When Is The Best Time To Exercise?
This is a question I often get from people, so I thought I’d take a little time to explore this properly today.
A lot of people want to be getting the most out of their workouts, so it only makes sense to try to figure out the optimal time to do them.
There are a lot of conflicting theories out there on this, so I’ll try to be as balanced as possible here (I said I’ll try; no promises).
Obviously there are 24 hours in the day, so for the sake of brevity I am not going to go through every possible hour that you could choose to workout.
Instead, I am going to walk through the various pros and cons of working out at the most popular times.
That is, first thing in the morning, on your lunch break, or after work.
Let’s get right into it.
Working Out First Thing In The Morning
This is what I currently do myself, but it wasn’t always like this…
For years, I would workout in the late afternoon – after I had finished work – but gradually shifted to a morning workout routine.
Why did I decide to change it up?
Well, there were actually several reasons for this shift. I’ll briefly go through each one.
1) You get a head start to the day.
There is nothing like being done with your workout before the day has really even started.
And, at least for me, this can provide a massive psychological boost.
It is still really early, and you have already accomplished something.
Yes, you could have slept in, but you didn’t; you got up and did your workout instead.
I find that you can ride that wave of accomplishment throughout the rest of the day.
Each subsequent task feels that much easier.
You feel like you are ahead of the clock, rather than playing catch up.
All of these things add up, and can end up making you more productive in everything you do afterwards.
2) You don’t have to workout later on.
While this might sound obvious, it can have a significant impact on your mindset.
By the time you get to work you’re already done with the gym. No need to worry about it at all for the rest of the day.
Instead, you can look forward to going home after you finish work and unwinding with your family, without needing to exercise at the end of the day.
3) You may miss fewer workouts.
To be fair, this may not be the case for everyone, but it was certainly the case for me.
When you get into the habit of waking up early for the gym, you don’t have much time to think whether you should go or not.
The alarm goes off, you get up and start kicking yourself into action.
Before you know it, your gym shoes are on – in many cases before your mind has properly come into focus for the day.
You’re running on automatic, and your brain hasn’t yet had the opportunity to catch up with potential excuses.
Of course, this requires creating the habit first. If you need some help with that part, I suggest you read my article on how to get up earlier for the gym here.
4) You don’t have to deal with the crowds.
The early morning is the least crowded time in most gyms – and by a fairly large measure.
You can often take your pick of the machines and rarely have to wait more than a minute to use any piece of equipment.
I find that this makes your workouts more focused, and also considerably more time-efficent.
Yes, if you workout in the morning, your average time in the gym will often be much quicker than if you worked out during the busy hours.
1) You may feel weaker when lifting weights.
Some people just don’t feel as strong when lifting weights in the morning.
They feel that they are at their peak strength after having eaten a few meals, which is obviously impossible that early.
For this reason, if you do notice a decrease in your strength when working out in the morning, it may not be the best option for you.
Before abandoning it, however, I would look at other factors which may be contributing – such as your diet, your particular training program, and how much sleep you are getting.
Personally, I haven’t noticed any difference in strength working out in the morning, but your mileage may vary.
2) You need to go to sleep early.
Obviously if you don’t get enough sleep each night, morning workouts are going to be pretty unpleasant…
For some people, it may be just a matter of habit, and one that can be changed.
However, if you just really like staying up later for whatever reason – or have a job that doesn’t allow you to get to bed early – then morning workouts are probably not going to be the best option for you.
3) You’re just not a morning person.
Some people just really, really hate the mornings…
And, for them, the prospect of waking up any earlier than necessary each day feels like torture.
I would argue that in many cases this is just a habit that can be changed – but what do I know, right?
Working Out During Your Lunch Break
Now let’s move on to the second option: getting a workout in during your lunch hour.
This is a popular one for a lot of people, and I used to do this too (albeit briefly).
So let’s take a look at the pros and cons of getting your exercise in while everyone else chows down.
1) It doesn’t take any extra time out of your day.
Unlike early morning or late afternoon/evening workouts, exercising during your lunch break doesn’t eat up any of your non-work time.
You can still sleep later in the mornings, and once you’re done with work there is no gym to worry about.
In that sense, assuming that you can fit it in properly, you can effectively buy yourself more free time by choosing this option.
2) Your workouts will become more efficient.
This can be both a good or a bad thing, but for now we’ll look at the positive side of it.
Since lunch breaks are generally pretty short – no more than an hour for most people – your workouts will necessarily be pretty focused.
You’ll leave work, get to the gym, quickly get changed, bang out your workout, then shower (hopefully), change back into your work clothes, and then get back to work.
There is no room for staring vacantly into space between sets, or wasting too much time chatting with other people at the gym.
And since anyone that you encounter there will likely be under similar time-constraints, they won’t be looking to distract you either.
1) It can be incredibly crowded.
Most gyms are packed during lunchtime.
We’re talking from about 12-2pm in most gyms I’ve been to.
This means that you may need to wait considerable amounts of time to use any given piece of equipment.
Obviously, this can be frustrating and stressful, considering that you need to get back to work quickly.
2) You may not have enough time to workout properly.
While I certainly don’t advocate spending hours in the gym (it is both unnecessary and counter-productive), you do want to be able to get a proper workout in.
And, considering that you have a limited amount of time for lunch AND you are contending with an often crowded gym, this may just not be possible to do consistently.
3) You have to sacrifice eating a normal lunch.
One of the main downsides to working out during your lunch break is not being able to have a proper meal.
Instead, you’ll often be forced to scarf down a protein bar on the way to the gym, or stuff a sandwich into your face in 30 seconds when changing in the locker room.
4) You may not be as consistent.
Sometimes it’s just not easy to break away form work…
Unexpected things come up, you get called into a meeting – or you’re just particularly swamped, and don’t feel that you can tear yourself away for a workout.
So you skip it.
Once in a while this is fine, but if the nature of your job doesn’t allow you to commit to consistent lunchtime workouts, then this is probably not the best option for you.
Working Out After Work
Finally, we come to the last option on our list.
As I mentioned, this was what I did for many years.
I would finish work at around 5:30-6, work out for about an hour, and then go home.
I did this pretty much every day, and it worked for me for quite sometime (even though I ultimately prefer morning workouts, now that I have adjusted to them).
Of course, like working out in the mornings or during your lunch break, working out in the evening has its pluses and minuses.
1) You can take your sweet time.
Generally speaking, exercising after work comes with the fewest time-constraints.
You can take your time, have a good workout, without feeling like you’re being pressed to maximize every second.
This will also allow you to work out for longer than you might find feasible with the other options.
2) You’ll make more gym friends.
In my experience, the lunch-time gym crowd is the least social bunch, followed closely by those that workout in the morning.
After work, however, the gym tends to get a lot more social.
People chat, catch up on the day, and kind of use the time to unwind.
I can almost guarantee that you’ll get to know more people at the gym if you choose to exercise after work.
Of course, this can also be seen as a negative, depending on how you choose to look at it.
3) You may find that you’re stronger.
Some people feel that they are at their strongest in the late afternoon.
They have already typically taken in 2 big meals (at least), giving them a lot of calories to fuel their workouts.
Again, this is a personal thing, and there aren’t any definitive studies that I know of on this.
That being said, if you are trying to maximize your strength, and have found from experience that you are strongest at this time, then it may well be the best choice for you.
1) You can’t just go home after work.
As the rest of your colleagues get ready to pack it in for the day, you aren’t so lucky…
You’ve still gotta motivate yourself to go to the gym before you can call it a day.
This can be tough to do, depending on your job and how tired you typically are after work.
2) No after work fun for you.
Do your co-workers like to enjoy a beer after work sometimes?
Well, if that is your regularly scheduled gym time, you may find that you aren’t included in these fun activities.
And yes, you’ll likely be known as ‘the gym person’, who prefers to lift weights to the exclusion of post-work bonding.
3) It can be more crowded.
Although not typically as crazy as lunch hours, the late afternoon is still considered a peak time at the gym.
This means waiting for machines, and having to deal with more people.
4) You may miss more workouts.
Personally, one of the things I didn’t like about going to the gym after work was that I would inevitably miss more workouts.
After you’ve spent a long day at work, it can be easy to make excuses for why you don’t need to go to the gym today.
This is especially true when other options – such as going home to your family or getting a drink after work – seem more appealing.
And if there is one truth about making gains in the gym, it is consistency – so if you miss too many workouts, it can really hurt your progress.
So what is the best time to workout, then?
I’m sure you know what I am going to say now…
It really depends on you!
As you can see, there are a lot of different factors that can go into determining the best time to exercise, and there unfortunately is no perfect answer.
However, if you want my personal – yet completely objective – opinion, I think that working out in the morning is the best of the 3 options.
This is especially true if you have a busy life with work and family commitments.
I find that this provides the best balance of allowing you to have good workouts, while still leaving the rest of your day completely free.
The only downside, of course, is that you’ll need to start getting up earlier!