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When Is the Best Time to Work Out? Science Has a Few Answers

Avoid vigorous exercise an hour before bedtime to stop it keeping you up. Morning exercise may help with fat burning, while performance is best early evening.
Published
2022-10-06
Updated
18 MINS
woman looking at watch to work out at the best time

Maybe you prefer waking up at the crack of dawn to get to the gym before work, or you may love heading out for a run in the evening. Or perhaps you just get in exercise whenever you can. We all know exercise is good for us, but when exactly is the best time to do it?

Science shows there are benefits to working out at different times of day, but it all depends on your goals. If there’s one thing research does agree on, however, it’s that any exercise — at any time of day— is better than no exercise. 

Below, we’ll dive into the best times to work out in every situation. But remember, sometimes the best time to exercise is whatever time you can squeeze it in.

When Is the Best Time to Work Out in General?

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
The RISE app can work out how much sleep debt you have.

In general, the best time to work out is any time you can. With busy jobs, personal lives, and endless errands, sometimes we don’t have the luxury of working out at the so-called “best time” — we simply have to work out when our schedule allows us to. 

And that’s okay. Working out at a less-than-ideal time is much better than not working out at all. So, if going to your favorite spin class at 6 p.m. is what keeps you motivated, or if your only window of free time is before the kids wake up at 6 a.m., then that’s when you should work out. 

There is one caveat, however. You shouldn’t sacrifice sleep for exercise. As much as exercise is a key part of your overall well-being, your sleep is just as important, if not more important.

Don’t wake up early to get to the gym and cut your sleep short. And, on the other hand, don’t stay up past bedtime to squeeze in a workout. 

Not getting enough sleep will undermine almost any benefit you’re looking to get from working out, including losing weight, building muscle, and gaining more energy, among others.

Keeping your sleep debt low should be your priority. Sleep debt is the measure of how much sleep you owe your body compared to your sleep need, which is the genetically determined amount of sleep you need. We measure this over your last 14 nights. 

One study suggests the average sleep need is 8 hours 40 minutes, plus or minus 10 minutes or so, but 13.5% of the population may need 9 hours or more sleep a night.

So, if your sleep need is 8 hours 40 minutes, but you’ve only been getting six or so hours a night recently, you’ll have built up quite a lot of sleep debt. And this will impact everything from your energy levels to your productivity to your mental and physical well-being. 

You can use the RISE app to find your individual sleep need and how much sleep debt you’re carrying. We recommend keeping sleep debt below five hours to feel and perform your best. 

Low sleep debt is a non-negotiable if you want to reap the rewards of exercise and maintain your overall health, so skipping out on sleep in favor of a workout is rarely a good idea. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to view their sleep need.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to view their sleep debt.

When Is the Best Time of Day to Work Out?

Research shows there are times of the day that are better for certain things when it comes to exercise. Peak performance for skills like balance and accuracy changes across the day, as does our capacity for exercise, muscle strength, and metabolic status, or what your body is burning for fuel.

This is all down to your circadian rhythm, or your internal body clock. Your circadian rhythm dictates things like your body temperature, hormone production, and sleep-wake cycle. The timing of it is dictated in part by your chronotype, or whether you’re an early bird, night owl, or somewhere in between. 

Your energy levels follow a predictable pattern over a roughly 24-hour cycle and look something like this: 

  • You wake up and experience sleep inertia, or grogginess. 
  • Your energy levels start rising and peak in the morning. 
  • You get a dip in energy in the afternoon. 
  • You get a second energy peak in the late afternoon or early evening. 
  • Your energy levels wind down until bedtime. 

Let’s look at these times of day and the benefits of doing physical activity during each one. 

First Thing or Early Morning 

Contrary to popular belief, no one jumps out of bed feeling full of energy first thing. Most of us feel sleep inertia — that groggy feeling you get right after waking up. 

You’ll feel sleep inertia more if you’ve got high sleep debt, but even if you’ve had enough sleep, you may still feel sleepy, have brain fog, and have impaired mental and physical performance first thing. 

This should go away after 60 to 90 minutes, and working out during this time can help shake off sleep inertia even faster and give you more energy in the morning.  

You can check the RISE app to find out how long this grogginess will last each morning.

Morning Exercise May Help with Weight Loss 

A 2021 review found morning exercise may be better for weight management and weight loss. This could be because you’re more likely to exercise on an empty stomach in the morning, and fasted exercise may lead to greater metabolic benefits. Research also suggests morning exercisers eat less fat, carbohydrates, and overall calories compared to evening exercisers.

Another study found fat oxidation, or the breakdown of fatty acids, was increased by exercise, but only when this exercise was done before breakfast. 

However, there are studies that show evening exercise leads to greater fat loss, so more research needs to be done here to find the best timing. 

It may be the case that timing isn’t what’s causing the weight loss. Instead, increased weight loss from morning exercise could be down to the fact that people can more easily stick to consistent workouts if they do it in the morning, and it’s regular exercise itself that’s causing the positive effects.   

Morning Exercise May Have Other Health Benefits 

A 2022 study looked at the different results from morning exercise (6 a.m. to 8 a.m.) compared to evening exercise (6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.). It found women who exercised in the morning had greater reductions in body fat, belly fat, and blood pressure, and greater increases in lower body muscle power. 

Plus, if you get light exposure as part of your early morning workout (like a walk, run, or HIIT session in your backyard) you’ll get the added benefit of using light to reset your circadian rhythm, which can lead to more energy, an easier time falling asleep, and a decreased risk of many health conditions. 

Morning Exercise May Help with Consistency 

Exercising in the morning may be best as it’s simply the time when you have fewer social plans or work commitments, so you’re less likely to skip a planned workout. Plus, you have higher “self-regulatory strength” or willpower to make it to the gym. 

Leaving exercise until after work may mean you’re more likely to skip it simply because you’re tired from the day and would much rather socialize or crash on the sofa.

Morning Peak in Energy 

RISE app screenshot showing your peak energy and dip times
The RISE app can predict your energy peaks and dips.

Your energy levels will most likely be at their highest during this first energy peak of the day, so you may feel most motivated to exercise at this time. This will change depending on your chronotype, however.

Depending on the timing of your circadian rhythm, you may experience some of the benefits mentioned above when you work out during this time. For example, you may get the fat-burning or blood-pressure-lowering benefits from exercising at this point if you’re an early bird and your first energy peak happens earlier in the day. (Night owls, on the other hand, often show much better athletic performance later in the day, with as much as 26% difference between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m..) 

What’s more, if you’re looking for performance, accuracy, hand steadiness, and balance are all higher in the morning compared to the evening. This might be important if you’re practicing a sport that needs those skills. 

You can check RISE to see when this morning peak in energy is expected to be and plan a workout for this time. Alternatively, you might want to avoid working out during this energy peak and dedicate this time to tackling a difficult work task instead.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to see their upcoming energy peaks and dips on the Energy screen.

Afternoon Dip in Energy 

Just like with sleep inertia, you’ll feel your afternoon dip in energy even more if you’ve got high sleep debt, but even well-rested people will experience a drop in their energy levels, productivity, and performance during this time. 

While that doesn’t sound like a recipe for a great workout, it may be the best time for you. 

If you’re finding yourself struggling to get anything done at work, exercising during your afternoon dip can not only help to boost energy levels during this time, but it can act as a break from work. You’ll come back after a mid-afternoon run or gym class feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the rest of your to-do list. 

What does science say about working out at this time? A 2020 study found participants who were either at risk of or diagnosed with type 2 diabetes experienced more metabolic benefits from afternoon exercise (3 p.m. to 6 p.m.) than morning exercise (8 a.m. to 10 a.m.). They had improved insulin sensitivity as well as better performance and fat loss from the afternoon exercise than the morning exercise. 

Plus, if you play racket sports, you may want to schedule an afternoon match. Research has found the accuracy of badminton and tennis serves is better at 2 p.m. compared to 6 p.m. 

You can learn more ways to stay productive through your afternoon dip here. 

Second Peak in Energy 

If you’re looking for the best time for exercise performance, your second peak in energy may be it. There are several studies showing athletes perform better in the afternoon and early evening compared to the morning in everything from swimming to running to weight-throwing. 

In fact, most sports world records are broken in the early evening when body temperature is at its highest.

Reaction time is higher during this time, muscle strength peaks in the early evening, and grip strength peaks between 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Your energy levels will be higher after your afternoon dip, and this may be the best time from a practical sense. Once you’re done with the workday, early evening may be the time to meet your running club or head to the rock-climbing wall. 

Research also shows working out in the evening can lead to more muscle mass gains than working out in the morning. 

Plus, the 2022 study we mentioned earlier found:

  • Women who exercised in the evening had greater gains in upper body muscle, strength, power, endurance, a more improved mood, and greater satiety compared to those who exercised in the morning. 
  • Men who exercised in the evening had a greater reduction in blood pressure and feelings of fatigue, and increased fat oxidation compared to men who exercised in the morning. 

Late Evening

RISE app screenshot showing when to exercise
The RISE app can tell you when to avoid exercise each day.

The very end of the day may be the only free time you have to work out, or you might be a night owl who feels most motivated to exercise at this time. 

But be careful with intense late-evening exercise. Some people may find it harder to drift off after exercising close to bedtime as the workout increases your body temperature. 

When you fall asleep, your core body temperature falls. The increased temperature from the workout may override the fall in body temperature needed for sleep, meaning you fall asleep later than usual. 

Plus, intense exercise increases your adrenaline and cortisol levels, which makes you feel more alert — the last thing you want when you’re trying to wind down for bed. Exercise also increases the levels of endocannabinoids in your blood, which can make you feel elated and full of energy. 

Although there are some studies suggesting exercising in the evening can disrupt sleep, new research has started to dispute this idea, or at least show us it may only be specific types of exercise done very close to bedtime that has this effect. 

A 2015 meta-analysis found the time of day of one bout of exercise was not found to impact total sleep time, sleep latency (how long it takes you to fall asleep), sleep fragmentation, or deep sleep. There was not enough research to say whether regularly exercising at a certain time of day would impact these things. 

A 2019 meta-analysis, however, looked at 23 studies on the effects of evening exercise and found it may not be as bad for your sleep as you think. The results showed sleep latency, time awake during the night, and total sleep time were not impacted by evening workouts.

However, a few studies did find vigorous exercise ending an hour or less before bedtime increased sleep latency, and therefore decreased total sleep time. 

One of the main risks of late-night exercise is that you’ll most likely be getting late-night light exposure at the same time, and this can definitely keep you up. Light suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin and pushes back your circadian rhythm, meaning you may not feel sleepy at your desired bedtime.

So, if late evening is the only time you can fit in exercise, opt for a dimly lit yoga session over the bright lights of the gym. And avoid high-intensity exercise within an hour of bedtime. 

You can learn more about exercising before bed here. Finding late-night workouts are keeping you up? RISE can tell you the last time you should be thinking about exercising each day based on your circadian rhythm. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their avoid late workouts reminder. 

When Is the Best Time to Work Out for Your Sleep?

Exercise can help to improve your sleep. It’s been shown to reduce sleep latency, sleep fragmentation (how often you’re awake during the night), and even improve the sleep of those with insomnia. 

You can learn more about how exercise helps you sleep here. 

But when is the best time to work out to improve your sleep? When it comes to sleep for insomnia, one study noted exercise helps those with the sleep disorder, but there was no difference between morning and late-afternoon exercise.

So, when it comes to the best time to work out to improve your sleep, more research needs to be done. 

It may be more important to know when not to work out — and that seems to be just before bed. The 2019 meta-analysis we mentioned earlier found studies that showed high-intensity workouts an hour or less before bed kept people up. 

Exercise can also impact the timing of your circadian rhythm, which dictates your sleep-wake cycle. 

While light is the primary zeitgeber (something that can time your circadian rhythm to the outside world) exercise can also have this effect. When researchers looked at exercising at eight different times of day, exercising at 7 a.m. and between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. showed the greatest effect on advancing your circadian rhythm, while exercising between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. push the timing back the most. 

This can be useful to know if you work on rotating shifts, you’re trying to recover from jet lag, or you want to shift your circadian rhythm to better match your lifestyle (such as a night owl trying to become a morning person). 

As well as helping to shift your circadian rhythm, you can also use regular well-timed exercise to strengthen circadian alignment, or how in sync you are with it.

On the other hand, exercising at times your body isn’t expecting it, like at night or when you’d usually be winding down for bed, can throw off the body clocks off in your muscles, lungs, and liver without affecting your primary circadian rhythm. When all these body clocks are out of sync with each other, you increase your risk of health problems

When Is the Best Time to Work Out for Performance?

The best time to work out for performance will depend on what skills you need in your workout. For example, research suggests accuracy and balance are at their highest in the morning, while reaction time and muscle strength peak in the early evening. 

Tennis and badminton serves, however, may be more accurate at 2 p.m. than 6 p.m. And plenty of research shows athletes perform better in the early evening compared to the morning. 

One paper on the topic concluded: “Analysis of the different rhythms in performance would suggest that the performance of skill-based sports and those requiring complex competitive strategies, decisions and the delivery, and recall of coaching instructions is best completed in the morning. Sports that require substantial physical efforts should be completed later in the day. The timing of sports that require both elements is less clear. It should, however, be noted that these suggestions may represent an oversimplification of the situation.” 

Your chronotype also has an important impact on your performance, as described earlier. Morning, intermediate, and evening chronotypes tend to perform better as the day progresses. 

When Is the Best Time to Work Out for Mental Health?

Exercise has been shown to boost mood, reduce stress, and improve symptoms of depression and anxiety. But there’s not much research into when the best time to exercise for mental health is. 

What do we know? A 2022 study found women had greater mood improvements from evening exercise than morning exercise. 

And one paper said those suffering from depression should work out whenever is best for them. This may be in the morning or afternoon if depressive symptoms worsen later in the day. In general, it may be easier to work out when you’re feeling your best, which may be during your morning energy peak, or just whenever you have the time. 

When Is the Best Time to Work Out for Weight Loss?

We still don’t know the best time to work out for weight loss as there are many contradicting studies. For example:

  • A 2021 review found morning exercise may be better for weight management and weight loss and that morning exercisers may eat less fat, carbohydrates, and overall calories compared to evening exercisers.
  • A 2022 study found morning exercise helped women lose more overall body fat and belly fat, but evening exercise helped with hunger levels.  
  • A 2020 study found participants at risk of or with type 2 diabetes had more fat loss from afternoon exercise than morning exercise.
  • But another study found walking in the evening helped post-menopausal women lose more fat than walking in the morning. 
  • One study found fat oxidation was increased by exercise, but only when people exercised before breakfast.
  • A 2022 study found men who exercised in the evening had increased fat oxidation compared to men who exercised in the morning. 

So, clearly, more research needs to be done here. It may be best to simply find a time you can work out consistently. 

Use RISE to Plan the Perfect Workout  

The best time to exercise is any time you can fit the workout in. However, you shouldn’t sacrifice sleep in order to work out, and you should avoid vigorous and/or brightly lit workouts within an hour of bedtime as they can keep you up.

Other than that, research shows exercising at different times of day can have different benefits. It all depends on whether you’re looking to lose weight, lower your blood pressure, or perform your best in a sport.

Use the RISE app to check the timing of your circadian rhythm and schedule your workouts to suit your goals and energy levels. And remember, keep sleep debt low to feel and perform your best each day, both when working out and when doing everything else important in life. 

There Is a Best Time for Everything:

Summary FAQs

Is it best to work out in the morning or at night?

Morning exercise may help you lose more weight but performance peaks in the early evening. Either way, exercise is great for your health and can improve your sleep, so you may be better off working out whenever suits you best. Just avoid vigorous workouts within an hour of bedtime as they can keep you awake.

What is the best time of day to exercise?

Research is inconclusive on the best time of day to exercise. While morning exercise may help you lose weight, you might see better performance in the early evening. Other than avoiding workouts within an hour of bedtime as they can keep you up, exercising at any time that suits you is fine.

When is the best time to work out to lose weight?

Researchers still don’t know the best time to work out to lose weight. Many studies show morning workouts result in more fat loss and eating fewer calories, but increased fat loss can also be seen in afternoon workouts and evening workouts. Exercising consistently may be more important when it comes to weight loss.

When is the best time to work out to gain muscle?

Research shows working out in the evening can lead to gaining more muscle compared to working out in the morning. But, working out in the morning is better than not working out at all. Just be sure to avoid vigorous or brightly lit exercise too close to bedtime or it can keep you up.

Best time to work out in the morning?

The best time to work out in the morning is up to you. You could work out first thing to help shake off morning grogginess or wait until your morning peak in energy when you’ll be more alert and will have better accuracy and balance.

Best time to exercise before or after eating?

Exercising before eating can help improve insulin sensitivity and fat oxidation, but exercise after eating can help improve your performance and endurance — it all depends on your goals.

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