What's the best time to exercise?

Kimberly Gillan
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Image: Thinkstock

Didn't make it to they gym this morning? That's ok, we investigated the best time to schedule your exercise and the results are in.

Morning

If you're an early bird who's happy to set your alarm for a pre-work session, then you can take advantage of your body's peak fat-burning time.

"You’re in a fasted state when you wake up and if you exercise on top of that, your body draws on your fat stores rather than your glycogen stores," says Lauren Banting, a researcher at Victoria University's Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living.

A morning session kick-starts your metabolism so you'll continue the fat-burning process for up to 12 hours.

But on the flipside, exercising on an empty stomach usually means you've got less energy to get through your workout.

"A lot of people find if they do exercise in the morning, they can’t eat because they get stitches and a sore stomach," Banting says.

"But then they don’t have enough energy to do a really long run or a really intense cardio workout. You might want to have something like a banana before you go for a run to give you a bit of a kick." Lunchtime

If you've got a gym or park near your office, lunchtime work-outs can be ideal. Not only does it give you a chance to escape the daily grind and fire up your brain for the afternoon, but it means you've knocked off your work-out for the day, leaving you with the evening to yourself.

"There's some research that shows that between 2pm and 4pm is the best time to exercise – your temperature is better regulated in the afternoon," Banting says.

If you're restricted for time, interval training is ideal if you want maximum results.

"It takes less time to get the same benefit," Banting says.

"There are some mobile phone apps where the music changes, or there’s a beep when you’re meant to slow down and speed up. You can even just do it for 16 minutes, which is great if you’re a bit time poor."

Gallery: Top fat-burning workouts

Evening

If you're training for an event or want to improve your performance, an after-work session is probably best.

"There is evidence to say we are stronger in the afternoon for strength-based sports," says performance researcher Dr Adam Fraser. You're also less likely to be as time-constrained as you are in the morning or on your lunchbreak, giving you time to go harder for longer.

But if you can avoid it, don't exercise in the two hours right before bed.

"You're actually stimulating your metabolism at the same time as you're trying to dampen it down for a good night's rest," says Professor Steve Selig, the director of curriculum at Exercise & Sports Science Australia.

"It interferes with digestion of food and it also means that you don't get the energetic benefits from the exercise."

The verdict: Find what's right for you

Regardless of whether you want to burn fat, reduce stress or perform better, you'll get maximum results if you schedule exercise regularly at a time suits your lifestyle and body clock.

"People's circadian rhythms are slightly different," Fraser explains.

"Some people have a circadian rhythm that is slightly longer than 24 hours and it makes them want to stay up later each night, so it's harder for them to get up in the morning. Others are exhausted in the afternoon so are better off doing it in the morning."

And while marginal differences have been detected between morning, night and evening exercises, Fraser says the jury is still out on whether the differences are enough to warrant overhauling your life to exercise at a different time.

"The question is – is it enough to make a difference? We're not really sure," he explains.

"It's hard to translate science in the lab to the real world."


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