The time-exercise connection: how timing could impact your workout
It’s no secret that different types of exercise affect your health in a variety of ways. For example, you’re more likely to get sweaty pumping iron at the gym than taking a meditative stroll around the block. But it might surprise you to hear that it isn’t just the type of activity that impacts the health benefits of your workout. Time of day could also play a role.
Emerging research suggests that our bodies may respond differently to exercise based on the timing of our workouts. Studies show that timing your exercise right could improve your heart health, help you maintain your blood sugar levels, and keep you healthy into later life. Switching up workout times could be a simple fix to get more from your workouts and stay on top of your health in the long term.
Read on to find out what the science suggests is the best time to get active.
How does exercise benefit your body?
Before we explore how the time of day could affect your workout, let’s get familiar with the main health benefits of exercise. Here are the top 6:
1. It improves cardiovascular health
When we talk about cardiovascular diseases (CVD), we’re referring to conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels. Examples include stroke, heart attack, and heart failure. The World Health Organization estimates that CVD is responsible for 17.9 million deaths every year. So it’s fair to say that keeping your heart and blood vessels healthy is really important.
Exercising regularly lowers resting blood pressure, maintains the structure and function of your blood vessels, and helps you stay on top of your cholesterol levels. All these dramatically reduce your CVD risk.
2. It helps you maintain a healthy weight
When you exercise, your body burns calories. When you burn more calories than you consume, it can result in weight loss.
The benefits of maintaining a healthy weight include lowered risk of some diseases, increased energy, and better sleep. But remember, people come in different shapes and sizes, and what’s right for you may not be for someone else. If you want to find your ideal weight, it’s best to speak to your doctor.
3. It strengthens muscles and bones
Lifting weights isn’t just about getting beach-ready. Resistance training has several health benefits, including improved cognitive abilities and joint health.
And resistance training doesn’t just build muscle, it also helps strengthen bones. Maintaining strong bones is important for reducing injury risk, especially into later life.
4. It reduces the risk of chronic conditions
CVDs aren’t the only chronic diseases that exercise combats. Here are some more:
- Type 2 diabetes (T2D): regular exercise can delay the onset of T2D or prevent it. For people already living with T2D, regular exercise can help keep glucose levels within the healthy range.
- Some types of cancer: regular exercise can help to reduce the risk of several types of cancer. These include colon, breast, and stomach cancer.
- Dementia: according to Alzheimer’s Society, regular exercise during mid-life could lead to a 30% reduction in dementia risk.
5. It increases energy levels
Just like other muscles, your heart gets stronger with regular exercise. A stronger heart sends more blood around your body with every pump. As more blood gets pumped around your body, more oxygen and nutrients become available for your muscles and organs.
There are changes at the molecular level too. Tiny structures in your cells called mitochondria produce most of the chemical energy that your cells need to function. A regular exercise routine can help make mitochondria in muscle tissue healthier. Having healthier mitochondria may be linked to reduced tiredness and increased energy levels.
6. It improves mental health
Often nicknamed the “runner’s high”, intense exercise can leave you feeling euphoric, relaxed, and happy for a short time after. This may be down to the release of endocannabinoids into your blood. These chemicals, produced by the human body, bind to the same receptors as the psychoactive molecules found in cannabis.
There are also long-term mental health benefits linked to exercise, these include:
- Better sleep: regular exercise can improve sleep and help you drift off more quickly.
- Improved stress and anxiety management: exercise is a great way to blow off steam and deal with stress. It may also be effective as part of anxiety treatment programs.
- Increased self-esteem: regular exercise can increase self-esteem, which can have a very real impact on your mental health.
The best time to exercise according to science
A recent study in the journal Nature explored the link between exercise, the time of day it’s done, and death in 92,139 study participants. The researchers found that people who exercised regularly had a lower risk of death from any cause, heart disease, and cancer. But the effects of exercise weren’t the same for everyone.
People who exercised between 11:00–17:00 and those with flexible exercise schedules had the lowest risk of early death, both in general and from heart disease. The benefits of afternoon workouts were highest in men, older adults, less active people, and those with existing heart disease.
More evidence in favor of PM workouts came from 2 other recent studies that explored the link between exercise timing and blood sugar levels. In one study, 12 young men performed endurance workouts in either the morning or afternoon while researchers monitored their blood sugar and lipid levels. Afternoon exercise led to improved control of blood sugar and lipid levels compared to morning exercise.
In the other study, researchers looked at the effect of exercise timing on insulin resistance, which affects the body’s ability to take up glucose from the blood. With data from 755 participants, the results showed that exercising between 12:00–18:00 led to an 18% reduction in insulin resistance, meaning improved blood sugar control. People who worked out between 18:00–00:00 saw the greatest effect, with a 25% reduction in insulin resistance.
What’s so important about blood sugar?
Everybody’s blood sugar levels fluctuate throughout the day. But avoiding extreme peaks and dips is important to prevent health complications. According to the World Health Organization, healthy means a fasting blood sugar level of 70–100 mg/dl.
For people with prediabetes and T2D, their bodies don’t react to the hormone insulin properly. Insulin is central to controlling blood sugar levels, so when people have diabetes, their blood sugar levels rise above the healthy range.
If left untreated, this can lead to:
- cardiovascular disease
- kidney damage
- eye damage
- nerve damage, causing pain, numbness, and tingling
To learn more about blood sugars and how you can keep your levels balanced, check out our article.
Why does timing make a difference?
More studies are needed before we can 100% explain the benefits of afternoon workouts. However, the scientists behind the Nature study are pointing to circadian rhythms as a possible cause.
Just like an internal clock, circadian rhythms are 24-hour cycles that affect the physical, mental, and behavioral changes in the human body throughout the day. It’s possible that our bodies are simply in peak shape for exercise in the afternoon, both physically and metabolically.
The bottom line
Getting active is key to a long, healthy life, and you could get more heart and blood sugar benefits from exercise if you do it in the afternoon. But if you’re a morning person or your afternoons tend to be busy, don’t worry too much about switching your routine. The most important thing is getting up and moving your body. According to the American Heart Association, you should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise spread out throughout the week to stay on top of your health
So if afternoon workouts aren’t for you, the best time to exercise is whenever you can. Just make sure you’re hitting your weekly exercise targets.
If you’re thinking of changing your exercise routine, it can’t hurt to chat with your doctor first.
If this article got you thinking about your heart health markers, sign up for the Aware early access program and improve your health with us.
June 15, 2023
August 9, 2023