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Dr. Mitch Shulman: Is there a best time of the day to exercise?
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Being active is good for you. Whenever there’s time to fit in exercise is the “best” time but if you have some flexibility in your schedule is there a specific time of the day that you should choose?
For a fitness plan to work, consistency is important, and starting your day off with exercise helps many people achieve that. There may be other advantages to working out in the morning. A study in the journal Obesity found that exercising between 7 and 9 a.m. helped with weight loss. The study itself was imperfect but the general premise seems to be accurate.
A study in Frontiers in Physiology indicated that women who exercised between 6 and 8 a.m. had greater belly fat loss; a greater drop in their blood pressure; and had stronger leg muscles compared to those who worked out in the early evening. As long as you don’t have an underlying health condition that warrants eating before you work out, exercise in the morning on an empty stomach may maximize weight loss.
A 2019 study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that people who worked out on an empty stomach after an overnight fast burned twice the amount of fat and had other potentially beneficial changes in how their metabolism worked compared to those who exercised after eating. Additionally, by working out first thing in the morning there’s less chance of something interfering and it gives you a positive lift that can carry you through the rest of the day.
Depending on your health and how active you are there may be advantages to working out at other times of the day. For example, researchers reported in the journal Nature Communications that exercise done between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. was associated with a lower risk of early death and heart disease compared to working out mostly in the morning.
This might be especially relevant to someone who is just starting out on an exercise plan because the advantages were predominantly seen in older men and in people who were less physically active to start with or who had underlying heart conditions. In general, the risk of a heart attack is greatest from 6 a.m. to noon, so it would make sense that in this group of people, a later start to their exercise might be safer.
What if the only chance you have to work out is in the late afternoon or evening? Take it! Another study in the journal Frontiers in Physiology demonstrated that evening exercise increased upper-body muscle strength, power, and endurance in women and lowered high blood pressure and fatigue in men when compared with early morning exercise — perhaps at least partly because their bodies were already “warmed up” by being busy throughout the day.
The added advantage is that the workout may help deal with the accumulated stresses of the day. Avoid doing it too late so it won’t interfere with your sleep. Sleep is essential to the success of any workout plan because it’s when the body repairs itself and consolidates the gains made.
As you can see there’s a benefit to exercise at any time of the day, so the most important thing is to try and fit it in whenever you can.
Dr. Mitch Shulman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at McGill Medical School as well as an Attending Physician in the Emergency Department of the McGill University Health Centre. He’s also the CJAD AM 800 Medical Consultant.