Morning exercise — does the thought of it make you want to hit the snooze button and get a few more minutes of shut-eye? Or are you an up-with-the-sun type who’s ready to hit the ground running, literally? Whether you prefer morning, mid-day, or evening exercise, you may wonder if time of day really matters when it comes to working up a healthy sweat — and burning fat.
Not really. There are some known advantages of morning exercise, but overall, what matters most is that you exercise regularly, no matter what time of day. Consider these research tidbits:
- Sleep quality. Preliminary results from a small study looked at how 7:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m., and 7:00 p.m. workouts affect sleep quality. Morning exercisers spent 75% more time in deep sleep and 85% more time in light sleep than those working out later in the day.
- Mood. Another study found that a single bout of aerobic exercise can elevate mood for up to 12 hours. While morning exercise offers the chance to enjoy an all-day mood boost, time of day doesn’t appear to make a difference; you can still get a pleasant buzz no matter when you work out.
- Fat-burning. We used to think that exercising on an empty stomach would boost fat-burning; but a recent review of the research found that whether you eat or not before your workout, you’ll burn about the same amount of fat. After fasting all night, you’ll need a small snack — like a piece of fruit, a nutrition bar or a smoothie — before a morning workout to perform at your best.
It’s important to understand that your body burns both carbohydrate and fat to fuel physical activity. The proportion of each type of fuel will vary throughout your workout depending on exercise intensity and duration. But when you burn more calories than you consume — whether they’re carbs or fat — you’ll lose body fat. There’s no magical time of day that makes fat-burning any easier or more efficient.
Honestly, I don’t love getting up early. But I love how a vigorous morning workout makes me feel for the rest of the day — positive, upbeat, and energetic. I love starting each day with a terrific sense of accomplishment. Plus, for me, exercising early makes it more likely to happen at all. Later in the day there’s work, after-school activities, cooking, family time, and more — all kinds of factors that make exercise less convenient and less likely.
Getting up with the sun to bring on the sweat is a sacrifice I’m willing to make — but it’s not for everyone, and it doesn’t have to be. Pay attention to your natural rhythms — what time of day is your energy highest and lowest? What time of day is exercise most practical for you? For working parents, it might be during the work day, when childcare is already taken care of. Or maybe for you it’s in the evening, when your spouse or partner can join you for a walk or a bike ride. Experiment with exercising at different times of day; take note of how you feel and when it’s easiest to squeeze it in. Because, here’s the good news — the best time of day for exercise is the time that works best for you.
- ACSM In the News, For Best Sleep, Work Up a Sweat in the Morning, 2011
- ACSM In the News, Boost Your Mood at Least Half the Day with Physical Activity, 2011
- Schoenfeld, Brad MS, CSCS, Does Cardio After an Overnight Fast Maximize Fat Loss? Strength & Conditioning Journal: February 2011 – Volume 33 – Issue 1 – pp 23-25; doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e31820396ec
Beth Shepard, MS, ACSM-RCEP, ACE-PT, has a master’s degree in Exercise Physiology from the University of Arizona. Beth is an expert in fitness and health promotion and a certified wellness coach, helping people thrive by adopting sustainable lifestyle changes. She and her family love to hike, bicycle, and try new sports.