Let’s cut right to the chase. The best time to exercise, is the time you’re most likely to exercise.
You can argue all the finer points and scientific hypotheses of the absolutely ideal time to exercise, but all the physiology in the world isn’t going to help you if you’re a no-show. And let’s be honest, the number 1 reason people don’t get results isn’t because they exercised at the wrong time of day, but because they didn’t show up. Remember people telling you that “showing up is half the battle”? When it comes to exercise it’s more like 90%.
The biggest factor in your decision making is unlikely to be the science of when to exercise, but the simple fact of whether you’re a morning lark, night owl or in-betweener.1 If you’re either of the extremes there’s probably little point fighting your nature.2,3
You’re far more likely to find enjoyment from your workout when you exercise at your body’s favorite time of day. Morning people will love the rush they get from running at dawn, while a night owl would consider it borderline torture and likely sleepwalk their way through any early morning workout session. Vice versa, as night owls are just reaching the height of their powers, early-risers are ready to relax, unwind with a glass of wine and head for bed. If you’re an in-betwener, you’ll probably get more out of considering the science of it all.
With that huge caveat out of the way, let’s move on to what the research suggests is the best time to exercise.
Early Morning Exercise
Why do it: consistency – morning exercisers are most likely to stick to their routine.
Training in the morning is a great way to start your day, as it means your exercise is done for the day. So you won’t end up relegating your workout to later or missing it entirely because you end up being busier or more tired than you’d expected.
Disadvantage: physically at your weakest.
Your blood glucose is on the low side from fasting all night. This means that if you intend to train long and/or hard, especially for improved performance, running on empty may leave you feeling prematurely tired so your workout is not as productive as it might otherwise have been.4
Body temperature, a primary indicator of biological processes and physical performance, varies throughout the day and is slightly lower in the morning. Lower body temperature is thought to adversely affect muscle contractility and metabolism, and therefore performance.5,6
After a night of relative immobility, your joints are stiffest early in the morning and your muscles are cold from sleeping all night. Your back is not especially ready to support heavy weights straight out of bed; bad news of you intend to pump heavy iron at the gym. This is especially true for your spine and research suggests that heavy weightlifting immediately on rising is more likely to result in injury.7
How to make it work: To make early morning training work for you, don’t roll straight out of bed and into a tough workout – make sure you spend some time waking up and then warming up. Take a little more time to do a dynamic warm up, to get your body ready for exercise.8
If you are going to train long and/or hard, consider taking a few extra minutes to consume a fast acting energy drink or bar before you start.9 Don’t forget to fuel up afterwards, with a post-workout breakfast. This will help speed up recovery,10 and set you up for the day.
Read on: How to warm-up before exercise
Why do it: you feel more ready for exercise – more flexible, mobile, and energetic.
By midday, you should be wide awake and have been on the move so your joints are feeling a little more limber. You’d probably have eaten at least one meal, so you are fueled and ready for action.
Another advantage of exercising at lunch is that your workout might positively affect your performance at work. Research suggests intense exercise can result in faster decision-making.11
Disadvantage: lack of time.
For the vast majority of exercisers, working out at midday means squeezing a workout into a lunch break. This means there is a tendency to cut your warm-up short, do less exercise than you might really like and then fail to cool-down properly because of time constraints.
Then, after exercise, you may not have enough time to eat a proper post-training meal, which can hamper your recovery.10
How to make it work: As you’re short on time, make your workout intense. Or why not ask your boss for a longer lunch break (and offer to work a little longer at the end of the day!) so that you can make the most of your lunchtime workout.
Why do it: physiologically optimum time to exercise.
Research suggests that exercising in the late afternoon might just be physiologically the optimal time to exercise:
- You are at your strongest in the late afternoon and early evening.12,13 Your muscles are strongest and most supple at about 6pm.14
- Your joints are at their most flexible late in the afternoon.7
- Body temperature peaks at around 5pm (research suggests the best time to exercise is when body temperature is at its highest).15
- Lung function tends to be higher in the afternoon than the morning, which translates into better endurance.16
- Reduced risk of injury.17
Furthermore, exercise is a great stress buster so if you’ve had one of those days where you’ve wanted to punch your boss or yell at your customers, exercise can help ease those feelings of stress, anger or anxiety. By the time you get home you feel like a new person.
Disadvantage: you’re more likely to skip your workout than in the morning.
Alas, you’ve had a lot of time to come up with a laundry list of extenuating circumstances as to why you can skip your workout.
Also, after a day of sitting at your desk, commuting and generally feeling stressed, your energy levels may be low and you’d really rather go home for dinner and some well-deserved downtime. The gym is also likely to be busy, as this is peak time for most exercise facilities.
Late Evening Exercise
Why do it: you’re likely to be relaxed and refuelled.
Some exercisers prefer to go home, eat dinner, chill for a while, and then start their workout. On the plus side, gyms are normally quieter and once the kids are in bed and asleep, you can enjoy your workout without missing out on valuable family time.
Disadvantage: more likely to skip because of tiredness; some evening workouts may negatively impact sleep.
Generally exercise improves sleep quality. Research suggests that exercising in the evening may help you to fall asleep quicker and to spend more time in deep sleep.
However, high intensity activity, such as HIIT, one hour or less before bed, can adversely affect sleep. Vigorous activity can result in it taking longer to fall asleep and in poorer sleep quality.18
Getting off the sofa after you’ve been resting and maybe even napping for a while can be a gargantuan task. You also have to fit in a post-exercise meal before hitting the hay – not an ideal time to be eating.
The Bottom Line
The best time to exercise is the time that suits you best and fits seamlessly into your daily schedule.
While morning or evening training might deliver marginally better results depending on your fitness goals, if the right time to exercise doesn’t fit into your day, just exercise when you can safe in the knowledge that you are doing your body good no matter what time it is.
Remember, the best time to exercise depends on how you feel. So, try exercising at different times and pick the time that you feel your best.
- Leitman N. Biological rhythms and cycles. Physiol Rev. 1949;29(1):1-30.
- Kunorozva L, Roden LC, Rae DE. Perception of effort in morning-type cyclists is lower when exercising in the morning. J Sports Sci. 2014;32(10):917-925.
- Vitale JA, Weydahl A. Chronotype, Physical Activity, and Sport Performance: A Systematic Review. Sports Med. 2017;47(9):1859-1868.
- Aird TP, Davies RW, Carson BP. Effects of fasted vs fed-state exercise on performance and post-exercise metabolism: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2018;28(5):1476-1493.
- Racinais S, Blonc S, Jonville S, Hue O. Time of day influences the environmental effects on muscle force and contractility. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2005;37(2):256-261.
- Starkie RL, Hargreaves M, Lambert DL, Proietto J, Febbraio MA. Effect of temperature on muscle metabolism during submaximal exercise in humans. Exp Physiol. 1999;84(4):775-784.
- Adams MA, Dolan P, Hutton WC. Diurnal variations in the stresses on the lumbar spine. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 1987;12(2):130-137.
- Taylor K, Cronin JB, Gill N, Chapman DW, Sheppard JM. Warm-up affects diurnal variation in power output. Int J Sports Med. 2011;32(3):185-189.
- Tokmakidis SP, Karamanolis IA. Effects of carbohydrate ingestion 15 min before exercise on endurance running capacity. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2008;33(3):441-449.
- Ivy JL, Goforth HW, Damon BM, McCauley TR, Parsons EC, Price TB: Early postexercise muscle glycogen recovery is enhanced with a carbohydrate-protein supplement. J Appl Physiol. 2002, 93: 1337-1344.
- Fontana FE, Mazzardo O, Mokgothu C, Furtado O Jr, Gallagher JD. Influence of exercise intensity on the decision-making performance of experienced and inexperienced soccer players. J Sport Exerc Psychol. 2009;31(2):135-151.
- Souissi N, Bessot N, Chamari K, Gauthier A, Sesboüé B, Davenne D. Effect of time of day on aerobic contribution to the 30-s Wingate test performance. Chronobiol Int. 2007;24(4):739-748.
- Teo W, McGuigan MR, Newton MJ. The effects of circadian rhythmicity of salivary cortisol and testosterone on maximal isometric force, maximal dynamic force, and power output. J Strength Cond Res. 2011;25(6):1538-1545.
- Guariglia DA, Pereira LM, Dias JM, et al. Time-of-day effect on hip flexibility associated with the modified sit-and- reach test in males. Int J Sports Med. 2011;32(12):947-952.
- Teo W, Newton MJ, McGuigan MR. Circadian rhythms in exercise performance: implications for hormonal and muscular adaptation. J Sports Sci Med. 2011;10(4):600-606.
- Larsson K, Hedenström H, Malmberg P. Learning effects, variation during office hours and reproducibility of static and dynamic spirometry. Respiration. 1987;51(3):214-222.
- Reilly T, Atkinson G, Gregson W, et al. Some chronobiological considerations related to physical exercise. Clin Ter. 2006;157(3):249-264.
- Stutz J, Eiholzer R, Spengler CM. Effects of Evening Exercise on Sleep in Healthy Participants: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2019;49(2):269-287.