Ask the Professional: When Should you Exercise?


by Devin Sarno, NSCA-CPT

One of the most asked questions regarding fitness...What time of the day should I be exercising? I am sure you have heard and read a number of things that say one thing or the other, all of which like to speak in absolutes. One of the biggest claims made is that working out at one certain time of day is going to burn more calories than another. The reality of it is the answer is completely individualized! The best time of the day to workout is different for everybody, and there are a handful of things to consider when deciding when you should exercise. The most important factor when choosing what time of day to exercise should be your schedule and when you'll be the most consistent. What time of the day has the least distractions? Is it before work, during your lunch break, in the afternoon, after work? Outside of that, there are additional factors to consider but this is arguably the most important. There are also different perks to working out at different times of the day but that doesn’t make any one time the best.

Another factor to consider when deciding what time to exercise is if you are a morning person or night owl. If you are a morning person and wake up ready to go, chances are you might enjoy working out first thing in the morning. Consider when you will have the energy and be in a state of mind to get the best workout you can! Another thing to think about is your work schedule. If you start at 6:00 AM, getting your workout in before that might be a little challenging. On the other hand, if you start your day at 9:00 AM, a morning workout might just be the perfect fit for you.

You must also consider other responsibilities you have outside of work. Maybe you’re a parent, pet-owner, volunteer, play in a recreational sports league, or have other things that fill up your schedule regularly. If you know when you're typically busy with these responsibilities, you should avoid committing to working out at times when these responsibilities take precedence.

One other major consideration should be when you normally eat. If you eat dinner at 5:00 PM, you probably shouldn’t plan on working out at 5:30 PM. And unless you plan on working out first thing in the morning, you should make sure you have properly fueled yourself prior to your workout. 

There are different benefits to working out at various times of the day. If you find that working out in the morning is best for you, your workout is over with before the rest of your day even begins! You don’t have to dread it or get anxious about it during the day, you don’t have to miss your workout if something comes up after work or you have to work late and you don’t have to worry about that after-work feeling that has you not wanting to do anything. You also start your day with an endorphin high leaving you feeling accomplished and in a good mood for the rest of your day.

If you prefer exercising on your lunch break, you benefit from taking the time to get away from your desk and get your mind off work. Exercise is a great stress reliever and when you workout in the middle of your work day, it offers you an outlet to relieve some work related stress. Beyond that, it will help prevent you from hitting that wall so many of us hit during the afternoon lull. The endorphin high and elevated energy can help get you through the rest of your day!

Let’s not forget about working out in the evening! This will allow you to sleep in later in the mornings, especially if you're just not a morning person! Working out in the afternoon or evening will allow you to take a little less time warming up because your body temperature tends to be higher later in the day and hopefully you've been somewhat active during your day so you'll be ready to jump right in to your workout. Also, overnight while you are laying in bed and not loading the spine at all, your spine will decompress. During the day, your spine will start to compress again as you are constantly loading it. In turn, doing exercises that will put your spine under any sort of heavy load is going to be better to do later in the day. This way you 're not heavily loading your spine in a decompressed state. Finally, your reaction time is quickest later in the day. So if you are doing any sort of high intensity exercise, it may be beneficial to do in the evening when you're fully alert.

While you might be looking for a concrete answer to this question, it’s really not exactly black and white. There are a number of factors that should be taken into consideration when deciding when to exercise. Ultimately, it should come down to when you will be the most successful at your workout and be the most consistent with your exercise routine. Everybody’s lives are unique, so everybody’s “best” time might not be the same and that’s okay. Use your own lifestyle factors to help you decide when it's best for you to exercise regularly. Set yourself up for success and find a time that allows for you to put in your best work and get the greatest return. Try not to get caught up in the most recent “study” that states morning or evening workouts is the best, just do what’s best for you!