When do you exercise?

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Which is best: a morning or evening workout? Well, it all depends on you

I am generally not a morning person. I’m not grumpy when waking; I’m quite happy once I’m up, but the getting up is tough. In fact, I envy people who have the ability to rise before their alarms go off. I set at least three alarms to get me going in the morning. This was even more difficult when I was co-anchor on a daily breakfast show. Up at 3:30am, in studio by 4:30am, on air by 6am. Monday to Friday. Week to week, month to month, for almost two years. This would have been tolerable if I’d managed to be in bed by 7pm, but the reality was that I often stumbled into bed at around 10:30pm, tossing and turning until I eventually fell asleep by 11pm. I was barely functioning off the four to six hours of sleep a night and it was at this time that I decided to embark on my personal fitness transformation challenge. I remember meeting my trainer, who asked me to commit to at least three sessions a week, one of them being a 6am kettlebell class. I recall thinking that perhaps this fitness challenge was going to be harder than I anticipated – I struggled to keep awake as the midday dip came around, and drank copious amounts of energy drinks to handle the intense fatigue I felt, less than halfway through my day. But our bodies are amazing machines and, through consistency, we can retrain our biological systems. As I committed to training at least three days a week, month by month I became fitter, lost weight and developed healthy eating habits. And the results weren’t just physical – I was happier, more confident, waking up early became easier, I had more energy throughout the day, and I slept like a baby at night.

SO WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO WORK OUT?

This and the plethora of quotes that favour early risers have often left me feeling guilty for not being able to naturally wake up before 10am. While I’ve managed to modify my training behaviours, I find that I still prefer training in the afternoon and evening. The only benefit I experience from training in the morning is that I feel a greater sense of accomplishment, especially if my day doesn’t go according to plan – at least I got my workout in; it’s done and it’s out of the way. But if I consider my ability to perform, it definitely seems more enhanced in the afternoon, and scientists have attributed this effect to what is known as my chronotype. Chronotype is a human characteristic indicating at what time of the day one’s physical processes such as sleeping or rising, hormone production levels, body temperature and cognitive functioning are triggered, changed or reach set points. Early chronotypes function better in the earlier part of day, whereas late chronotypes, like me – often called “night owls”, become more alert as the day progresses.

What’s interesting is that a 2003 study conducted by Till Roenneberg, Anna Wirz- Justice and Martha Merrow at Centres for Chronobiology in Europe, revealed that “wormcatchers are rare birds in modern society”, and that most of us are neither morning (early) nor evening (late) chronotypes, but fall somewhere in the middle, with a preference for either. Your chronotype is closely linked to your circadian rhythm, your body’s internal timing mechanism. This mechanism is found in the brain as the suprachiasmatic nucleus, a cluster of neurons in the hypothalamus. It receives data from the solar clock (sunlight) through your retina and uses this information to coordinate the daily functions of the body, including athletic performance. Volumes of research have traditionally associated core body temperature as the marker of the circadian rhythm which influences athletic performance.

Based on this research, it is believed performance is enhanced as your core body temperature increases, and generally your core body temperature peaks by late afternoon/ early evening. However, work done by Weipeng Teo and his associates, on circadian rhythms in exercise performance, argues that at the end of the day, it all comes down to your preference. “Although enhanced performance is most frequently seen in the early evenings, taking into consideration an individual’s chronotype and using specific time-of-day training seem to be an effective method of improving physical performance at a particular point in time. Active warm-ups, especially in the mornings or cold environments, should also be performed, so as to increase body temperature prior to any competitions or training.” Simply put, train at the time of day that most suits you. Dr Ross Tucker of the SA Sport Science Institute agrees.

“People shouldn’t get too hung up on these small nuances. The main thing, the simple answer to the question ‘What’s the best time to exercise?’, is ‘The time you make for it’. Some people have kids, jobs, etc, that prevent them from training before work, and after, and so for them, it’s lunch hour. There’s no science to that. Just reality!” Julian Naidoo, personal trainer and Dis-Chem Pharmacy’s sports nutrition manager, adds: “First and foremost, for an exercise plan to be effective, it must be suitable to one’s time availability. If you have a high-profile, stressful job, I would say do a morning workout, as you will have more energy and be less stressed when starting your day at the office.” Choosing specific time-of-day training becomes helpful for those preparing to compete in an event. If you’re going to run a marathon early in the morning, try to train at a similar time. If you’re an evening chronotype, don’t lose hope; you can teach your body to develop a new habit of early-morning training.

A study conducted by the University of North Texas found that it takes roughly a month to reset your circadian rhythm, and that people who consistently exercise in the morning “train” their bodies to function more effectively at that time. When switching to evening, participants in their study didn’t feel as energetic. So if you need to alter your training schedule to suit a competition, ensure that you have ample time to plan and prepare accordingly.

What works best for you? Morning or evening exercise?