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What’s the Best Time to Exercise?

Best Time to Exercise

We all know that exercising is important right?  But that’s not the whole issue.  There’s what kind of exercising to do, how much intensity, when to exercise, and so on.  As a competitive triathlete, Coach, and all-around fitness junkie, I find the “what’s the best time to exercise” question seems to get a fair amount of attention.  Some people will swear by early mornings while others will only work up a sweat in the evenings.  Digging a little deeper into the “best time” question reveals that when you workout does matter, maybe not as much as you might think though.  In this article, I’ll share with you my opinions about the when issue and the five best times of the day to bring it!

What's the Best Time for Exercise1. Some is Always Better than None

Let’s face it, most people aren’t like me.  I relish the opportunity to run in circles on my old high-school track, especially in the early, cool “sun is just coming up” part of the day.  When I don’t see any track workouts in my training plan, I am miffed.  Yeah, I am a little crazy but I greatly enjoy exercising.

For the majority of humanity though, the best time to work out is whenever you can and will actually work out.  I know, “Too complicated Toby; slooooooow dooooowwwwwn”.  Morning, lunch time, after work, late evening, whatever, if you will get it done then that’s your ideal time.  The reason is simple: some exercise is always better than no exercise.  So, if you can only exercise during your lunch break, then that’s perfect for you!  Similarly, if your only free window is before your kids awake, then get up and nail it.

Don’t over-think this one; just get it done.  I’ve heard all the lame excuses, like “Well, mornings are best for me but I missed it today so I am skipping this session.”  Uhhhh, what???  Are you kidding me?  Don’t be that guy.  Unless you are hurt, bleeding, sick, or justifiably resting, exercising now is always better than exercising never.  Here’s a good tactic, simply schedule your workouts and you’ll dramatically increase the chances of them happening!

Remember, when you can and will exercise is the best time for you.

2. If you feel the urge, that’s the best time!

I FEEL Good!  And I Knew That I Would Now!  I Feeeeeeel Nice, Like Sugar and Spice!

Depending on your schedule and biorhythms, there’s times of your day when you likely have a slight physiological predisposition to exercising.  But, that pales in comparison to the psychological benefit (which, in turn, will lead to a physiological one) you’ll have if you actually feel like exercising.  It may seem overly simple but that’s just because it is.  If you are ready and wanting to bring it, you will and with greater intensity.  In the world of fitness, energy in equals energy out.  Put another way, the more effort you bring to the table, the better and greater your results are going to be.

So, what’s your life like?  What kind of schedule do you lead?  If you’re a night owl, dig deeper at night.  Like the wee hours?  Well, set that alarm just a little earlier.  Nothing complicated here, just analyze your life a little and the “right” time will probably reveal itself.  The greatest physical changes will happen when you push your body more than you have in the past.  Tony Horton is always extolling you to “Bring It” in P90X because he knows that the closer you get to giving your maximum efforts, the more you force your body to adapt and that, my friend, is how the magic happens.  It is no secret.  Shaun T, from Insanity and Focus T25, wants you to dig deeper and Chalene Johnson yells that “You are NOT tired” in TurboFire.  Why?  Exact, same concept pursuing the same results!  Get it???

3. Sugar… bah-ba-bah-ba-ba-buh, You are my Candy Girl

Ok, so bear with me here.  Me, you, everyone, we all have a limited amount of fuel in our tanks.  That fuel, for my purposes here, is glycogen.  If your tank is full, you will anaerobically be able to do more.  Lift more weight, jump higher, run faster, more or less anything in any workout that’s not part of aerobic exercise or resting/recovery.  Most people, at any given time, have about two hours of glycogen reserves in their bodies.  The more you exercise and the more you push your limits, the more and faster you burn through that reserve.

Exercise TimeThe drawback, however, is that this fuel source is incredibly efficient.  Glycogen is like the kindling in a fire; it burns rapidly and releases and enormous amount of heat, but only for a short while.  Once it is done, it is game over.  Fat, on the other hand, is like a big, oak log.  It can release huge amounts of energy but does so very slowly and must be “primed” before it can even be used as an energy source.  For almost everyone, what really matters is glycogen stores.

All activity throughout your day consumes glycogen.  As it is the most readily and easily-used energy source, that’s the first place the body turns for energy.  Wake up?  You are burning glycogen.  Eat breakfast?  You are burning glycogen.  Read the paper?  Yep, you guessed it, you are burning glycogen.  What this means, though, is that you (and your body) are in a slightly more optimal state to exercise when your glycogen reserves are full.  So, the question then becomes, when are your glycogen stores at their peak?  Generally, your energy reserves will be close to or at full about one to two hours after eating.

That’s great, but it can present a bit of a problem.  If I eat a decent meal and then head to the local track for some threshold-level Mile Repeats (i.e., running as fast as I can for one mile and then jogging, you know, to rest for three minutes; then repeat five times), I will puke.  No question.  So, while your energy levels may be at maximum ninety minutes after a meal, always balance that “max energy” ideal against the possibility of an upset tummy.  I’ve had the latter and, trust me on this, it is not a good time.

If your only exercise window is when your energy levels are low (e.g., right after a full day of work), you can easily remedy that nutritionally.  For the early morning, try a small cup of coffee, half a banana, or some instant oatmeal.  For the post-work or late night, maybe half of a health-food bar (e.g., PowerBar) or a piece of fruit.  If these don’t work (and you’ll know, the “out of energy bonk” isn’t overly subtle), it means you need to analyze your eating as you probably aren’t getting enough calories on a daily basis.

In short, the best time to exercise might just be when your energy levels are highest.

4. The Early Bird Catches the (Exercise) Worm.

Talk to enough people in the fitness industry and eventually someone will try to sell you that you can trick your body into burning more fat if you just exercise on an empty stomach.  You see, they’ll say, if you don’t have any glycogen, your body is forced to burn fat for fuel!  Then, they’ll try to sell you some snake oil or maybe some beachfront property.  In Arizona.  There is no science to support that exercising on an empty stomach forces, makes, helps, causes, etc. the body to burn fat for fuel.  On the contrary, there are decades of science demonstrating when and how the body specifically converts fat into consumable energy.

But, even without the alleged fat-burning benefits, there’s still legitimate value to the early morning sweating.  First, you start your day feeling great.  Getting up and doing your workout frees the rest of your day and checks what is often the most challenging box on the to-do list.  Second, and this one can be huge when trying to lose weight, is what’s called EPOC or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption.  Uh, what?  English, please.

Biologically, during EPOC, the body restores itself to its pre-exercise state and thus is consuming oxygen at an elevated rate.  This means that energy is being expended at an elevated rate.  During EPOC, your body is doing a few things: (1) replenishing energy resources, (2) re-oxygenating the blood and restoring circulatory hormones, (3) decreasing body temperature, and (4) returning to normal ventilation and heart rates.  This all translates into you burning more calories over the course of the entire day.  For instance, the high-intensity interval training program Insanity uses EPOC to achieve some of its results.

5. Sleep is for Sissies!

This group is last for a reason.  If at night, before bed, or just plain late evening is the only time you hit exercise, I would highly consider reevaluating your schedule and where you devote your free time.  Now, don’t get all defensive and chippy saying, “I have no free time!”  Everyone has some free time in their lives.  The question is simply where do you spend it.  Some certainly have more than others, but we all have some.  You can get a killer workout done in just twenty five minutes with Focus T25, so ditch that excuse.

If the late-night hours are, as you view it, your only option, you might be best served to skip it.  What?  That’s crazy!  I know, I know… but you are almost guaranteed to disrupt your sleeping with late-in-the-day fitness.  This can impact melatonin, the sleep hormone, along with other things.  Sleep is a critical part of staying healthy and, while exercise is critical, sufficient and productive sleep is even more critical.  Anything that adversely impacts your sleeping is likely better eliminated, if possible.  If you still intend to exercise at night, do your absolute best to follow your workouts with a solid nutritional recovery strategy (e.g., PowerBar’s Recovery, Powerbar’s Recovery Bars, or Beachbody’s P90X Results and Recovery Formula), and possibly even a small, well-balanced meal before sleeping.

Best Time to Exercise – Conclusion

The reality is that everyone’s body is different.  What works for me may not work for you, and vice-versa.  Almost everyone should exercise and we all probably could eat better.  The specifics for you, me, and the rest of the planet are just individual variables.  For timing, just remember that your mind often trumps your body and closely monitor your performances.  Once you’ve established some routines that seem to work, pick your preferred workout time based upon what works best with your life and results!

Thanks for reading and if you have any questions, please just ask below!  I always appreciate the feedback and commentary.

Time for Exercise

The answer is NO!

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