at 80% of one rep max) improved platelet function, irrespective of time of day. Morning and afternoon sessions were equally beneficial.

Takeaway: Evening/afternoon sessions seem to be somewhat more protective and beneficial, but morning sessions are also helpful – just less so. And there are other parameters on which diurnal variation has no effect, so it’s not a clear cut answer either way. Let’s put it this way – both are good.

Sleep

Everyone can agree that exercise in general improves the quality and incidence of sleep. Simply put, if you’re on a regular exercise regimen, you’ll probably sleep better, deeper, and easier. But what about working out right before bed? Will the cortisol spike and keep you awake? Will the increased heart rate keep you from settling down? Let’s find out and look at some studies.

Here’s one that found a 5:00 pm 30-minute session of moderate exercise improved sleep in elderly patients who normally had trouble falling asleep. They fell asleep faster and enjoyed greater satisfaction with the quality of their sleep. Another, using underwater exercise in untrained subjects, found that late afternoon (4:30 pm) exercise had no effect on sleep. Even late night, “vigorous exercise” may not negatively impact your sleep, as a study in trained cyclists showed. The subjects were able to get to sleep 30 minutes after three hours of cycling at 65-75% of their max heart rate without issue.

Takeaway: Unless you personally find that late night exercise negatively impacts your sleep, don’t worry about exercising at night.

Sustainability

We’re all individuals here, but there may be patterns of workout consistency that correlate with the timing of workouts. Do morning exercisers work out more consistently than afternoon or evening exercisers?

One study found that people who exercised in the mornings were more likely to exercise in general, while people who said they exercised at night or in the afternoon were less active overall. I wouldn’t read too much into this, and I think a likely explanation is that people who are willing to wake up early to work out are more likely to stick with something – like a workout regimen. Early risers are generally more consistent, I think most people would agree, and this research bears that out.

Takeaway: Epidemiology is nothing to hang your hat on. Correlations may indicate something about populations, but if you, yourself, find you exercise better at a particular time of day, they are almost useless.

As for me, I like late morning workouts, but that’s just because late morning works best for me and my schedule. I’m not trying to optimize my hormonal responses, boost my metabolism, or maximize my workout grip strength. I’m just working regular exercise into my daily routine, when and where it fits.

You can read the research and follow the links, but ultimately, the best time of day to exercise is the time of day that works for you. If you’re dead tired after work, perhaps a morning session is the answer. If late night workouts keep you buzzed and awake, move them back an hour and go from there. Also, as the context of your life changes, you’ll have to mix up your workout schedule on the fly. Get a bad night’s sleep? Your cortisol is raging, and a late afternoon workout is probably better than an early morning one.

When do you workout? Does it work for you? Thanks for reading, and be sure to let us all know about your workout schedule!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I definitely try to get mine in in the morning, or else I rarely get to the gym. But I’ve been SLACKING lately. Gotta get on that.

    dani wrote on July 21st, 2011
  2. My husband and I LHT in the evenings once the kids are in bed. I think we remain consistent because we have a great partnership to spur each other on. Plus, with having three kids…a good night sleep is few and far between so I’m glad that evening workouts are better for cortisol. It’s working for us…..thanks Mark – I appreciate your approach to this so much!

    Momto3 wrote on July 21st, 2011
  3. I’m a new reader to the blogs and I love what I’m learning so far. Personally I’m one of those people who has to work out in the morning. During the school year its as soon as my son is on the bus, in the summer it has to be before he gets up. I’ve tried running or working out in the early to late evening and it makes it so I can’t sleep. Where an early morning workout helps me go to sleep at 9 or 10.

    Deanna wrote on July 21st, 2011
  4. What’s all this about “workouts”. What’s happenend to just “move frequently at a slow pace”. Peggy the Primal Parent’s view makes the most sense to me. I don’t even think about what time of day it is when I walk, sweep the paths, lift logs, dig the garden, carry heavy shopping etc. I don’t even think of it as exercise, just part of my daily life.

    Tracy wrote on July 21st, 2011
    • Most definitely agree.

      Just like we should add variety to the way we incorporate eating into daily life, we should also add variety into how we add exercise into daily life.

      Asturian wrote on July 21st, 2011
  5. Great post Mark. I’ve definitely noticed better performance in the later afternoon and evening personally. Like you said, it all comes down to what works for you individually.

    Squatchy wrote on July 21st, 2011
  6. Interesting, but I would like to see if there is a dfference based upon people who have desk jobs versus other types of work. As an office worker, I find working out between noon and 6 pm breaks up my day and keeps me better focused on the intellectual side of the job. If/when I work out in the morning, I still need to take a second workout break later just to clear my head. It is inconvenient to accomplish all of the post-workout grooming our society expects for a professionally attired female but you gotta do what you gotta do!

    Linda wrote on July 21st, 2011
  7. Thanks for this! I’ve always noticed I run, lift, and play harder and better in the afternoon and evening. My morning exercise is always suboptimal, and I just thought I was crazy. :)

    FYI – For fat burning, my understanding is that it’s best to workout prior to eating which usually only logically happens in the morning. I try to do this at least once a week.

    Karen P. wrote on July 21st, 2011
  8. The recognition of cortisol levels typically being elevated in the A.M and exercise increasing cortisol further is particularly helpful for those of us beset with visceral fat problems. For many years, as an endurance athlete. I typically ran between 10 and 30 miles starting at sun up, and before breakfast. Some of the results were low subcutaneous fat, but high visceral fat. Since converting to the PB plan, I’ve been doing HIIT running before breakfast, but now think I will move this to late morning. Thank you!

    Brett wrote on July 21st, 2011
  9. I’ve always read research like you have above that evening workouts tend to hold more benefits, but I also think working out first thing in the morning is one of the best ways to stay consistent, which is of more benefit to me than evening benefits.

    Ahmed-LivingNotSurviving wrote on July 22nd, 2011
  10. I used to workout in the early mornings. I love walking before the world wakes up…there’s a stillness this time of day you don’t get any other time.

    I then shifted toward doing an hour-long weight training and cardio program. After a few months, I would head home about 6:30 and just crash…feeling like I was hit by a truck. I since found out after a saliva test that I had adrenal fatigue, which points to cortisol levels in the mornings.

    My take-away? If you’re dealing with a lot of stress in your life, early morning workouts may be more harmful to your body than helpful. I’ve since modified and workout after work or in the mid-day if I can get away.

    Lisa wrote on July 22nd, 2011
    • Your decision to move your exercise sessions from the A.M. seems appropriate.
      For many of us, given the nature of modern society stress scenarios (being abstract/less physical), and the discordance of these scenarios with our evolutionary heritages ( physical flight/fight stress), we may not do well unless we strategically plan when to exercise. Both stress and cortisol, for instance, will increase glucose production and likely fat storage as well as appetite, beyond what is required to deal with the stress. This process leads to cortisol responsive abdominal fat accumulation and disease.

      Brett wrote on July 22nd, 2011
  11. Have I totally missed the point, I just don’t understand all the “workout in the morning to get it out of the way”. Why are people trying to get moving around out of the way? Grok didn’t even know what cortisol was. I assume he just went about his daily duties/play as and when he needed to/wanted to. Is it only me who doesn’t think about cortisol levels, calories burnt and all the rest of it while walking the dog or tending the garden?

    Tracy wrote on July 22nd, 2011
  12. You should work out when your body clues you too. Trust your instincts. For me, it’s late afternoon.

    Guilly wrote on July 22nd, 2011
  13. I have found that for me a workout at about 5 pm when the sun has gone behind my house is much more enjoyable and I have a lot more mobility. It also helps me sleep much better.

    Working out in the afternoon has become a family thing where my little girl and I will work out and when mom comes home from work she will jump in as well. It has become a fun time of day for us…. (family time) we play and talk and best of all it is getting us fit.

    we do a lot of balancing exercises , TRX , kettle bells , medicine ball and body weight exercises . We also do some High intensity training a few times a week (not my little girl, she’s only 10)

    At the end of the day though it is like all things. Everyone is different and as with diet you have to play around with things and find what works for you. We are all different and will respond very differently to what and how much we eat and so it also applies to How and when we exercise.

    Great article Mark thanks

    Scotty

    SCOTTY wrote on July 22nd, 2011
  14. Well, I did some swiming before in the morning, which is great exercise and gave me lot of energy during the day, but for my crossfit sessions i prefer the afternoon or even early evening. Then I feel more powerfull and i handle better the “lift heavy things” routine. I practice Aikido as well after work, wich is working better, becauses it frees my mind from the daily stress.

    Assen wrote on July 26th, 2011
  15. I am 61 years old and with arthritis early morning is not my friend. I have trouble going to sleep and staying asleep….but if I “dance” or work out before bed it really helps me relax and sleep longer periods of time. I wake up a lot and then have trouble getting back to sleep…but only if I don’t dance before bed. I am always very tired and uncomfortable when I wake up so that is a bad time for me.

    Twigs wrote on July 28th, 2011
  16. When working out in the morning I find myself getting nauseated easier. I stated cooking myself 2 eggs before the workout and it seemed to help the nausea. One of the downfalls I found was by 4:30 my body had enough. So I was not a happy person to be around in the afternoons. Working out at noon has become my forte and it seems to be right for me.

    SportsDoc wrote on August 19th, 2011
  17. I wonder if the results would be different with regard to Hormonal Effects and Sleep if the exercise researched was yoga. Yoga (depending on the type) should reduce cortisol and can help relax the body into sleep mode.

    Toffler wrote on August 21st, 2011
  18. I want to know how I mean the ingredients to lose weight damn need a help here

    hanna wrote on October 1st, 2011
  19. Hey Mark this information was really helpful. I play football so we always workout in the afternoon and I was debating on whether to add an early morning workout or late night workout to my regimen. I took your suggestion and tried both and the late night workout actually calmed me down and helped me sleep as well as made me feel better in the morning. Thanks again Mark

    Blake wrote on March 31st, 2012
  20. Hi Mark, I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, this is he firt time I’m commenting. You always give food for thought. I have workouts scheduled 3 times per day. Rediculusly Early morning, noon, afternoons … And .yes I work a regular 7 – 4 job.
    So depending on my schedule if I miss a workout, it’s not detrimental. Usually do HIIT on mornings, weights at midday and afternoons.

    Dee wrote on August 18th, 2012
  21. I would say, evening workouts gives me a better result, than morning or afternoon workouts. Day Light hours are good for free hand exercise and running or even jogging. Coming to weight lifting for muscle growth it is an entirely different issue.

    Such cases where people intend to do heavy weight lifting for muscle growth, I would say usually evening time should be the best for them. Of-course hormonal secretion is an important fact if you are looking for the best output for your work out. But also keep in mind, that psychological and mental prep is the basic initiative that actually controls on how much work you can carry out. Here is the difference, when people go to work out during morning or afternoon (day light hours), their brain is occupied with a million things, which is quite normal. And when there is so much going on up there, it is a little pointless as to how many reps you do at that instant, because focus counts.

    Now, moving on to evening work out, it is comparatively more work done without disruption. While you are determined to do the work out, you can remain sure, you are in no hurry of anything, and you can practically take all the time you need for your satisfaction. The day is over, with no more important phone calls or no deadline to meeting in office hours, and all that is left for you is your training and than whatever you want to do. Just the thought of being independent at this time of the hour, will enormously help your work out. This however will give you a positive mind set to apply your strength for something productive of which you can enjoy the benefits later. :)

    Charmy wrote on April 30th, 2013

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