Workout Timing Matters, But Maybe Not in the Way You Think!

Congrats! You’ve finally decided to commit to regular exercise or up your workout game. Now you just have to figure out how and when to work it into your schedule. There are tons of theories about this and almost all of them have research to back them up. The latest studies indicate that your optimal workout time is dependent on your gender and your workout goals. 

Let’s remember that the recommended amount of exercise for everyone is 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week plus two sessions of strength training. Moderate exercise includes any activity that is challenging but not exhausting and raises your heart rate. You should be able to hold a conversation, but be too breathless to sing. 


Morning Exercise Boosts Weight Loss 

Your workout timing can have a profound impact on your fitness journey. Many studies support the idea that if weight loss is your goal, a morning workout is the way to go. Exercising in the morning on an empty stomach has been shown to boost your metabolic rate and help you burn more calories during your workout. One study even pinpointed 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. as the optimal morning workout window. Another study found that even the most sedentary subjects who worked out early in the morning had a lower body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference than other, more active groups. This doesn’t necessarily mean the early workouts caused the leaner bodies, but it certainly is an interesting correlation. 

Studies, and most anecdotal evidence, also suggest that people tend to be more consistent with morning exercise. Let’s face it, there are usually fewer distractions to deter you first thing in the morning. 


Afternoon Exercise Builds Strength and Endurance 

Exercising later in the day has its own rewards. Afternoon workouts are associated with increased flexibility and are more effective at improving aerobic performance and strength. Since you’ve been moving around for several hours and your muscles are warm and functioning at their peak, exercising later in the day can enhance strength and reduce the risk of injury.  

Studies that differentiated between the benefits of workout timing for men and women showed similar patterns. One study found that morning workouts are most effective for women aiming to reduce fat, while evening workouts are better for women seeking muscle gains, particularly in the upper body, as well as improvements in endurance and overall mood. 

Men also burned more fat during morning workouts, but evening workouts were more effective for those aiming to gain muscle and reduce their risk of heart disease and fatigue. 

The only difference between genders was the optimal workout time for lowering blood pressure. In one large study, women saw better results in the morning, while men experienced a greater reduction in blood pressure when they exercised in the evening. However, exercising at any time has consistently been proven to reduce hypertension. 

Evening workouts can be a terrific stress reliever for both genders, but there’s a catch: you must allow enough time between your workout and bedtime to avoid disrupting your sleep patterns, or sleep deprivation could actually increase your stress levels. 


The Right Time Versus the Right Time for You 

You don’t need a study to tell you that the best time to exercise is the time you are most likely to exercise. That has less to do with your gender and fitness goals and everything to do with your schedule and lifestyle.  

Morning exercise sounds like a great way to start the day and get your workout done early. However, if your household is hectic in the morning or your workday starts early, it can be challenging to motivate yourself to exercise before the sun rises. Similarly, if your work involves cocktail hour get-togethers or late meetings, you’ll likely find plenty of reasons to skip an evening workout. Family obligations also need to be considered, as most parents will quickly prioritize their child’s sporting event or recital over their exercise routine. 

Here are some tips to help you find the right time to start or expand your workout habit. 

  • Decide whether you are a lark or an owl. Larks are early risers who thrive in the morning. Owls get a surge of energy in the evening and sometimes do their best work at night. Owls may have a hard time waking up in the morning, while larks may have a hard time staying up past 10 p.m. 


  • Take stock of your day. Start by evaluating your daily routine and identify the activities you do every day, such as waking up, having breakfast, or brushing your teeth – these are your anchor habits. The key is to integrate your workout into one of your anchor habits, so performing your anchor habit automatically triggers your workout. This method can help you transform a sporadic workout schedule into a workout habit. Make sure the anchor habit you choose to trigger your workout matches your natural rhythm. If you’re more of an owl, attempting to wake up early for a workout may not be sustainable. 


  • Track potential distractions. If you can foresee several obligations or scheduling conflicts that could interfere with your planned workout, consider choosing a different time to establish your fitness habit. 


  • Take baby steps. Whether you are starting a fitness program or expanding an existing regimen, huge changes are often hard to maintain. Start with something you can imagine yourself doing every day and attach it to an anchor habit. If you find that you don’t want to repeat the activity the next day, try it with a different habit at a different time of day. For example, if you realize that exercising for ten minutes before breakfast isn’t feasible, try it before lunch or after work. Just make sure your plan is realistic and integrates into your daily routine. 


Cardio or Strength Training, Which Comes First? 

Once you’ve decided on your workout time, another important consideration arises: should you start with cardio or strength training? 

Actually, the answer is neither. Experts unanimously recommend starting with stretching, even if you are only working out for ten minutes. Stretching warms up the muscles you will use during your workout, reducing the risk of injury and enhancing the effectiveness of both cardio and strength training. 

Now for the question at hand. Most As for the question at hand fitness experts agree that you should start with weight training and finish with a cardio workout. Here’s why: The primary fuel source for weightlifting, or any weight-bearing exercise, is glycogen, which is a sugar stored in your muscles. To effectively build strength, it’s best to engage in those activities when you have the most fuel available. Starting with cardio will deplete some of that glycogen, decreasing your energy levels and potentially limiting your endurance during strength-building exercises. 

Of course, the sequence of your workout should align with your fitness goals. The exercise performed first receives priority in terms of both energy expenditure and available time. So, if your main goal is to lose weight or build endurance, you might want to prioritize cardio and let strength training take a back seat. 


The Bottom Line on Workout Timing 

There is no question that the optimal time to work out is whenever you’re most likely to consistently exercise. If you want to start a fitness regimen that will become a habit, it is worth thinking through your daily routine to discover the time that will give you the best chance of success. Align your workout schedule with your own internal clock, or circadian rhythm, and integrate it with an existing daily activity to serve as a “trigger” for your workout. Feel free to experiment, because there is no one-size-fits-all approach to working out and there are no wrong answers. Every minute spent engaging in heart rate-boosting activity will have a positive impact on your overall health. 

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