Actor and former professional wrestler Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson wakes up around 4 a.m. to work out. Actor Mark Wahlberg once said he's up at 3:30 a.m. to hit the gym. And while that may seem ungodly early to many of us, take one look at either of these men and well, the results speak for themselves.
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But do you have to wake up at the crack of dawn if you want to see results? Most likely not. (Although if you're an early bird, too, more power to you!) When it comes to the best time of day to exercise, the simplest answer is: the time of day you can regularly commit to. That said, there are pros and cons to both early morning and later evening workouts. Here's how to decide which one works best with your goals.
If you're trying to lose weight or burn fat, consider working out first thing in the morning. For those wanting to build muscle mass or training for a sport, afternoon or evening may be a better time to exercise, but avoid exercising right before bed for optimal sleep.
Perks of Morning Workouts
Crossing your run or weight-lifting session off your to-do list before you do anything else means you won't have it hanging over your head the rest of the day. There's no chance it won't get done when responsibilities pile up throughout the day. Plus, if you're looking to lose weight, getting your sweat sessions done first thing might give you a slight advantage.
A July 2019 study in the International Journal of Obesity (IJO) found that "individuals who performed more exercise sessions in the morning had significantly greater reductions in weight compared with those who performed more exercise sessions in the evening."
Another study — this one from June 2017 and published in Clinical Obesity — found that those people who did aerobic exercise in the morning dropped more pounds and consumed fewer calories. Researchers concluded that "moderate- to high-intensity aerobic exercise in the morning could be considered a more effective programme than evening exercise on appetite control, calorie intake and weight loss."
Working out in the morning means you also burn more fat. A March 2017 study in Sports Medicine showed that exercising while you are in a fasting state helps you burn more fat and also improves blood glucose levels. If you do a morning workout, try to get it in before you eat breakfast to get the most benefits of your early workout.
Jericho McMatthews, a NASM-certified trainer for Beachbody, sees additional benefits of early workouts. Her morning clients are "more likely to stay on track and to have better long-term results because they have fewer scheduling conflicts," she says, adding that she believes people who struggle to stick with an exercise routine "are the ones that need a morning workout the most."
A July 2019 study published in Obesity supports McMatthews's view. Among adults who've lost 30 or more pounds and kept them off for at least a year, early morning (4 to 9 a.m.) was the most common workout time.
Read more: 10-Minute Morning HIIT Workouts for an Energy Boost
Advantages of Evening Workouts
If you're not an early riser, don't throw in the gym towel just yet. Working out in the evening has its advantages, too, especially if you want to build muscle.
A December 2016 study in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism examined the effects of workout timing on 42 people. They were divided into morning and evening groups that performed both endurance and strength training. Those who exercised later in the day experienced bigger muscle gains.
Additionally, an April 2019 study published in Cell Metabolism found that exercise capacity increases in the evening. Evening exercisers don't use as much oxygen as early birds, so they last longer before fatiguing. Higher body temperatures later in the day may also help by enhancing neuromuscular function (that mind-body connection).
On a practical level, hitting the gym later in the day is ideal for those addicted to the snooze buttons or for those days when you need to prioritize sleep over sweat. And it's much preferred to not working out at all.
Working Out Right Before Bed?
How late is too late to work out? Many wonder if working out right before bed will affect their sleep. A June 2019 study in the Contemporary Clinical Trials Communication says that exercise does stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, therefore exercising too close to bedtime can keep you awake. If you prefer exercising in the evening, experts in this study say to exercise at least 1.5 hours before bedtime.
It's also beneficial to end your evening workout with a cooldown period, including stretching and even meditation. This will help get your heart rate back down and will get you in a calm state. Ending your workout with a short yoga session is also a great way to get your body in a relaxed frame of mind.
What ultimately matters, as many of these study authors (and other weight-loss experts) are quick to point out, is consistency, not timing. Overall, evening exercise enthusiasts in the Obesity study were no less active than motivated morning exercisers — only people who didn't work out at a regular time exercised less.
Though the results point to "a potential benefit of early-morning physical activity for maintaining a regular physical activity routine," the authors write, "exercising at the same time of day, regardless of whether it is during the morning, afternoon, or evening... may help with achieving higher physical activity levels."
Erik Willis, author of the IJO study mentioned above, echoes this message. "These might be interesting findings," he says of the various research on exercise timing, but he urges people not to get hung up on it. "Being physically active at any time is excellent," he says. "The best thing you can really do is find something that you enjoy doing and do it consistently."
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Stay Motivated Regardless of Your Schedule
McMatthews believes the secret to exercising consistently is understanding your motivation. "It's super-important to incorporate the mental and emotional aspect of [working out] and not just focus on losing weight or toning up," she says.
She says that while most people think of exercise primarily in terms of muscle gain or weight loss, "what people really want is to feel more happy, more healthy, more confident." Fortunately, exercise can help there, too. She points to a 2013 review in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine suggesting that physical activity can be part of an effective strategy for lowering the risk of depression.
Whatever your fitness goals, McMatthews recommends a mix of cardio, resistance and flexibility training (like her Beachbody program Morning Meltdown 100). Complete at least three 20- to 60-minute sessions a week at a time that works for you. Like Willis, McMatthews says not to agonize over morning versus evening regimens. "The only bad workout is the one that didn't happen," she says.
Additional reporting by Kim Grundy
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Is There a Optimal Time to Exercise?"
- Sports Medicine: "Impact of Endurance Exercise Training in the Fasted State on Muscle Biochemistry and Metabolism in Healthy Subjects"
- Contemporary Clinical Trials Communication: The Feasibility and Acceptability of Morning Versus Evening Exercise for Qverweight and Obese Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial"
- Cell Metabolism: Time of Exercise Specifies the Impact on Muscle Metabolic Pathways and Systemic Energy Homeostasis"