Photographs: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte
Dawn breaks, but does that mean you should break into a sweat? The morning vs. evening workout debate has long simmered, with advocates on each side professing that their way of working out is better than the other.
People generally fall into one of the two camps—those who like to “get it out of the way” in the morning, so they can feel better about themselves throughout the day as the endorphins trickle through, or those who prefer an evening workout to wash away hours of slouching in front of a screen. But is sunrise better than sunset when it comes to getting sweaty? Or do those fitness night owls have it right when pumping iron as dusk settles? We asked the experts to find out.
Benefits of a morning workout
There's something to be said for starting your day on the front foot. Contrary to how you feel after switching your fourth alarm off, you're at your most primed in the morning, thanks to your body's built-in oscillations, called the circadian rhythm. “Circadian rhythm research offers some intriguing insights,” says Daniel Glazer, clinical psychologist and co-founder of US Therapy Rooms. “In the morning, body temperature and heart rate rise naturally to help us feel alert and energized. Exercising [at this time] can boost feel-good endorphins and kickstart focus for the day ahead. Therefore an early workout for clients struggling with mood or motivation issues could reap the most benefits.”
Exercise naturally heightens your levels of endorphins, the so-called “feel good” hormones, giving your body some welcomed pep for the day ahead. A morning workout can also help control stress by regulating the release of cortisol. “Exercise early in the day has been shown to lower cortisol levels throughout the remainder of the day,” says Alanna Kate Derrick, certified personal trainer and senior contributor at Gold BJJ. “By stimulating the body with movement upon waking, we establish healthy cortisol rhythms and improve our ability to manage stress.”
A morning workout can also make it easier to establish a routine. Cortisol has been found to play a role in habit formation, meaning that getting up and at ‘em when these levels are naturally higher could make it easier to stick to a proper fitness regimen and even reset your body for a healthier night’s sleep. “For those looking to regulate a sleep schedule, exercising in the morning—especially when coupled with exposure to natural light—can help to establish a natural circadian rhythm,” says Eloise Skinner, London-based psychotherapist and group fitness instructor, “which is great for anyone looking to reset after traveling, or deal with jet lag.”
Benefits of an evening workout
As endorphins can help you feel good throughout the day, they're also a handy way to help you sleep at night. “Working out after a long day provides valuable stress relief by enhancing relaxation,” says Derrick. “The physical activity serves as a healthy outlet to unwind worrying thoughts and relaxing tight muscles.”
Evening workouts also make the most of our physical attributes. “Evenings tend to maximize physical performance,” says Dr. Glazer. “Core temperature and cardiovascular function peak around 6 p.m., enabling greater strength, speed, and stamina. For hardcore athletes prioritizing gains and PRs, training after work makes physiological sense.
This ramping up of your body's physicality could pay dividends for weight loss. “Some research indicates increased fat burning specifically for male bodies when exercise occurs in the evening hours,” adds Derrick. “This may relate to circadian rhythms and the body's natural hormone fluctuations over the daily cycle.”
Dr. Glazer warns against pushing your workout too late, however, as the extra energy could have you tossing and turning in bed: “Exercising within two hours of bedtime can make falling and staying asleep tougher for some. The cognitive stimulation and adrenaline surge keep brains wired awake longer.” Skinner adds her own note of caution, saying that “it’s best to avoid working out immediately before you sleep, but other evening times could work, allowing you some time to wind down before sleeping.”
Morning vs. evening workout: which is better?
For more focus and energy throughout the day or to lose some weight, a morning session is well-suited. For improving your strength and stamina, you'll probably see better results if you nip to the gym in the evening. That's just a jumping-off point, however. Pretty much any exercise is going to do you good, no matter the time of day. The benefits of morning and evening workouts are myriad and varied, depending on who you are and your lifestyle.
The buzzword each of the experts returned to time and again was consistency. “I've seen how both morning and evening sessions can work magic—if you're consistent, that is,” says Daniel Richter, certified personal trainer and founder of Strength Log. “Most important is picking a time you know you won't fall off the wagon with.”
Will Kennard, strength coach and founder of Strongly, is a promoter of finding your own balance to see the most efficient results: “The time of day you work out matters far less than the quality of your workout and how frequently you're working out. Picking the time of day that works best for you and when you feel your best will have massively more impact than trying to shoehorn workouts around circadian rhythms.”
Skinner, however, posits that working out in the middle of the day could even be the way to go. “Once you’ve had a few meals and completed some work for the day, you might feel more physically and mentally ready to tackle a workout,” she says. “An afternoon stretch can also be great if you’ve been at a desk all morning—we know from research that keeping your body mobile and moving [throughout the day] has numerous benefits for long-term health. If you’re working from home, you might also feel the benefits of breaking up your working day with a workout or fitness class.”
Find what works for you and stick to it, keeping in mind your personal fitness goals. And remember: being fit and healthy is about more than forcing yourself out of bed or cutting short your Netflix marathon. It's a result of choices you make every day, be that better food, more quality sleep, less stress, or drinking more water (which BTW, you should drink more water).
Originally Appeared on GQ