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What Is the Best Time of Day to Exercise?

Your body is in tune with daily cycles of light and darkness. This built-in, 24-hour biological clock is the circadian rhythm and is found in plants and animals. Its influence extends to your muscles and can influence how effective your workout is. A CNN report makes the case that exercising during the day is ideal because of this hardwired process.  

Muscle cells appear to be most efficient during the normal waking hours for a given organism. An exercise study focusing on mice found their muscles were better able to turn on genes that help with exercise adaptation when they exercised at night. This makes sense because they are generally a nocturnal species. The same genes also exist in humans, leading researchers to believe that circadian rhythms would exert a similar influence on us, the primary difference being that humans are not nocturnal and exercise during the day is optimal. The simple biohack of working out during the day can yield tremendous dividends. 

There’s also research that suggests morning exercise has benefits of its own. Research shows that 45 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise in the morning may reduce your food cravings, both immediately afterward and throughout the day. In that study, morning exercise also resulted in an increase in total physical activity that day. This suggests morning exercise may help you keep moving even after your workout, which is another key to optimal health.

Morning exercise also makes it easy to exercise while fasting, which will amplify the benefits you receive. Research has shown that exercising on an empty stomach is useful for preventing both weight gain and insulin resistance. One of the explanations for this is that your body's fat-burning processes are controlled by your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and your SNS is activated by exercise and lack of food.

The combination of fasting and exercising maximizes the impact of cellular factors and catalysts (cyclic AMP and AMP Kinases), which force the breakdown of fat and glycogen for energy. This is why training on an empty stomach will effectively force your body to burn fat.

I generally discourage vigorous exercise in the evenings, but if you’re a devoted evening exerciser there may not be a reason to force a change. A study published in 2011 found that when people exercised vigorously for 35 minutes right before bed they slept just as well as on nights when they didn’t exercise.

If you’re not sure which time of day you prefer to exercise, you can do some experimentation of your own. Perhaps try a month of exercising in the morning, followed by a month of exercising in the afternoon, as your schedule allows. With the increasing realizations of the importance of circadian rhythms on human health, and the suggestion that afternoon exercise may be best for optimization of same, it may be that afternoon exercise stands out above the rest.

Ultimately, however, you should listen to your body and let it be your guide in choosing what time of day works best for you. For many people, the “best” time to exercise may also change day to day to accommodate schedules, and that’s fine too.
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