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What’s the best time of day to exercise?

Exercise is an essential part of our daily rhythm. But what's better – morning, afternoon or night?

Our bodies are designed to move – to stretch, challenge our muscles and get our blood pumping. Exercise nourishes us, giving us vital energy for each day. And it helps keep our body’s many patterns and processes humming along as they should.

“Exercise helps your body do what it does naturally,” says Accredited Exercise Physiologist Carly Ryan, a spokesperson for Exercise and Sports Science Australia. “For example, it can help improve sleep, boost energy levels and help mood and mental health.”

Our circadian rhythms, or biological clock, influence so much of what happens in our body. Our sleep and wake cycles, blood pressure, body temperature, hormones, hunger, digestion and other bodily functions all move to a daily beat. Getting our heart racing and breaking a sweat regularly plays a role in keeping these cycles flowing smoothly.

So what’s the best time of day to exercise? It’s one of the most common fitness questions, and gym junkies obsessed with ‘hacks’ and ‘maximising’ workouts can debate it endlessly.

But the answer is brilliant news – essentially, it’s whatever feels best for you. There may be some differences in how the body performs and responds at different times of day, but in the end, the optimum time for you will be a more individual decision.

“The best time of the day to exercise is easy – the time you’ll actually do it,” Carly says. “Think about what’s going to be the best time that suits your life and what’s going on that day, and plan around that.

“There is some research that has suggested exercising first thing in the morning is the most optimal time of the day for exercise in terms of things like boosting metabolism. However, realistically the jury is still out on whether this is significantly better than any other time of the day.”

Morning versus afternoon exercise

If morning exercise works for you, excellent. Along with kicking your metabolism into gear, it can give you a burst of energy that can make you more productive and motivated throughout the morning. It also gives you the satisfaction of getting your workout done and dusted early in the day. For many people, it’s the easiest time to fit exercise in around work and family commitments.

But while some of us love waking up early and feel invigorated in the mornings, others get more of a burst later in the day. This is a natural variance in circadian rhythms. Most people fall into two broad groups – ‘larks’ (who sleep early and rise early) and ‘owls’ (who sleep late and rise late).

Luckily, the ‘morning is better’ theory is only one piece of the puzzle. Exercising in the late afternoon or early evening definitely has its benefits too.

“There is some research to suggest that we may push ourselves a little harder in the late afternoon than at other times of the day,” Carly says. This research shows that our strength and flexibility are at their best around this time, so the workout feels easier to us. Scientists suggest this is because our body temperature is at its natural peak in the late afternoon.

The one time to avoid

Early evening workouts can be a great way to release stress at the end of a long day. But try not to go too late – night workouts can mess with your sleep patterns. “It can be hard to fall asleep straight after exercise, because exercise stimulates your sympathetic nervous system – it amps your body up,” Carly says.

Basically, sleepiness is brought on by a natural drop in body temperature and a rise in the production of a hormone called melatonin. Late night exercise causes our body temperature to rise and melatonin production to drop – so while our muscles might be tired, we’re likely to feel more alert and awake. To give your body time to wind down for sleep, try to finish up your workout at least a couple of hours before you go to bed. Then you’ll be ready to fall into a well-deserved slumber.

The best time to exercise is what works for you

Forget what anyone else is doing. Think about when you naturally have the most energy, what makes your body feel the best, and what fits in conveniently with your lifestyle and commitments. If you’re not sure, experiment with workouts at different times of the day and take note of how you felt before, during and after.

Maybe getting out of the office for a lunchtime gym session is what works for you, or maybe it makes more sense to go for a jog in the morning before the kids get up. The important thing is to find a time that will be easy for you to stick to consistently, so that it just becomes a natural part of your weekly rhythm.

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