Your Personal Goals Should Determine Your Ideal Workout Time
The truth is, there isn’t one best time of day to workout. Rather, there are a range of options depending on your fitness goals. Do you want to lose weight? Have you prioritized muscle mass? Are you trying to combat stress and get a better night’s rest?
Each of these goals has an “optimal workout window.” You may even find that changing your workout schedule from day to day is the best way to reach your target goals.
Do you want to lose weight?
If calorie burn and weight loss are your primary goals, you’re in luck. You have the option of working out in the morning or evening. In 2010, the Journal of Sports Medicine published a study designed to determine whether working out at a particular time of day burned more calories than another. The study was originally intended to evaluate optimal workout times for post-menopausal women, who are at higher risk for developing cardiovascular disease.
Researchers found that while the caloric burn was greatest in the morning, fat loss was more dramatic in the group of women who exercised in the evening. They think this is because the women who exercised in the evening seemed to use energy from the food they consumed for breakfast that day, rather than putting extra calories back on in the form of fat.
On the flip side of that equation, another study done that same year (published in the Journal of Physiology), found that morning workouts were the best for caloric burn and fat loss. In that study, researchers cited that the greatest amount of weight loss occurred in participants who exercised in a “fasted state” (aka: the morning, having not eaten after going to bed). These fasting participants gained more muscle mass and lost more weight than satiated participants who exercised later in the day after eating.
Ultimately, both studies proved that working out in the morning or evening will help you lose weight and can positively affect dietary habits.
Do you want to gain muscle mass and strength?
Most of us alternate our workouts – cardio one day, upper body the next, cardio the following with a little lower-body work, etc. On the days where building muscle mass and strength is the priority, we recommend working out in the late afternoon or evening.
When do you feel strongest? First thing in the morning? Probably not; most of us can barely hold our cup of coffee without a shaky hand. Even morning people will find that their muscles gain strength throughout the day.
Thus, if you hit the gym to lift weights in the morning, you may feel alert and energized, but the muscles are not entirely warmed up and haven’t reached peak performance levels. Since building muscle mass requires maximizing the amount of weight you’re resisting, you’ll fall shy of overall goals if you do strength training in the morning.
By the late afternoon or evening, however, you are able to lift more weight, especially in activities that require faster movement. This finding was documented in the Journal of Medicine and Science for Sports Exercise back in 1998.
Similarly, a 2009 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that while working out anytime of day would slowly increase muscle mass, subjects who worked out between the hours of 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. gained almost 1% more muscle mass. In terms of scientific study, this amount is considered “insignificant;” but in terms of those who want to build muscle mass, every percentage point counts.
Do you want to reduce stress or improve sleep habits?
Any way you slice it, a regular workout routine is going to help you lose weight and improve cardiovascular endurance. However, if you’re losing sleep at night or feeling chronically stressed or anxious, experts recommend working out in the morning.
In 2011, researchers at the College of Health Sciences’ Department of Health, Leisure and Exercise Science at Appalachian State University tracked blood pressure readings and reported sleep habits for the study’s participants – all of whom were between the ages of 40 and 60. Participants worked out using moderate-level resistance training for at least 30 minutes, three days a week. They focused their routines on exercise machines that are found at an average fitness center.
Participants were divided into three groups – working out at 7 a.m., 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Those who worked out in the morning experienced the greatest reduction in blood pressure (a 10% reduction during the day, which increased to a 25% reduction while they slept at night). These findings support why organizations like the American Heart Association cite exercise as the number one antidote to high blood pressure and other serious cardiovascular conditions.
In addition to lower blood pressure, the morning exercise group also reported sleeping better and the data proved it; morning exercisers spent 75% more time in the REM (deep sleep) cycle at night, which is when the majority of restoration and rejuvenation happens.
Making Time to Work Out is Always a Good Thing
While each of these studies highlights an opportune time of day to lose weight, improve muscle performance, reduce stress, etc., the studies also prove that all of the exercise groups benefited from a regular exercise routine. In other words, don’t lose hope if the recommended workout time for you goal doesn’t fit with your daily schedule.
The key is to create a consistent exercise schedule and stick to it. This is the only way for your body to experience continued and measurable benefits. If exercising at the “ideal time of day” isn’t possible, then set a new goal – to workout regularly.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a consistent workout routine that includes both cardio exercises and resistance training improves quality of life as well as bone and muscle density.
A “regular” exercise program includes:
- Tallying at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week (that’s 2.5 hours total). The best benefits are gained when you exercise for at least 30 minutes per session, but even 10 or 15 minutes at a time will help you lose weight and improve muscle tone and bone mass. Enrolling in an aerobics class is an easy way to achieve this goal, as is brisk walking, jogging, swimming or biking.
- Strength training that targets multiple muscle groups, including legs, arms, back, abdomen and shoulders. Weight lifting is one way to do it, yoga or Pilates is another.
When it gets right down to it, anytime you can find to exercise is the optimal workout time for you. If you miss a few days here and there because of your schedule or don’t see the results you want right away, don’t give up – stick with it!